London bound: After missing out on Beijing, BYU grad Arielle Martin earns Olympic berth
Bryn Lennon, Getty Images
CEDAR HILLS — Arielle Martin's Olympic dream could have died in the dirt where she crashed in the quarterfinal round of the 2008 BMX World Championships.
Instead, the Lone Peak High and BYU alum did what she's done since she was 3 years old. She got up, dusted herself off and got back on her bike.
"It was pretty horrible, to be honest," she said of failing to qualify after being the best woman BMX racer in the year preceding the Beijing Olympics. She was the hands-down favorite and admitted that she didn't even consider that she may not make the 2008 U.S. Olympic team.
"Looking back, though, it taught me a lot about perseverance," she said. "It humbled me, and I am a better rider, a better person and a better athlete for it today, without a doubt. And while it was heartbreaking, it makes it all a little sweeter now."
Four years after that devastating crash, Martin will realize her dream of representing the United States in the sport she loves Aug. 8-9 in the 2012 London Games. She placed fourth in the World Championships on May 30 to earn her spot.
The 2008 Summer Games were the first to include BMX as an event. Back then, Martin said, the sport was not well organized and top contenders included just "two girls and a handful of guys."
"It was a lot more cut-throat to qualify this time," the 26-year-old said during a recent trip home to Utah with her husband, Michael Verhaaren. "The team is made up of two women and three men."
Unlike her first attempt to qualify, Martin was nervous before the May 30 competition that determined who qualified for the Games.
"I didn't sleep much the night before," she said. "On race day, I calmed down the moment I started racing."
That may be because a dirt track is where this Cedar Hills native is most comfortable. She's grown up one of the only women in a sport that features daredevil tricks, fearless aggression and a passion for speed.
"I think I was OK," said Martin, who admits she doesn't remember her first few races as a preschooler. "I remember everyone was always cheering for the little kids. So I learned the parade wave so I could wave at everyone as I rode in. I didn't understand the concept of competition."
That changed dramatically in just a few years. By age 10 she was consistently taking second place to another Utah girl who was ranked No. 1 nationally.
"She was so good, I don't think we understood how good I was," Martin said laughing. A family friend talked them into traveling to a national tournament in which she took second to this same Utah competitor.
That was the moment her family realized she might be something special in the sport.
She became the youngest woman to go pro at 15, and immediately she became a pioneer in the sport.
"I love that aspect of it," she said of being a woman in a male-dominated world. "As a little kid I didn't think anything of it. As I got older, I started picking up on it. Most guys supported me doing it, and I caught much more support for it than I did grief."
Now that she's wearing red, white and blue and competing on the world's biggest sports stage, she feels even more responsibility to her gender.
"I have thought about my role as a role model," she said, acknowledging she loves to meet with fans and sign autographs, which she did at Rad Canyon BMX on July 5. "I really strive to be a role model."
Martin said the program has changed dramatically after the IOC made it an Olympic sport. USA cycling has dedicated resources and offered state-of-the-art training opportunities to the sport's best and brightest.
"Now that it's an Olympic sport people take it much more seriously," she said. "Back then, if you were a dad and you had a kid who raced, you were a coach."
Now USA cycling is working on board certification of coaches and training criteria. The athletes train year-round and benefit from research and training programs developed just for BMX.
"It's overwhelming," she said of realizing a childhood dream to be an Olympian. "The first Olympics I watched were in 1996 in Atlanta, and I remember being completely inspired by the U.S. women's gymnastics team. I said, 'I want to do that. I want to be an Olympian.' "
She fell in love with Track and Field and thought that might be her ticket to the games. She even participated in a winter sports recruiting camp at the Utah Olympic Park in 1998-99 as the U.S. teams prepared for the 2002 Salt Lake Games.
"But then I heard rumors about BMX being included, and I guess I just got lucky," she said. "My dream of being an Olympian and doing it in the sport I love came together my senior year of high school. By then, I had a real shot at it."
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