AN OLYMPIC JOURNEY STARTS HERE.
Ten-year-old Hannah Roberts lies in an Indiana hospital bed thinking about all the summer she’ll miss. It had been a regular morning at BMX camp, until she pushed too far forward coming down a ramp, flipped over the handlebar, and smashed to the floor. She saw some of her teeth sitting on the ground in droplets of her blood. Then her back began to hurt and she couldn’t stand up straight.
Hannah, who spent hours every day at the indoor bike park learning to float the spine between two ramps or throw a bar spin, now listens as doctors tell her they’ve never seen an injury like this in someone so young. That she might need surgery to repair her fractured T4 and T5 vertebrae, and then wear a back brace for six months or longer.
Hannah had been riding BMX bikes for the better part of a year, ever since she saw her cousin, a BMX phenom, do his signature front flip tailwhip on TV. The first time she rode BMX herself, she thought, Yeah, this is my thing. But now her parents are asking her questions like, “Is it worth it? Riding again? Are you really into it? Do you really want to?” Hannah admitted later, “I didn’t know if I wanted to ride again. I was kind of freaked out.”
Backtrack a year or so: Sixteen-year-old Brett “Mad Dog” Banasiewicz stands outside an abandoned mattress factory in South Bend, Indiana, talking to a camera crew. Wearing a backpack and a black hoodie, his shaggy brown hair topped by a Rockstar Energy trucker hat, he turns to the camera and says, “We are finally at the Kitchen BMX skate park.” In a proud whisper, he adds, “That’s the name of it.”
He knows the exact square footage of the warehouse: 33,303. He and his friends designed the project under construction inside—a maze of towering box jumps, quarter pipes, wall rides, rails, and more. Why did they call it the Kitchen? Because when they ride there, they’re cooking.
It’s 2011, and the action sports boom is starting to wane. Brett has accrued enough prize money and endorsements from competing in televised freestyle BMX events to build this world-class playground. He won’t need to leave home to train at a facility like the Woodward Camps in Pennsylvania or California. Here in his hometown, the teenage star will be able to master aerial stunts like the dizzying cash roll, a 180 spin to a backflip to a 180. And he’ll be able to do this while limiting the impact of hard falls, thanks to foam pits and resi-ramps, which have their wood landings covered by a layer of foam and hard plastic sheets.
In the video, as his friends and family measure and saw plywood for jumps, Brett tests a newly built box jump with a 360 tailwhip, his gleaming white bike spinning a full circle beneath him.
Back in the late ’70s, a BMX racer named Bob Haro started wowing crowds by doing stunts on his race bike and essentially invented the freestyle discipline of BMX. The very word “freestyle” means it can be everything and anything the rider wants. Over time, riders began to specialize in sub-disciplines based around places to ride BMX: street riding, dirt jumps, swooping concrete bowls, parks filled with towering wooden ramps. BMX Park became the predominant format in competitions. On an enclosed course filled with a variety of ramps, each rider gets 60 seconds to impress the judges, who are typically former pros. Park events tend to draw audiences and translate well to TV, as riders wow viewers with high-flying tricks. As the BMX Park Freestyle discipline evolved, riders performed more twists, spins, and flips at greater and greater heights.
Brett was a star on the Dew Tour, a series of action sports competitions broadcast by NBC, and the season after the Kitchen opened was his best yet. He dominated an event in Montpellier, France, part of a series called the International Extreme Sports Festival (FISE), and won the Dew Tour stop in Ocean City, Maryland. His earnings helped keep the Kitchen solvent, and the park became a community resource. Around the end of July 2012, Brett won a big air competition in Orange County, California, beating well-known pros like Ryan Nyquist.
But during the event, Brett learned that his talented 10-year-old cousin, Hannah Roberts, had crashed at the Kitchen and broken two vertebrae in her back. Brett called Hannah’s dad. He wanted Hannah to know he was thinking about her. His fellow pros, Hannah’s heroes, chimed in too: Don’t stop! You got it! Don’t stop! They had seen her
enthusiasm, her emerging talent.
Later that summer, at a Vans BMX invitational in Virginia Beach, Brett attempted a 720 spin off a box jump during a practice session. But the ramp’s landing was narrow, just nine or so feet wide, and he was close to the edge with each jump. He did one more run. This time, he missed the landing. He suffered a traumatic brain injury and was put into a medically induced coma.
