Character builder: Visalia BMX rider Brooke Crain in Rio for second Olympics

Brooke Crain: Taking one lap, and one Olympics, at a time

Brooke Crain heads to Rio to compete in Olympic BMX Cycling on August 17-19. The Visalia native talks about lessons learned from her Olympic debut at the London 2012 Games and the value of another four years of training.
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Brooke Crain heads to Rio to compete in Olympic BMX Cycling on August 17-19. The Visalia native talks about lessons learned from her Olympic debut at the London 2012 Games and the value of another four years of training.

Brooke Crain’s memories of London 2012 are vague. Better that way, no doubt, after the Visalian’s crash-and-burn debut in women’s BMX at the Olympics.

Family and friends, she recalls, told her it “was the worst they’ve ever seen her race.” Certainly nothing like the “character” whom she hopes to slip into this week in Rio de Janeiro.

A more focused, better-trained Crain will take the track beginning Wednesday at the Olympic BMX Centre at Deodoro X-Park. Credit another year of experience and the help of an ex-rider turned psychologist.

“The biggest thing I’m taking into Rio,” Crain said while training this month in the Valley, “is that I know I’ve done the work.”

Lost in London

Four years ago, competing on the world’s biggest stage was an afterthought for the then-19-year-old Crain. She was headed to the London Games but just to support her teammates as an alternate on Team USA.

The day before leaving for London, Arielle Martin-Verhaaren crashed in a training ride, suffering a lacerated liver and collapsed lung. Her spot went to Crain.

“It’s just not the way you want to go,” she said.

Four years later, Crain’s whirlwind journey remains obscured by haze.

“It’s a blur looking back,” she said. “Certain things happened and I hear my friends that were there talk about it and I’m like I don’t remember that.”

At the time, now-USA Cycling director Jamie Staff took a look at Crain and told her she looked like a “deer in the headlights, just like, ‘Whoa.’ 

“I didn’t feel like I belonged there, but at the same time I was 19 and I was pretty starstruck,” Crain said. “You know walking in there, you see people that you’re watching on TV like the basketball players, the gymnasts and you’re like, ‘Wow. I’m here for the same reasons that they’re here,’ and that’s kind of hard to take in.”

Emotions flooded in, doubts, guilt, as she had 24 hours notice to prepare for the biggest event of her life.

“I remember when they told me that I was going (to be on the team), I called my Mom and I was bawling and I was like ‘Mom, I don’t want to do this.’ It was just that that wasn’t the way I wanted to go and it was hard to watch my teammate go through that. For me, that was the hardest part.”

I didn’t want people to think I didn't deserve the spot and that’s just not the way you want to go to the Olympics.

Brooke Crain, after replacing teammate Arielle Martin-Verhaaren at the 2012 Summer Games as Team USA’s first alternate. Martin-Verhaaren suffered a lacerated liver in a training ride the day before leaving to London.

Whether it was those emotions, a wrong twist of her handlebars, an ill-timed landing or just bad luck, her debut ended in near-disaster. Crain crashed during qualifying, spectacularly as any number of YouTube videos show. She came back to make the final, the only American to do so, but placed eighth.

“Looking back, it might have been an advantage because I kind of had nothing to lose. I was an alternate thrown in at the last minute,” Crain said. “I did my best. It was an amazing experience to have leading into Rio because nobody can prepare you for the Olympics. It’s something you have to experience yourself to know what it’s like.”

Starting fresh

Entering the yearlong countdown to the 2016 Olympics, a new plan was laid out for Crain to make Team USA fully on her own merits.

She set physical and mental goals and bulldozed through unexpected obstacles, including a five-week recovery after a slight fracture of her left fibula.

“This whole year hasn’t been easy for me,” she said. “I’ve had strep throat three times. I’ve had influenza A and pneumonia. But it’s one of those things where I wasn’t going to let a sickness, you know, stop me from getting where I wanted to be.”

That’s where an addition to her personal team paid off. Realizing she could use some more help, Crain hired sports psychologist Jason Richardson. They have spent the past 14 months building a strategy to help Crain zero in on the Olympics.

Richardson is a former professional BMXer, winning a UCI World Cup and gold at the Pan American Games. He knows what it takes and what it’s like, including the pressure of being a professional athlete.

The foundation he offered was persuading Crain to get into “character.”

