- Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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BEIJING -- Two months ago, Mike Day made the biggest decision of his six-year BMX racing career. He skipped the world championships in China and remained at the Olympic training center in Chula Vista, Calif., to train on the course known as "The Duplicate," an exact replica of the Olympic BMX course in Beijing.
U.S. trials were coming up in June, and the 22-year-old Day believed a win there was his only shot at making the team. Kyle Bennett, the third-ranked rider in the world, had already qualified on points, and Day's biggest remaining competition, world No. 1 Donny Robinson, seemed a lock for the coaches' pick.
Day decided the extra training time was worth passing up a shot at winning his first world championship. "It was either the smartest or the stupidest decision of my life," Day said back in June.
After he dominated at trials, his decision seemed very smart. But after his performance on the opening day of Olympic competition Wednesday morning, it seemed brilliant.
Day not only had the fastest time of 35.692 in the morning's two time trials, but he was also the only rider to win all three of his quarterfinal heats and qualify for Thursday's semifinals in first place overall. "Today was a good day," Day said while hanging out in the athlete hospitality suite with his dad, cousin Meghan and her husband, Seth, who were wearing bright yellow "Mike Day Fan Club" T-shirts designed by Day's U.S. teammate Jill Kintner.
"Mike made a big statement by skipping the world championships to train," said Andy Lee of USA Cycling. "Today, it was obvious the time and work was worth it."
Day's performance was nothing short of spectacular, especially in a sport as volatile as BMX racing -- and on a super-sized supercross course designed for carnage. The two fastest riders in the women's field, Shanaze Reade of Great Britain and Anne-Caroline Chausson of France, each crashed in one of their two time trials. Bennett went down hard in his third of three quarterfinal heats and is questionable for Thursday's semifinals.
In that heat, Dutch rider Raymon van der Biezen was leading the pack out of the first turn when he lost control of his bike and slid out in front of Bennett. After several minutes of medical attention -- the U.S. team doctor had to pop Bennett's dislocated left shoulder back into place -- he got back on his bike and rode, one-handed, through the finish. Bennett qualified into the next round on the strength of his first and second heats, but his coaches say he's a "game-time decision" for Thursday's semifinal.
"Structurally, he's fine," Lee said. "But it will be a question of how much pain he can take tomorrow."
Bennett's teammates believe pain won't be an issue.
"This is the Olympics," Day said. "He came here to race. He'll be there."
As will the other three members of Team USA, and three men will race in the same semifinal heat. Robinson finished third in his quarterfinal heat (the top four riders in each heat qualify into semifinals) and Kintner, the only female on the U.S. team, qualified seventh out of 16 riders. Her qualifying time of 37.913 was more than a second faster than her personal best on this track.
"I was nervous before my first run," Kintner said while walking her bike through the fan section, stopping every three feet to pose for a photo or sign an autograph. "But after that, I felt good."
Nerves were running high for more than just the athletes. The addition of BMX is the most recent attempt to "youthanize" the Olympics, and the sport is expected to draw a new, younger, hipper audience.
Organizers are banking on BMX doing for the Summer Games what snowboarding has done for the Winter Olympics. But it's taken snowboarding 12 years to create an international fan base and star athletes who are recognized around the world. BMX is expected to thrill right out of the gate.
"We were all a little nervous at first," Lee said. "I didn't see the TV broadcast, but the drama and excitement that was expected to translate to TV was there in person."
In other words: So far, the sport is delivering.
"It's so exciting," said USA triathlete Sarah Haskins, who made the early morning trek to the Laoshan BMX venue, about an hour west of the Olympic Green, to support the team. "I can't believe eight people go down that drop and make that turn. My sport involves cycling, but nothing like this."
Seated just a few rows below Haskins was BMX legend Bob Haro, who founded the Haro Bicycle Corporation in 1978 and recently designed the blue checkerboard Nike kicks the U.S. BMX team wore Wednesday.
"I'm a first-generation guy, and in the beginning our sport was so obscure. It was such a humble, backyard sport," he said. "To see the TV coverage, the media, the fans -- and the respect -- it's amazing."
And that's just after Day 1.
Alyssa Roenigk is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.