Brett would never compete again, but his words of encouragement stuck with his cousin Hannah. She recovered from her injury, got out of her brace, and was soon back at the Kitchen riding her BMX bike.
OF ALL THE SPORTS HANNAH ROBERTS PLAYED AS A KID, SHE enjoyed football the most. She liked the physicality, liked playing on the line where you got to hit someone on every down. She was the only girl in her youth football league, and sometimes when she ran the ball and broke through the line, the boys would grab her ponytail and pull her from behind. She cut off her hair and never grew it back.
After Hannah saw Brett competing on TV, her uncle, Brett’s dad, set her up with a bike. She loved sports and bonded with her teammates and friends, but she didn’t like losing. On her bike, whether she won or lost depended solely on her own performance.
Hannah, who turned 20 this past August, tells her story on a Zoom call in the spring of 2021. She wears black-framed glasses, small silver earrings, a wedding band. She’s thoughtful and effusive with a wide smile as she reminisces about her rise to the top of BMX. Her first freestyle BMX World Championship jersey, from 2017, is framed on a wall behind her. That was before she understood the legacy of the world champion rainbow stripes, before the weight of her potential grew nearly too heavy to bear. And it was when the idea of a woman competing in the Olympics in freestyle BMX still felt like a dream.
Growing up, Hannah would spend her days at the Kitchen. She’d pick a trick and start practicing. Even during the school year, she’d ride up to six hours a day, on a purple bike accented with pink parts, wearing jeans and sneakers and a baggy T-shirt soaked through with sweat. By age 11, after recovering from her broken back, she was throwing tailwhips. Just after her 12th birthday, she landed her first backflip.
Hannah’s family lived in Buchanan, Michigan, about 25 minutes from the Kitchen by car. Her parents would shuttle her, or hand the task over to one of Hannah’s three older sisters. She pestered them relentlessly. Clapping her hands together, “I wanna ride, I wanna ride!”
“Please shut up,” they’d beg. “This is my only day off.”
Running the park was a family affair. They all pitched in at the Kitchen at one point or another. Hannah’s grandmother sometimes worked the concession stand. To limit the commute, Hannah would stay with an aunt in South Bend for a few days at a time. When she could drive herself, she’d show up after the morning rush and stay into the evening.
Some of the world’s best pros would roll into town to ride the Kitchen, and Hannah might join in a game of BIKE: A rider would perform a trick, and she’d need to match it, improve on it, or be booted out, like HORSE in basketball. Even in the fairly nonconformist and individual sport
of BMX, where formalized coaching is relatively rare, mentorship and support among riders remains a core element of the culture. Hannah looked up to the pros, but she also liked to pay it forward. If she saw a younger kid struggling with a trick, she’d offer pointers. She wanted to be there the first time they landed it. But more importantly, she says, “I wanted to get them to fall in love with the community of BMX like I did, to want to be a part of the sport.”
In December 2012, Hannah and her dad drove 14 hours to the Trans Jam in Greenville, North Carolina, a midsize college town legendary in BMX circles as the training base of the late icon Dave Mirra. It was her first event outside the Kitchen, and her first competition after her back injury. She won the beginner park class, beating a field of boys her age. Despite the victory, she obsessed over her mistakes. On the long drive home, she admitted to her dad that she’d been scared to hit the ramp transfers and had ridden around them. At age 11, she could throw a tuck no-hander, flinging her arms to the side in midair as if taking flight. With a little more speed, Hannah told her dad, she could have gotten her arms fully extended.
In January 2014, Hannah’s dad hired a videographer to shoot an “edit,” action-sports-speak for a series of jaw-dropping clips. Fans and athletes eat up hot edits, and Hannah’s YouTube appearance, titled “12 Year Old Girl Hannah Roberts BMX Video,” quickly amassed more than 100,000 clicks.
Word started to spread about a little girl who could air out the giant ramps that Brett “Mad Dog” Banasiewicz had designed—the little girl who shreds the Kitchen.
AN OLYMPIC JOURNEY STARTS HERE, TOO. A BMX-OBSESSED
college student learns to bunny hop and do fakies in New York City’s Union Square. It’s the early 2000s, and Nina Buitrago has no female BMX role models, so she looks up to skateboarders like Elissa Steamer and Jamie Reyes, who appeared on the cover of Thrasher magazine back in 1994. One day her riding buddies tell her, “Yo, Nina, we found you a girl,” a teenager down in New Jersey named Stacey Mulligan. Nina goes to Jersey to ride, showing up in full pads. Stacey is wearing “a leotard and booty shorts.” They eye each other—you wearing that?—and become instant friends. “Stacey was the igniter, she was like, ‘Yo, we gotta get more girls,’” says Buitrago. “She was great at talking, and she shreds.”
