Few who watched the BMX competitions at London 2012 can have been anything other than thrilled.
This fast and furious sport – the newest Olympic discipline – rivalled the 100m for adrenalin-charged spectacle, with races lasting less than 40 seconds.
Eight riders launched themselves from an eight-metre ramp and pedalled furiously around a short course that demanded technical expertise and bravery, with multiple pile-ups a possibility at each turn.
The format of the women’s competition had seeding heats followed immediately by semi-final, then the final. Mariana Pajón, 20, proved she had what it took to be a champion in the sport, winning the women’s competition in 37.76s, securing her country, Colombia, its second-ever gold medal at an Olympic Games.
The 2011 world champion, who had won all three of her semi-final heats, finished 0.427 ahead of Sarah Walker of New Zealand on the 440m track in the Olympic Park. Her scintillating, flawless ride around the track’s bumps, jumps and steeply-banked corners blew away her rivals and showed exactly why she’s nicknamed variously as The Queen of BMX, the BMX Bandit and the Dirt Queen. But after her triumph, she revealed that she, as a youngster, had expected to win her country Olympic medals in an entirely different sport.
She said: “I'm very happy and proud. This is a very strong moment for Colombian cycling; there's been a lot of support in recent years and that’s beginning to give results. It was a great moment for Colombia. Back then (in 2000) I was a gymnast and didn’t do BMX. I thought I would come to the Olympics as a gymnast. I saw those moments and they fill me with pride and I wanted to come to the Olympics.”
Pajón, from Medellín, first clambered on to a bike at the age of four. Five years later she competed in her first BMX race at the suggestion of her father and brother, who both raced competitively. In those first races she found herself competing exclusively against boys as she was the only girl in her class at school – and she beat them.
Since then she has gone on to win five World Championships – two as a junior and two elite titles – as well as wining gold at the Pan-American Games in Mexico in 2011, and at both the Central American and South American Games the year before. A passionate advocate for her sport – which grew out of the motocross movement in California in the 1960s – her strength, lightning-fast reactions and sheer guts have taken her to the very top of women’s BMX racing, which made its Olympic debut at Beijing in 2008.
Pajón has suffered her share of broken bones competing, but her love of the sport remains undimmed. BMX fans are eagerly anticipating seeing the now-23-year-old at Rio 2016 – as long as they don’t blink while the speedy Colombian is in action.