Strombergs eyes third gold in Rio
Gunning for a unique hat-trick at Rio 2016, Latvia’s Maris Strombergs is the only men’s Olympic champion BMX has known since its introduction on the programme and the only athlete from his country to have won two golds at the Games.
Speaking to the press after retaining his Olympic title at London 2012 and maintaining his status as BMX’s one and only gold-medal Olympian, Maris Strombergs recalled how it all began for him: “When I had my first go on a BMX, it left me in tears to be honest. I was five years old when my father took me to the BMX track and when I saw all those big guys jumping those big doubles, I started crying. I said ‘No way dad’. But after another month I said to him, ‘OK, I’ll go again’ and that’s how I started.
The Latvian added: “It was my dad who kept me going, firing me up and bringing me out to the races. I won my first world championship when I was nine years old – that was the UCI’s first official BMX World Championship in England in 1996 – when I won the category for boys. After that, naturally, there was no turning back.
Strombergs starred in every age group at national, European and world level before the IOC decided in 2003 to add the sport to the programme for the Beijing Games in 2008: “When I found out BMX could be part of the Olympic Games I was still an early age, probably 14 or 15. I was like: ‘That’s awesome. Someone’s going to go and compete for the gold medal. At that point I didn’t really think it could be me.”
Everything starts with picturing yourself and seeing yourself in that position, and then there’s a good chance your dream will come true.Maris Strombergs Latvia
The 2005 European junior champion, the Latvian won the senior European title three years later, at the age of 21, and followed up by taking the UCI World Championship crown in Taiyuan, China. A little over two months later, he was back in China, sporting the No1 on his star-spangled shirt in the Olympic BMX final at the Laoshan circuit.
Flying off the start ramp, he surged away from the field to win gold in a time of 36.192 and become the first ever BMX champion in the history of the Games. His explosive performance earned him the nickname of ‘The Machine’, one he was to do full justice to in subsequent years.
Responding to the pressure
In 2010 Strombergs won the BMX World Cup and a second world title in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, though he failed to make it a hat-trick at the 2011 Worlds in Copenhagen, where he finished second to France’s Joris Daudet.
That defeat did not stop the Latvian from starting out as the favourite for gold at London 2012, though he came mightily close to elimination in the heats. Explaining his close shave, he said: “I wasn’t feeling myself. I was finding it hard to handle all the expectation and the pressure of heading into the competition as the defending champion.”
When the final came around, however, he proved unstoppable. Leading right from the start ramp, he showed his rivals a clean rear wheel and safely negotiated the course to win in a time of 37.576.
His relief was palpable and was expressed by a scream as he crossed the line. “I really had a tough year… I just let it all out,” he explained. “Everything starts with picturing yourself and seeing yourself in that position, and then there’s a good chance your dream will come true. That was definitely one of my goals. It’s so much harder to defend a title than to win a title an Olympic title.”
Stombergs was given a hero’s welcome on his return to Latvia, with thousands lining the streets in his hometown of Valmiera: “We got back home late and the people were waiting at the airport. Even when I got to my home town. It was midnight. Basically the whole city was outside waiting and there was this big ceremony. It was just a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s crazy. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
As the Baltic republic’s only double Olympic champion, he is well aware of the positive influence he can have on young people, and regularly visits schools to tell children about the benefits of leading a healthy life. His message to them is a simple one: “Eat healthily, stay active and behave, even when no one’s watching you.”