LAKE VILLA, Ill. — Think of a star snowboarder, and you likely envision Olympic gold medalist Shaun White and his long red mane, flipping and spinning his way through some insane trick.
Lake Villa's Felicia Stancil desires nothing more than to become the similar face of another extreme sport: BMX, or bicycle motocross.
"When people think of BMX, I want to be the person they think of," she said. "To say I love it is a huge understatement."
Felicia's certainly on track, so to speak.
The Grayslake North High School junior has raced her way to 10 world titles — more than any other rider in U.S. history — at competitions in the Netherlands, France, Canada, Australia and South Africa.
Her most recent win came last July in Denmark at the UCI BMX World Championships. Simply put, the victory means she's considered the best 16-year-old female BMX racer on the planet.
Felicia's also among the most exciting to watch.
The daring and muscular teen attacks 40-foot-long jumps to gain speed and excels at "manuals," a trick in which a rider's front wheel comes off the ground.
"There's always some fear but you just do it," Felicia said. "To me, that's the stuff that makes BMX fun."
Copenhagen was the last amateur race for Felicia, who soon after was tapped to go pro and join the USA BMX elite team, made up of the country's top seven female racers.
Though she trains with other Olympic hopefuls trying to earn one of two spots on the U.S. team, Felicia is the youngest of the group and ineligible to compete in this year's Summer Games in London. So she's set her sights on Rio de Janeiro in 2016, where she hopes to do more than just make the team.
"She has the talent to be an incredible force in the BMX world, and there's a good chance she'll be on that medal podium," said James Herrera, USA Cycling's National BMX Team coach. "She's very skilled on the bike and works her butt off."
It was clear from the start that BMX runs in Felicia's blood.
Her dad, Jamie Stancil, used to race as a teenager and gave Felicia her first bike when she was 3 years old. It wasn't long before the adventurous toddler demanded her training wheels be removed.
"She just took off," Jamie Stancil recalled. "She was a natural from the beginning."
Felicia was on a BMX track at age 4 and won her first national title a year later. She's been on a winning spree ever since, though her journey hasn't come without some bumps in the road.
At age 10, she was goofing around with friends at practice in Elkhorn, Wis., when she crashed and broke her lower back. Felicia said she had to wear a back brace for 23 hours a day for 2½ months, "sit with perfect posture all the time" and miss the world championships in Brazil.
Another setback came in early January, when rocks on the Olympic training center track in Chula Vista, Calif., caused her to skid out and break her thumb. She was on the sidelines until about two weeks ago, when doctors removed two pins from her hand.
The timing of her injury will prove especially challenging.
Her next Supercross race, a hillier Olympic-size track in Chula Vista that starts with a three-story drop, was moved up to this month due to the London Games. She typically doesn't get to step up her training until after school lets out, but won't have that luxury this year.
She'll spend two weeks in Chula Vista preparing to go toe-to-toe with the best professional women in the world.
Felicia thinks she'll do well based on her only other Supercross race last fall. She made it to the semifinals and received a No. 3 seed, only to get tangled up in a nasty crash that took out half of the eight racers.
"I was so mad, but I learned that I could beat these girls," Felicia said. "It really got my confidence up."
Despite frequent practices at tracks in Hobart, Ind., Rockford and Waukegan, trips around the globe and a strict training and nutrition regimen, Felicia manages to make honor roll.
She also was a talented varsity athlete in volleyball, basketball and track before giving up those sports this year to focus on her pro BMX career.
"I'm 5-foot-8, so I'm not going to be an NCAA Division I athlete," Felicia said. "I miss sports sometimes, but I love riding my bike and need to devote my life to it."
Felicia's top focus right now is improving her "gates," or race starts. She's been able to overcome that weakness in the past with her speed and power on the rest of the roughly 1,500-foot track — but the pro races won't be as forgiving.
She's confident she'll get faster once she moves to a warmer climate that allows her to train year-round. She plans on going to college in California to be close to the Olympic training center, and taking the year off leading up to the 2016 games.Comment on this story
Until then, she'll balance training with her pre-med studies. She's fascinated with the human body — her numerous injuries and encounters with the medical community helped spark her interest — and wants to become a doctor.
"I don't want to be wondering what I'll do after BMX, so it's important that I do both," Felicia said.
Her coach says if anybody can do it, Felicia can.
"She's a different breed, and one of the coolest athletes I've ever worked with," Herrera said. "She's got some big aspirations, but she's so powerful and not afraid of anything, that it'll be fun to watch what she accomplishes."
Information from: Daily Herald, http://www.dailyherald.com