Initially, she wasn’t buying it.

“I thought, ‘What do you mean get into character?’ I’m myself,” she said.

But that was just the start of a mental exercise, Richardson said, that helps “normalize” an athlete’s emotions when they’re about to compete.

He asks a set of questions to help with that process.

“Is Brooke Crain one of the best BMXers in the world? … Yes.”

“Can Brooke Crain win any race? … Yes.”

“Well, OK. That’s the character,” Richardson said. “Let’s become the Brooke Crain we want to be.

“If she’s feeling angry, let’s use that anger. If she’s feeling happy, let’s use that happiness. If sad, let’s use it. It’s all energy. The character is the person who can win at any time, regardless if they’re mad, sad, hungry or excited.”

Quick physical exercises were added to help deal with those emotional triggers.

If nervous, Crain jumps in place three, five times, maybe more to help quell the butterflies.

To get adrenaline flowing, she’ll raise her hands, with elbows bent at 90 degrees, and shake them furiously.

“When our brains are put under that ‘stress’ – there’s good stress and bad stress – your body goes into fight, flight, panic or freeze mode,” Richardson said. “So I’m there to help them keep things in focus and help the create a plan for each event, and each time. And sometimes even that plan changes.”

Crain is now a believer.

“He’s been a massive help with all the illness and just teaching me to leave it all out there,” she said, “and you know, not worry about what else is going on in life.”

Even fear is allowed, as long as Crain uses it to her advantage.

“The biggest fear is you not doing your best,” Richardson said. “I want you to be scared of that.”

Making things happen

Crain’s BMX performance coach, Tony Hoffman, sees steady improvement when it comes to her mental toughness.

“Athletics, especially at the world class, is 99 percent mental,” said Hoffman, a Fresnan who has coached Crain since just after the London Games.

No task is too tall, even for the 5-foot-4 Crain.

“She overcomes anything that comes at her,” Hoffman said, “and I think that’s what makes her so special.”

Not putting it all out on the table because you’re scared, or whatever reason. That’s going to be a whole lot worse than anything else you’re scared of.

Jason Richardson, sports psychologist for Brooke Crain

Crain has found resiliency in a sport where the best riders get banged up, even while outfitted with a shock-absorbing helmet, pads and a racing suit, for a 37-plus-second ride along a rolling track with curves and jumps.

“It comes from maturity” dad Todd Crain said. “You can only be pushed off the track so may times before it frustrates you. She understood that it’s time to make things happen for herself.”

Those frustrations come on and off the track in a sport that often gains more attention for its athletes’ failures than their success. Like the crashes, such as Crain’s unfortunate spill in London.

“The media really likes to throw out all of the crashes because people like crashes,” Brooke said, “but for us, it’s hard because that’s not our sport. Every sport has injuries.”

She’s hoping her run in Rio helps show what BMX is truly about.

Competition begins with the seeding run Wednesday.

Ranked No. 5 in the world by Union Cycliste Internationale, Crain figures to have just an outside shot at a medal.

The field for Rio includes defending gold medalist and top-ranked Mariana Pajón of Colombia. Pajon is followed by Australia’s Caroline Buchanan, American Alise Post and the Netherlands’ Lauren Smulders (2012 bronze).

There will be three semifinal heats Friday, with eight advancing to the final. Crain has learned to believe.

“If I ride to my potential come that day,” she said, “then I know I can walk away with a medal.”

Angel Moreno: 559-441-6401, @anhelllll

2016 Valley Olympians: Brooke Crain

  • Sport: Cycling (BMX)
  • Age: 23 (born April 29, 1993)
  • Height/weight: 5-foot-4, 121 pounds
  • Hometown: Visalia
  • Representing: United States
  • The skinny: Visalia native is back after competing in 2012 Games, where she crashed in a qualifying run but still made the final and finished eighth. In London, she made Team USA as an alternate, filling in at the last-minute for injured teammate Arielle Martin-Verhaaren, who crashed in a final training run. Crain is ranked fifth in the world, even while recovering from a broken fibula she suffered in May.
  • In action: Wednesday, seeding run (9:30 a.m.); Friday, semifinals (9:30 a.m.) and final (11 a.m.)
  • Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Brooke-Crain-133011810141857
  • Twitter: @brookecrain32
  • Instagram: @brookecrain32
  • Snapchat: @brookecrain32