- Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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On Friday morning in Beijing, BMX medal hopeful Kyle Bennett was walking through the athlete's village when superstar sprinter Tyson Gay skipped down the stairs directly in front of him. On Saturday, Bennett's teammate Donny Robinson had just climbed into an elevator when Nastia Liukin, the women's gymnastics all-around champion, vaulted in before the door could close. Jill Kintner, a standout in women's BMX, rode another elevator with the entire men's gymnastics team. And Mike Day (who at 6'3 appears much smaller on his BMX bike) spotted Dallas Mavericks power forward Dirk Nowitzki (who at 7' is larger than life on the basketball court) in the dinning hall, grabbing a NBA-sized bite to eat. "I can't believe Roger Federer is staying in the Village," Day said, bewildered. "And Michael Phelps. He was just walking around."
BMXers, welcome to the Olympics.
Until arriving in China late Thursday night, this "event" was nothing more than a shapeless idea in the minds of the Games' newest athletessomething they talked about in interviews and daydreamed about on long plane flights. Standing in the lunch line, sandwiched between an NBA star and a world-record holder, it suddenly became very real. "My first 'we're at the Olympics' moment was when we got on the bus at the airport to come to the village," Day recalls. "There was someone to take our bags and put them on the bus for us. They wouldn't let us do anything. They treated us like celebrities." And that's before Day and his teammates even competed. Of the 10,500 athletes here in Beijing, very few recognize the faces of their newest Olympic peersin fact, many never got the memo that BMX was even added to the lineup. "I met one of the track-and-field athletes, and he thought it was cool we were here," Day says. "But he didn't know BMX was in the Olympics."
Swimmer Kirstie Bell of the UK says she thinks BMX is a great addition to the Games.
KB: "They're athletes and they deserve to be in the Olympics. And it's a really fun sport to watch."
EXPN: So you've watched a BMX race?
KB: "Well, no. I've not."
EXPN: Do you know what BMX stands for?
KB: "No, I do not."
EXPN: Did you know one of the women who's favored to win is a Brit?
KB: "Yes, I did actually. Very exciting."
EXPN: Do you know Shanaze Reade?
KB: "I'm not sure. Who?"
This conversation will change come Wednesday, after the riders take their first laps around the Olympic course. The seeding races Wednesday morning and the semi-finals and finals Thursday morning will be shown live on NBC (that's 10 p.m. ET Tuesday and Wednesday, Aug. 20-21) and there's not a spot in Beijing where you can't watch live coverage of the Games. Video screens are set up outside malls, on the sides of buildings, in cabs, on the subway and, of course, in the athlete dorms. By Thursday's final, the BMXers should be the cool kids in the Village. "Right now, we're the nerds sitting by ourselves at lunch," Day says.
The biggest shock to all four riders' systems since arriving in Beijing is how much the city of has changed since they were here for their test event 11 months ago. "Where there used to be dusty, dirt lots there are now flowers and trees and beautiful statues. Everything is so green," Kintner says. "The air is cleaner. And all the buildings and stadiums were under construction when we were here, so to see it all unveiled is amazing. This is going to be a tough act [for London] to follow."
Day, Bennett and Kintner upgraded their seats to business class on the way to China, utilizing their own frequent flier miles for better food and a little extra rest. Robinson, per superstition, remained in coach-he never wins when he flies up front. No matter. For the next four days, the four U.S. riders will see little more than the insides of their dorms and the BMX track. Knowing this, they squeezed as much as they could into three short days of free time ("free time" being the brief interludes of NBC appearances, press conferences and media interviews). Friday night, they watched Usain Bolt break the world record in the 100 meters and Saturday night, Robinson, Bennett and Kintner watched gymnastics while Day headed to the Bird's Nest to watch the women's 100-meter finals. Kintner took a photo with gymnastics icon Bella Karolyi while Robinson, a former gymnast, sat awestruck watching women's vault. He's hoping to land U.S. team member Alicia Sacramone as a partner on Dancing With the Stars. Once they are done competing, all four BMXers plan to stick around until closing ceremonies, spend time touring the city with their families and friends and ride the alpine coaster at The Great Wall. "I can't wait to let loose," Day says.
But for now, they are focused on one thing: winning the inaugural Olympic BMX race. During the gymnastics medal ceremony, Robinson talked about seeing a shiny gold medal up close. U.S. fencer Mariel Zagunis, who won the first gold medal for the U.S. at these Games, brought her prize to a dinner the BMX team attended Friday night. "I didn't look at it, though," Robinson says. "I want one of my own."
Our girl Jill Kintner is blogging about her Olympic experience! Check it out right here.
When you're competing in the Olympics, maintaining a low profile can be tough...unless your sport is new to the Games.