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The greatest BMX rider of a generation, Mariana Pajón has barely tasted defeat on the path from winning her first world title in 2010 to her second Olympic gold at Rio 2016.
“In 2000, when I was nine, I used to do gymnastics, not BMX, and I thought that I’d go to the Games as a gymnast,” said Colombian BMX rider Mariana Pajón. “I dreamed about moments like that. I felt so proud and I really wanted to go to the Olympic Games.”
Born on 10 October 1991 in Medellin, Pajón first sat on a bike at the age of four. Prompted by her father and brother, both BMX riders, she soon devoted herself to the sport and quickly proved to be a natural, winning race after race.
In the groove
In 2007 and aged only 16, Pajón began a remarkable run of world championship success, both on the Olympic 20” wheel bike and the 24” wheeled cruiser. She won the U-16 world crown that year, followed by the junior cruiser title in 2008, the 20” junior in 2009, the elite cruiser in 2010 and the elite in 2011.
In 2011, the she moved to the top of the world rankings and was named Colombian sportswoman of the year thanks to an incredible run of success, winning the World Championships in Copenhagen (DEN), and Pan American Games, as well as the Latin American, South American, Central American and Colombian national championships.
London 2012 got off to a good start for Pajón as she was nominated to be Colombian flagbearer at the Opening Ceremony. “I felt so honoured to be competing in a non-mainstream sport, a sport that wasn’t well known in Colombia, and to represent my country at the Olympic Games,” she later recalled.
“It was a major responsibility to carry the flag at the Opening Ceremony, and it showed the people of Colombia that there are other sports they can be proud of. At the same time, it was a challenge I was anxious to meet. I tried to make sure that every single second of the parade, with the flag in my hands, stayed with me. It was a very profound experience for me, from the moment I walked into the stadium to the end of the Opening Ceremony.”
Pajón set the standard for the rest of the field as the BMX competition got underway at the Lee Valley Velopark on 10 August, winning all three runs in her semi-final. Despite being drawn in Lane 4, her least favourite starting position, in the eight-rider final, the Colombian started aggressively and jumped straight into the lead as the gate went down.
“I knew my time had come. I made a great start, and when I realised I was in the lead and that I had a clear track ahead of me, I said to myself that I had to complete the lap without making a mistake,” she said. “I knew on the second jump that no one could catch me. All I had to do was ride the way I know how.”
Describing the moment of victory, she said: “When I crossed the finish line, I couldn’t believe what I’d just done. The first thing I did was hug the president of the Colombian Cycling Federation. I asked him: ‘Is this for real? Is it a dream or is it really happening?’”
“The emotion you feel is just impossible to explain,” Pajón continued. “There are so many things going though your head. You feel so proud at winning that medal for the country and making everyone back home so happy. Seeing my flag go up and hearing my national anthem in another country made me feel more Colombian than ever.”
Olympic champion at the age of just 20, Pajón maintained her impressive form and continued to dominate in the following years, winning the BMX World Cup and the BMX time-trial World Championships in 2013 and 2015 and a second elite world title in Rotterdam in 2014.
Then, in May 2016, riding on her eponymous track (El Complejo Mariana Pajón) in her home city, Pajón bested Australia’s Caroline Buchanan and the USA’s Alise Post to win a sixth UCI World Championship title.
Pajón once again turned the competition into a one-woman show at Rio 2016, going fastest in qualifying and winning her three semi-final runs before showing her opponents her rear wheel in the final, taking gold over Post and Venezuela’s Stefany Hernandez.
“It doesn’t get any better than this. Winning a second gold is completely crazy,” said the 24-year-old two-time champion, who had nothing but praise for the vociferous fans. “I felt completely at home with so many Colombians in the crowd. They gave me a lot of energy.”