Athlete Spotlight: Alise Willoughby
Alise Willoughby (Chula Vista, Calif.) has cherished every minute she’s worn the rainbow jersey. Last year, on home soil, she won the 2017 UCI BMX World Championships in Rock Hill, S.C.
“I've been waiting a long time for this. This is amazing,” she said after her race. “This is for Sam and everyone who supported me. World Champion, getting married, it's a big year.”
After making the final in every previous world championship she raced in, Willoughby was determined to finally make it to the finish on top. She now owns four world championship medals – gold (2017), silver (2014) and two bronze (2010, 2016) – plus she won the silver medal at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio.
Winning the rainbow jersey was just part of a very big last 12 months for Willoughby – a year that also included marrying Sam Willoughby on New Year’s Eve. She also captured her eighth U.S. title in February, winning gold at the 2018 USA Cycling BMX National Championships. And, she started her world championships preparations by winning silver in Round 3 and gold in Round 4 of the 2018 UCI BMX Supercross World Cup series in Papendal, Arnhem, The Netherlands.
With the 2018 UCI BMX World Championships approaching, Willoughby talked with USA Cycling about her journey in the sport, balancing personal and professional goals, and her training as she prepares to defend her world title.
When did you start racing BMX and how did you get involved with the sport?
I started BMX racing in May 1997, when I was 6 years old. After countless hours riding bikes around the streets and watching one of my brothers build jumps around the yard, he eventually went to the "local" track an hour away with one of his friends. He was 14 at the time and, after seeing other little girls at the track, he talked my parents and me into going out there to have me try it so that he could have something to do with me instead of me just doing gymnastics and other "girl stuff." After chickening out the first week (and my parents almost canceling my membership to get their money back), on my second attempt I ended up racing and getting my first spill out of the way, then closed out the day with a second-place finish. I've been hooked ever since! In 1998 my brother asked, "Why don't we build our own track? It can't be that hard, it's just piles of dirt." And, so began the plans for my family and another local family to open a track right in St. Cloud [Minn.], making it easier than traveling 45 minutes to an hour every time we wanted to ride. It’s crazy that the old vandalized park we opened in 1999 as Pineview Park BMX is now one of the premier facilities in the country, and my dad still runs it today – 100% volunteer work.
What is your favorite part of racing?
I really enjoy the thrill of the competition in BMX racing. I have always been a competitive person, but the head-to-head aspect of BMX has always drawn me to it. I competed in gymnastics and track & field my whole life, and I like that racing is not judged – there is a clear finish and you know what you're up against. Couple the heart pumping head-to-head drive with the adrenaline rush of going 40 mph over 40-foot gaps off of a three-story tall starting hill with seven other riders, no lanes and no suspension, and that's what I call fun! Haha! My best explanation is that BMX racing is some sort of combination between a horserace and a roller coaster. It’s such a sprinter sport, yet there is so much skill involved in carrying momentum over those jumps and corners while being at the mercy of others on the track. You really have to train all areas of your athletic game to be at the top in BMX. I like that challenge of getting it to all come together on race day.
What do you think about as you are racing?
As with any sport, by the time you reach the elite ranks you're always training and working on the finer details. Everyone is good, and you just have to find a way to be a LITTLE better. Between all of the trial and error, plus practice in and out of competition, riding the tracks feels second nature. The goal is to be calm out there and focus on your own lines and mental cues so that, amidst the chaos of a race, your body physically executes the skills you've trained it to do.
You have had some pretty significant injuries, how do you overcome those fears when you get back on the bike?
Whenever an injury or trying time happens, it can make you question why you risk so much every day. At the same time, as you go through the process of rehabbing your body (or mind in some cases) and end up spending a little time off your bike, it makes you miss that feeling of competing. The challenge of being a thrown a curve-ball always motivates me to try to beat the odds and come back better and faster. So far, I've really used all of my hard times as an athlete as learning curves, and honestly they have helped me grow as both an athlete and a person.
You recently got married what advice would you give someone in balancing their personal relationships with their dreams?
I am so lucky in my personal life that I found someone like Sam who shares the same dreams, completely understands the process, and can allow me to do whatever is necessary to reach my goals. It can be very challenging traveling the world and not doing the everyday activities, while also trying to meet a partner in life who understands and shares the same motivations. But, it's out there. People are definitely products of their environment, so you just have to surround yourself with like-minded people who are going to build you up and not tear you down. There are times where the training load is light or you are home more often – those are great times to catch up with old buddies or people you don't get to see as often. As long as you take the time and support friends and family the way you want to be supported, they will all return the favor and understand schedule differences. Spending time with people who can chat with you about things other than your sport is very important to your personal growth, so make sure you take time to engage with others!
You were a competitive gymnast before you began racing. What aspects of gymnastics have helped you on your bike?
Gymnastics has helped me in every aspect of my athletic career. The power, body awareness, work ethic and scripted focus are all things that apply so well in really every situation. I believe it specifically helped me with power development in BMX – I am an explosive rider and I think that comes off years of gymnastics training and conditioning from a young age. I also think it gave me aerial awareness and honestly helped me learn how to crash...tuck and roll baby!
You are the reigning World Champion. How do you approach this year’s World Championships? How did last year’s race prepare you for this year?
I have been working my whole career to earn that rainbow jersey, so being able to race with it on over the past year has made me so proud out on the track. It has also motivated Sam and me to want to back it up. We know I can do it now, and it's just a matter of putting the work in and executing on the day. We've done our portion in the lead-up as far as work load goes – we went overseas to race a World Cup again and found success. Now, it comes back to doing what we're trained to do...RACE! I've been practicing my whole life in race situations, and now that I understand the emotions and pressures that come along with big races, I believe I am more prepared than ever. I just want to enjoy my laps out there and give my best.
Willoughby is one of 12 Team USA riders racing in the 2018 UCI BMX World Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan. More than 2,000 athletes representing over 50 countries are expected to ride in the five-day event from June 5-9. The 1/8, 1/4 and 1/2 races and Finals are scheduled for Saturday, June 9 at 8:40 pm local in Baku / 12:40 pm ET.
Find the complete event schedule HERE.
For more information on the complete U.S. lineup and how to follow the week’s racing click HERE.
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