At an event in Toronto in 2004, the promoter, Canadian BMX star Jay Miron (“the Beast”) unwittingly challenged them, chiding, “Girls can’t ride.” Competing against the men, Buitrago did a grind on a double-kinked handrail, and “silenced the crowd, just rag-dolling all over the place, but pulled it.” Mulligan killed it, too, grinding a huge sub box. Afterward Miron offered Buitrago a spot on his team, MacNeil, alongside some of the sport’s top pro riders. She issued one demand: “I’ll put your comments in the back of my mind if you host a women’s class at your event.” Buitrago and Mulligan would go on to become BMX’s first female pros.
Sipping an iced oat milk latte outside Flat Track Coffee this past spring in Austin, Texas, Buitrago gets fired up all over again. She recalls how after she began beating some of the men at amateur BMX competitions, event organizers stopped scoring her rides. They gave her a participation award instead. “I didn’t think where I was landing in those competitions was a big deal, but apparently over time it became big enough of a deal that it was like, ‘Oh, Nina, yeah, sorry, here’s a trophy for being the only woman.’” She’s 40 now, years removed from winning international women’s competitions. Back then, she didn’t want a participation trophy; she wanted to measure her progress as a rider. “I was like, ‘What? This isn’t what it’s about for me, c’mon.’”
Ten years after Buitrago and Mulligan convinced Miron to give them a place in the event, Hannah Roberts traveled to the 2014 Toronto Jam, her first international competition. She was not yet 13. “It was weird seeing so many women,” she says. For Buitrago and Mulligan, it had been a decade of bribing the guys from the BMX magazines with tacos so they’d get up early to cover the women’s competition. A decade of shooting their own photos and videos and publishing to sites like Women of Freestyle and the Bloom BMX. A decade of being repeatedly told by the X Games, you’re just not at a high enough level to have your own competition, and offered a conciliatory, unpaid demo event. A decade of fighting for better prize money, any prize money.
Buitrago rolled over to Hannah, “Oh my god, it’s you. You’re amazing.” Watching Hannah ride, the dudes seemed dumbstruck. “Is that a girl? Is that even possible?” Buitrago responded, “Well, she’s doing it, so, yes.”
On her bike, whether she won or lost depended solely on her own performance.
Hannah was equally starstruck. She’d watched all the edits she could find from female riders and had become obsessed with a video of 18-year-old Perris Benegas from Reno, Nevada, who’d dropped her first edit around the same time Hannah did. “I binge-watched it. I could almost name everything that she did. And then I met her, and I was just, like…” Hannah stares, mouth open. “I was just, like, wowww.”
Riding against Benegas was eye-opening for Hannah. Their approaches epitomize two opposing elements of BMX—technique versus style— and elevate the women’s competition. Like her cousin Brett, Hannah came from the wooden-ramp world, where bigger and better tricks rule. Progression meant landing aerial spins, twists, and flips, where a 540 bests a 360. Even someone with no knowledge of BMX can watch Hannah ride and be awestruck.
Benegas came up riding concrete outdoor skate parks. She learned
early to focus on mastering midair bike control and making amplitude, takeoff, and landing transitions look effortless. A former MMA fighter who’d knocked opponents flat, she’d pedal full-speed toward the edge of a concrete bowl, her long, straight hair flowing behind her, and then take off, seeing how high she could fly.
Big wooden ramp riding has long dominated the broadcast BMX format. But within the sport, concrete park and street riding are often held up as the essence of BMX. The rift, says Ryan Fudger, a journalist with Our BMX, comes down to a lack of access to wooden ramps and the foam pits and resi-ramps required to learn big tricks.
Riders like Hannah, who came up near a park with wooden ramps, are sometimes written off as “ramp rats” who “grew up in a foam pit,” or called “video game riders” because every time they hit a ramp, they throw a trick. But a competitor like Benegas, who embodies the concrete park style of BMX, pushes Hannah to focus on her fluidity. And if Benegas hopes to best Hannah, she must incorporate tricks into her runs.
