Pair of crashes end Willoughby’s Olympic medal hopes in BMX Racing

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TOKYO — Alise Willoughby's face was red. She had not ventured into the warmup oval near the starting line, instead choosing to ride in a straight line behind the grandstands, her husband beside her.

Willoughby of St. Cloud entered the Olympic BMX race as the reigning world champion. You would hear in her voice later that she expected to add a gold medal to the silver she won in Rio in 2016.

In the first of three semifinal heats, she had sped down the eight-foot starting ramp, heading for her first jump, and she and Switzerland's Zoe Claessens had clipped handlebars. Willoughby's bike went flying and she fell to the hard racetrack.

Then she got up and was last in her heat, calculating the rest of the race how she could get back into contention.

Racers are awarded points for their placement in each heat, so even a last-place finish after a crash didn't end her hopes. She rode her bike slowly behind the stands, with her husband, Sam Willoughby, a BMX Olympic medalist and now her coach, speaking in her left ear.

Willoughby is paralyzed after a training crash, so he rode a wheelchair fitted with handlebars, and they cruised, and calculated. Sam did most of the talking.

Willoughby would finish third in her second heat. In the third and final heat, she surged into second place, positioning herself to qualify, however improbably, for the final. In the third straightaway. she again clipped handlebars, this time with Australia's Saya Sakakibara, and again fell the the track.

"There's definitely a lot of surprises out there," Willoughby said. "I'm just really disappointed that it's ending how it is, because I know in my heart where things were really at."

Rain delayed the start of the races, and an injury to American Connor Fields delayed the heats further, as he was taken on a stretcher to a nearby ambulance.

Willoughby didn't blame the weather or delays for her crashes. She did sound curious as to why so many of the world's best racers — including reigning Olympic gold medalist Mariana Pajon of Colombia and fellow American Felicia Stancil — were placed in the same heat.

"Our semifinal was definitely a 'final' caliber,'' she said. "Sport is not always very fair. It's harsh. I put everything I had out there. I'm 150 percent proud of the effort put forth. Going into this I was ready and I know in my heart where I was truly at, and I'm disappointed I didn't get to show what I was capable of today.''

In addition to being an Olympic silver medalist (competing then as Alise Post), Willoughby entered the Tokyo Games as the reigning world champion. She won world titles in 2017 and 2019. She finished 2020 as the world's top-ranked rider.

As she rode alongside her husband after her first fall, she said he told her, "basically that things were a mess out there. We had a final as a semifinal and points were mixed up and it was just time to stay in the race. I was doing my job well, but luck wasn't on my side today.''

Willoughby is 30, and three years away from the next Olympics BMX race. She said she hadn't thought about her future.

Had she talked to Sam, after the third heat and second fall?

"Not yet," she said. "I saw him, coming around the track. But right now there's not much more to say."

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