Olympics: Utah BMX racer Arielle Martin takes aim at London
South Jordan • It's a bright, sunny afternoon after a rare summer rainstorm, and Arielle Martin has returned to the little BMX track where she grew up racing bikes, unknowingly laying the foundation for a remarkable journey ahead.
She hasn't been back in a while, which accounts for the entourage.
Her mother is there. So are her in-laws, various friends, and a camera crew documenting her hometown. Her husband has arrived, too, which is an especially big deal, considering he's a crew chief on a Black Hawk helicopter for the U.S. Army and frequently deployed around the world including in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But nobody, however much they love and support her, could be as elated to be here as Martin.
Not now, anyway.
Not this way.
Because for the first time since she flew down the start ramp and leaned into the hairpin curves as a kid at the RAD Canyon BMX track just south of the Old Bingham Highway, 27-year-old Arielle Martin is back as a U.S. Olympian.
Learning the hard way • There was a time when Martin feared this would never happen, that the little girl from Cedar Hills who grew up around her BMX-racing father's bike shop in Provo would never wear the red, white and blue at an Olympics and get her chance to shine on the world stage.
Four years ago, she came as close as any BMX rider could come to reaching the Beijing Olympics, without actually going.
Having led the qualification process from the start, she crashed in the quarterfinals of the final qualifying event, the world championships, and allowed her roommate and close friend Jill Kintner to surpass her by the narrowest of margins. Kintner not only had to advance out of the quarterfinals, but she also had to survive the semis and reach the final.
All to beat Martin by a single point, for the only women's berth to Beijing.
That's putting it mildly.
But "in hindsight," Martin says now, "I'm grateful that that experience happened to me, because it taught me a lot about perseverance. It taught me a lot about why I was doing this and what I wanted out of it. It's not just about me, it's about promoting my sport and it's about inspiring kids and women and showing what we can really do, what's possible. Overcoming odds, and things like that.
"Prior to Beijing," she adds, "it was kind of like all about me, I felt like, and now my perspective has changed and I really want to go to represent my country and to be a role model and an inspiration to others. I'm a better rider, I'm a better athlete. So that whole experience it was so tough to go through at the time but looking back on it now, it has made me a better person, I think."
"This is your time" • And, as she said, a better rider.
Since missing out on Beijing, Martin has finished third, fourth, fifth and eighth at the world championships until then, her best finish was a lone sixth Â and has won a couple of individual World Cup events to go with her overall title in the months after Beijing.
She has grown, along with the sport, to the point that the once-harrowing Beijing track looks "so small" compared with what the women will be riding on in London.
"Now, she's a lot more prepared for what's going to happen," Kintner says.
Kintner went on to win the bronze medal at the Beijing Olympics, the first that included BMX, the motocross-style bike racing that features riders pitted against each other in groups negotiating a 440-meter course with bumps, jumps, banked turns and in the case of the London course an innovative underpass.
Now pursuing mountain-bike racing and living in Seattle, Kintner remains close friends with Martin, who she said deserved half of the bronze medal for returning after her personal catastrophe and helping Kintner train for Beijing at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif.
The two chat frequently, and Kintner said she had "no doubt" that Martin would make it to London.
"She's been a huge supporter through all of this," Martin says, "really, really pushing and advocating. The times when I was down and disappointed, she was just like, 'This is your time. It was meant to be. It was meant to happen the way it did.' "
All worth it • But, boy â¦ it hasn't been easy.
In addition to the athletic challenge, Martin and her husband, Mike Verhaaren, are apart most of the time Â even though Martin moved three years ago to Spanaway, Wash., to be near the Fort Lewis Army base where he works. If she's not chasing a championship in Denmark, he's fixing a helicopter in Australia. If she's not training in California, he's on assignment in Bangladesh.
The couple met at a college bonfire she was attending BYU after graduating from Lone Peak High School, he was at Utah Valley and joke now that they have actually been together for not even half of the five years they've been married.
"It's not easy, for sure," Martin says. "But having the right perspective is what keeps us going. We both know that I can't decide in 10 years I want to go to the Olympics. That's just it. I'm on a timeline here. And he's understanding of that. It's now or never, and he's fully supportive of that, and he knows I'm passionate about what I do, and that's what makes it really easy for me to support him, because he loves what he does. So if he's happy doing what he's doing, then that's good for me, too."
Verhaaren says the Army was amazingly cooperative in granting him extra deployments earlier in the year, so he could have time off to attend the Olympics if Martin made it.
And when he fielded a phone call from Martin in May, after she clinched her spot in London with a fourth-place finish at the BMX World Championships, he knew it was all worth it.
"You could just hear it in her voice," he says, "all the stress and pressure was gone."
A burden lifted • It didn't disappear without putting up one last fight, though.
The night before her world championship race, Martin could not help but realize she was in exactly the same situation as four years earlier.
Leading the qualification standings, favored to make it despite several riders chasing her who she believes were all better than Kintner had been in 2008. The U.S. did have two Olympic spots available this time, but only one was automatic; the other was discretionary. You never know what might happen with one of those.
"I think it's safe to say I choked" four years ago, Martin says. "I crashed. No one crashed me. I wrecked. I lost that spot. And there was a lot of fear that night before, I was like, 'Man, I gotta keep it together tomorrow. It's all or nothing.'
"I didn't consider the possibility going into Beijing that I wouldn't make the team at all," she says. "I was like, 'Oh, I'm there.' Whereas this time around, I knew that anything could happen, and that I might not make the team. So that night before was kind of a scary night. A lot of emotions went through my mind and my head."
It required a call to her sports psychologist to talk her off the ledge.
"I kind of woke up the next morning with the intent of just leaving it all out there, leaving nothing behind," she recalls. "We kind of focused on using my whole heart as I race. I'm a racer, and I'm a fighter. And that's what I had to do that day. I really had to fight for every single position I got, and I took one lap at a time. â¦ It worked out."
And that feeling, crossing the finish line?
"Four years," she says, smiling. "Four years of that monkey on my back. It was incredible, that feeling. I haven't felt that free Â I still haven't felt that free as I did that moment."
"I got goose bumps" • Back home for a couple of days before returning to her Olympic preparations, Martin says the feeling of her achievement is still hitting her, in waves.
The most recent one struck just a couple of days earlier, when she and her husband had been invited guests to a Fourth of July celebration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, along with about a dozen other Olympians.
The composer John Williams was there, too, conducting his "Olympic Fanfare and Theme" song that has stirred the hearts of so many athletes and fans since the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
"The very first day, we were doing it for rehearsal," Martin says. "We were just standing there it was blazing hot, like 100 degrees, we're in our jackets and it's humid they started off that theme. And I got, just instantly, goose bumps. Just chills.
"And I kind of turned to the girl behind me, and I was like, 'You feel that?' â¦ It was the first time I'd heard it, as an Olympian. I'd grown up hearing that theme, dreaming that theme. But that was the first time it was for me.
"I'm a part of it now."
About Arielle Martin
The first American woman to win a BMX World Cup last year grew up in Cedar Hills, and graduated from Lone Peak High School and Brigham Young University.
Won overall BMX World Cup championship in 2008, and has finished third, fourth, fifth and eighth at World Championships since missing the Beijing Olympics.
She competes at London Olympics in seeding races Aug. 8 and in knockout rounds Aug. 10.