In the final round of the 2014 Toronto Jam, Benegas qualified first;
Hannah, in second, dropped in for her final run—a 60-second effort to wow the judges—and headed toward the box jump, two quarter pipes connected by a wide platform. She pedaled determinedly toward the ramp, which loomed higher than her head, and took off. She turned backward in midair while spinning her handlebar in a full circle, landed, spun forward again and rode down the ramp.
“That is a truck driver!” the announcer shouted. “Perfect 360 bar spin! Wow, I can’t believe she pulled that so clean. Hannah Roberts putting in some work here.”
Benegas took off for her run next, the announcer booming: “She put out a video earlier this year that turned the BMX world upside down. One of the smoothest riders out here all weekend, female or male. She’s not afraid. She just charges it!” With a series of huge tabletops, Benegas maintained her lead and beat Hannah. Just for fun, at the competition’s conclusion, Benegas tried a backflip on the box jump. She missed but saved herself and didn’t die. She tried again right away and nailed it. Hannah was the first to roll over and give her a big high-five.
After Toronto, Hannah’s perception of her place in BMX shifted. She found peers to compete against, women who could push her. Although no professional path existed in women’s BMX, the seed had been planted. If I’m going to do this, she thought, I’m going to put everything into it.
IT’S JUNE 2017. HANNAH IS SITTING IN COMPUTER SCIENCE CLASS near the end of her sophomore year when her phone starts vibrating in her pocket. “Like, blowing up,” she recalls. Annoyed, she puts it on the table. Her teacher asks, “Hannah, you got an issue?”
He lets Hannah look at her phone, and reads life-changing news: Freestyle BMX is an Olympic sport.
“You’re going to be an Olympian,” her teacher says, and asks her to autograph a piece of paper, which he hangs on the classroom wall.
In the years since the Toronto Jam, Hannah has established herself as the best female freestyle BMX rider in the world. Other women are learning big tricks, but Hannah can do everything her competitors are doing, and more. She’s progressed to the point where when she learns a new trick, it’s the first time a woman has performed it.
But opportunities for female riders remain limited. Hannah has few sponsors and earns little prize money. The inclusion of freestyle BMX in the Olympics could change that. In an ongoing effort to appeal to younger fans, the Olympics has courted action sports over the past few decades. Freestyle snowboarding and skiing entered the Winter Games in the 1990s. BMX racing made the Olympics in 2008. But freestyle BMX never had a consistently robust women’s field—and the Olympics has a gender equality requirement.
The freestyle BMX Olympic movement formally began in 2016, when the world governing body for cycling, Union Cycliste Internationale, brought the sport under its umbrella. The UCI partnered with FISE to create a freestyle BMX World Cup, a series of international events showcasing the sport’s best riders. Prior to the Olympic movement, riders like Nina Buitrago had stopped attending FISE events due to a lack of support for a women’s field. But in an effort to get freestyle in the Olympics, says Buitrago, male riders began inviting the top women to compete in the FISE series.
In May 2016, Hannah traveled to Montpellier, France, for the first round of the FISE series. She won, but the women’s payout was 250 euros. She missed the next FISE event with a broken arm (“that’s how I remember everything, by broken bones,” she says), but made the next FISE stop in Denver six weeks later, where she competed with a modified cast and won. With her parents fronting the cost of a flight, Hannah traveled to Chengdu, China, for the final FISE series stop in October. There she won the series overall, but no money. The men’s overall payout was 12,000 euros.
An uproar over the disparity led FISE to comp Hannah’s travel for the 2017 series. Not long after that, the UCI established a freestyle BMX World Championship with equal prize money for men and women. Those efforts brought back support from respected riders like Buitrago, and women’s BMX began to rally. When officials from the International Olympic Committee showed up at the FISE World Cup in Montpellier a couple of weeks before announcing that freestyle BMX would become an Olympic sport, 32 female riders were competing, including Hannah, who won. That was the most women ever at a UCI World Cup.
When Hannah got the news about the Olympics in her computer science class, the Games were still three years away (which became four because of the pandemic). Though her teacher and pretty much everyone else had told her she’d be an Olympian one day, she didn’t believe it herself. When she signed that piece of paper for her teacher, she wrote, “Don’t be a fool, stay in school.”
“There’s gonna be so many people trying to do this,” she remembers thinking. “I was still only 15. I had a lot to learn. I thought my age would hold me back.”
