Mariana Pajón made history when she won gold in the BMX at Rio 2016, as she became Colombia’s first double Olympic champion. Now Pajón has her sights on a third Olympic Games at Tokyo 2020, despite only recently returning to the saddle after nine months out with a serious knee ligament injury.
In London four years earlier, Pajón had become only the second athlete from the central American country to claim an Olympic title, 12 years after Maria Isabel Urrutia had won weightlifting gold in Sydney.
Pajón is the subject of an episode of the Olympic Channel’s “Before They Were Superstars”, where at the age of 17 in March 2007 she outlined her hopes for the future, having already won 10 world junior titles.
She said at the time: “My aspirations are the same as every other athlete. That is to get to the Olympics and win a medal for my country. I’ll try hard to achieve it and I won’t stop until I have.”
Pajón was born in October 1991 in Medellin, a city ravaged by wars between drug cartels. The daughter of a former competitive racing car driver and a mother who was an outstanding swimmer and a national horse-riding champion, Pajón took up BMX when she was four, won her first national title at five, and claimed her maiden world junior crown at nine.
Her coach Jorge Wilson Jaramillo oversaw her intense workouts before and after school and described her commitment, common to all Olympic champions.
He said: “Mariana always challenges herself. Everything she starts she has to finish. She never turns down a training session. If you tell her she has to get up even earlier or to do extra kilometres on a simulator, she’ll do it.”
There were fears when she suffered a wrist injury in 2008, but she was undeterred; and in 2011 she was crowned world champion during a remarkable run of successes. The following year she was chosen to be Colombia’s flagbearer at the Olympic Games London 2012, which she described as “a very profound experience”.
On the track, she won all three semi-final runs and made a great start in the final, crossing the line first as she became Olympic champion at the age of 20.
Pajón continued to dominate, and in May 2016 she won the world title on her home track in Medellin. A few months later in Rio, Pajón confirmed her place at the pinnacle of her sport with a second gold, before vowing never to give up riding.
Fast-forward to May 2018, and Pajón sustained a serious knee injury after colliding with another rider during the BMX Supercross World Cup in Papendal, in the Netherlands.
She endured a gruelling rehabilitation – mental as well as physical – before returning to the track in March 2019, as little by little she regained her confidence with Tokyo 2020 on the horizon.