AN OLYMPIC JOURNEY COULD END HERE: AFTER WINNING THE 2017 FISE World Cup series and going on to win the inaugural UCI Freestyle BMX World Championships, Hannah started the spring semester of her junior year. She was officially the top UCI ranked female freestyle BMX rider in the world. She also had SATs to prepare for and her National Honor Society grade point average to maintain. Between that and training, the pressure she put on herself was intense.
“It was so hard to get up and go to school,” she says. “And [not] because I was tired, like every other teen in America, you know? It was the fact that mentally, I didn’t think I could take it anymore. I was just dealing with so much of my own pressure. Mentally, I just couldn’t process everything. And it was killing me inside.”
She began to put BMX second. “All my friends were able to do things, like go camping for a week, that I couldn’t do because I couldn’t miss a full week of sessions. I started to resent riding,” she says.
Hannah stopped going to the gym, stopped doing the necessary rehab on her back and ankles. Instead she hung out with friends, scored box seats to a supercross event, started dating someone.
She still competed internationally, but without proper preparation, her results fell off. After a crash wrecked her knee, she didn’t take care of it. On a flight to a FISE stop in France, Hannah developed a respiratory infection, which turned into strep throat. It was rainy and cold and she finished fourth. “I couldn’t see past that, I was so mad at riding,” she says, and then pauses. “Well, I wasn’t mad at my bike, I was mad at myself.” A pro she looked up to sent a message meant as tough love: You were this big champion last year, now you’re falling behind. It had the opposite effect. Hannah’s world only darkened more.
Back home, her personal life turned toxic. The girl Hannah had been dating threatened to hurt herself if Hannah left her. “I stayed longer than I should have,” Hannah says. Therapy helped only so much, and when eventually she was unable to get out of bed, her mom called a doctor who put her on medication for anxiety and depression.
By the time the 2018 World Championships came around in October, Hannah felt better emotionally. Physically, she remained a mess. She’d fallen while attempting to backflip over the spine of a ramp and aggravated her old back injury. A plate in her collarbone, inserted after a crash when she was 11, had wiggled loose and was causing excruciating pain. Then, the week before Worlds, on the final stop of the FISE World Cup series, Hannah crushed her foot in her first qualifying run. A trainer taped it up so Hannah could compete, and she managed to finish second. She won the FISE series for the third consecutive year, barely.
At Worlds just a week later, one of Hannah’s longtime BMX heroes, Ryan Nyquist, was coaching the U.S. team. “Her body was just in pieces,” Nyquist recalls. “She couldn’t finish a run without literally lying down because her foot was almost broken. She couldn’t put weight on it, but then she’d do these crazy runs.” Perris Benegas took the win, launching high-flying transfers between ramps, including a one-handed toboggan, turning the front wheel perpendicular to her bike 15 feet high. Hannah started her final run strong, with a double bar spin over the spine, a flair and tailwhip, but appeared to be running out the clock toward the end, recovering between tricks instead of charging. She finished third behind Benegas and fellow American Angie Marino.
“She was just leaning on the fact that she could do all these tricks,” Nyquist says. “And I think that was a big turning point for her, that it wasn’t just about the tricks, it was about being able to go out there
Though pretty much everyone had told her she’d be an Olympian one day, she didn’t believe it herself.
and do a strong 60-second run.”
“Third hurt. A lot,” Hannah shakes her head, pauses, licks her lips. But it also motivated her. She remembers thinking, “I could sit here and feel sorry for myself. Or I could hold myself accountable like I used to and get everything done that I need to get done.”
Hannah developed a plan with USA Cycling trainer Trish Bare Grounds, who runs a physical therapy facility in Holly Springs, North Carolina, a piney suburb of Raleigh. The week before Christmas, Hannah got the plate surgically removed from her collarbone. After the holidays, she took six weeks away from her senior year of high school to undergo physical rehab in North Carolina, which included four weeks off her bike and then another two weeks of light riding. Grounds put Hannah through a daily regimen of core strength and movement training. The goal was to correct imbalances that exacerbated chronic injuries and to bulletproof Hannah against future crashes.
Once she was cleared to ride, Hannah began training at the Daniel Dhers Action Sports Complex, a 37,000-square-foot indoor bike park also located in Holly Springs. Designed by Dhers, a five-time X Games gold medalist originally from Venezuela, the park rivals the Kitchen in the volume and scale of its ramps. The facility attracts top pros from around the world, like Australian World Champion Brandon Loupos, Swiss rider Nikita Duccaroz, and Hannah’s U.S. teammate, Perris Benegas.
“I fell in love with North Carolina,” says Hannah. “My friends back home would push me, but not like the pros would push me.” The park was open to the public from 3 to 8 p.m., leaving the mornings open for the pros to gather. They’d stand on the deck of a ramp, taking turns dropping in to try new lines and tricks and offering feedback to one another. Hannah’s training became more focused. “Each session is a progression session,” Benegas explains. “We set goals, we tell each other our goals, and we do whatever we can to help each other achieve their goals. It’s an individual sport, but we’re in this together.”
In North Carolina, Hannah learned a tuck no-hander backflip and a double tailwhip. When competition resumed in spring 2019, she won the first two stops on the FISE World Cup series, in Japan and France. “She came back like a force,” Nyquist says. Shortly after returning from France, she graduated high school and then moved to North Carolina to resume training full-time. “I convinced my sister and her boyfriend to drive down with me. And I took all my stuff,” she says, smiling as she remembers how ridiculously she’d packed. “Everything from my World Championship jersey to my random bike parts that I’d never touched in eight years. I put it all in a storage locker.”
She moved in with Grounds, who Hannah says “held me accountable.” Hannah learned about nutrition and fueling for performance. She continued working on emotional stuff with her therapist. She was still 17, so in order to be able to sign for the storage unit, open a bank account, and do other things requiring the signature of a guardian, she legally emancipated herself, with her parents’ blessing. “The hardest part was leaving my family so quickly,” Hannah says.
IT’S THE 2019 WORLDS IN CHENGDU, AND HANNAH IS ALL ALONE
on the course for the first of two runs in the finals. If she wins, she’ll become the first American to qualify for the Olympics in BMX freestyle. She takes a hard half pedal stroke, lifts her front wheel off the ground, and drops in. The first ramp shoots her skyward; she throws a 360 tailwhip, her bike and body spinning independently of each other. That trick combos right into a flair on the next ramp. For 30 seconds, she’s nearly perfect. She manuals right into the wall ride, goes way up to the coping, drops back down, and floats a 360 tabletop across the box jump. She’s so high up in the air that spectators have to crane their necks to see her.
A few small mistakes mar the second half of Hannah’s run; she cases a couple of landings and misses her pedal landing a tailwhip transfer. The clock runs out and Hannah exits the course, charges past Nyquist, and jumps on a stationary bike to keep her legs warm. A score of 90 nets her a commanding lead, but she can’t stop thinking about her errors. She pulls up the chin guard of her full-face helmet so no one can see her tears.
“Listen to me,” says Nyquist. “Do you want the run, or the jersey?” He gets Hannah to refocus and plan a second run that can win.
She stands on the deck nervous but ready, when the score of her closest competitor, Britain’s Charlotte Worthington, comes in. Hannah won’t even need a second run. She’s the world champion again. The tears come back, this time out of relief, joy, and gratitude for everyone who’d pushed her to where she needed to be. She drops off the deck, rides right over to Team USA. She sees Nyquist first, and hugs her mom, who’d traveled to China to support her. Her trainer, Grounds, holds her close, and Hannah realizes, “It’s not just me, it’s all of us.”
In early 2020, before COVID-19, Hannah decamped to California and stayed with a friend. Daniel Dhers was remodeling the park to better suit the riders training for the Olympics. Hannah did some riding, went to the beach. On a whim, she downloaded Tinder. She remembers swiping left to every person: “I didn’t like anything that I’d seen.” Then she saw someone she thought was cute, a Marine in training on the coast, Kelsey. “I swiped, and she swiped on me, and we matched.” They started dating, and eventually Hannah flew to Montana to meet Kelsey’s family.
When the Olympics were officially postponed a couple of weeks later, Hannah was fine with the idea of a year with no events, recognizing that it would give her a rare chance to experience life at a different speed. “Without it, I wouldn’t have everything that I have today,” she says. In November 2020, she got down on one knee and presented a ring to Kelsey; they announced their marriage on Instagram three months later. Kelsey was transferred to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, and they bought a house in Jacksonville. Hannah could drive to ride at the Daniel Dhers facility or at the home of Ryan Nyquist, who lives in Wilmington and has his own ramp setup.
She also used the downtime to keep pushing her limits. On June 28, 2020, she landed the first flair whip by a woman. The trick, a 180-degree backflip on a quarter pipe while simultaneously pulling a tailwhip, is as difficult to perform as it is to describe. The video went viral, amassing more than 23,000 views and nearly 500 comments on her Instagram account. Hannah liked or responded to every comment. She reads all the comments on social media because there could be someone who has a question she can answer, someone she can help. She also sees the trolls, the misinformed, the jealous, and the mean. The particularly
provocative line of speculation about her gender.
Hannah says that doesn’t bother her. What does? “People are like, I would rather see Perris win because she looks like a woman. That’s frustrating to me,” Hannah says. “I knew those comments were going to come because I don’t look like an average woman. I shave my head. My shoulders are [bigger than average]. And I wear baggy clothes, you can’t see my chest. I would just rather focus on my riding.”
AN OLYMPIC JOURNEY CULMINATES HERE:
at the Ariake Urban Sports Park on the waterfront in Tokyo. The little girl who shredded the Kitchen is now all grown up. She wears a USA jersey and a pair of dark blue Levis. Her high-top Vans conceal two injured ankles—one fractured, the other with a severed tendon—immobilized by athletic tape.
After she won the 2021 World Championships, the doctors told Hannah they couldn’t fix her broken ankle before the Games, which were less than two months away. But if she could endure the pain, she could keep riding. Around the Olympic Village, Hannah wore a medical boot to control the swelling in her right ankle, the one she smashed in practice. If she doesn’t land her jumps smoothly, the injuries can send pain shooting up her legs and leave her feeling paralyzed.
Here at the Olympic BMX venue, standing on the deck of a two-story ramp built atop a ramp, Hannah looks out across a stadium almost empty of fans amidst a global pandemic. A multitude of cameras broadcast her image to millions of people around the world.
Her cousin Brett Banasiewicz, who built the Kitchen, who Hannah Roberts watched on TV and aspired to emulate, never got a chance at the Olympics. Over the past 10 years he’s relearned how to speak and walk and count, and eventually start riding again, but not like a Mad Dog anymore. The Kitchen closed during the pandemic. The ramps were dismantled and sold or given away, the old mattress factory emptied.
Nina Buitrago is in Tokyo, but not as an athlete; the Olympic movement she helped spark 20 years ago has passed her by. Still one of the best riders in the world but not quite good enough for the Games, she’s working alongside the judges and managing the 60-second clock. As an official, she serves impartially. But seeing the U.S. women stand on the world’s biggest stage in sport, she feels like they’ve already won.
Hannah Roberts’s Olympic moment arrives. She plunges down the ramp and launches into the air, sends a double tailwhip over a broad box jump and lands a backflip with a bar spin. With the clock ticking down, Hannah eyes a daunting line across the park, and builds speed. She transitions back up onto the two-story half pipe where she dropped in, takes a single pedal stroke, and throws a flair with seconds left. She flings her bike from the ramp, clenches her fists and expels a scream of triumph. Her score comes in, a staggering 96.10.
But someone is better. Someone who spent the better part of the pandemic in a media blackout, hidden from her competitors. Someone who was also coached by a former men’s BMX pro, Brit Jamie Bestwick, an old rival of Nyquist, and worked in seclusion to land a trick that the world’s most dominant female BMX rider couldn’t yet perform.
In her first Olympic finals run, Britain’s Charlotte Worthington tries the backflip 360 and falls. In her second run, she pulls it, her inverted head spinning above the ground. She also nails a front flip she’d unveiled at the World Championships, and seals a winning score of 97.50. Hannah forfeits her second run after an early slip and takes silver.
After the medal ceremony and the media hoopla, the freestyle BMX men and women gather back at the bike park by the Olympic rings, and soak in their collective accomplishment. Once she’s back in the U.S., Hannah returns to Michigan, where she is celebrated in her hometown with a parade. She rides a local bike park with childhood friends, then buys everyone dinner. A dad asks Hannah if his 4-year-old daughter can look at her Olympic medal. Hannah waves to the shy little girl, says hi, asks her, “Want to see something cool?”
When Hannah finally gets back to North Carolina, she is tired. She barely rides, she sleeps a lot, and, sure enough, the depression she knew would come shows up. But she’s been through this before and she’s already looking forward to the next Olympics. One day, she wakes up and calls a local tattoo artist. She’s ready to get her rings. They span the inside of her right bicep. Within the first ring, Hannah placed the insignia for Tokyo 2020. Four rings remain, and Hannah Roberts intends to fill each one.