- Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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Corben Sharrah laughed as he remembered his first time.
"It was three years ago," he said. "I was 16. It was the first time I was ever nervous about something."
For a few moments, he was frozen, unable to move.
"I was just sitting on my bike, staring down the hill," he said. "Then Vance Wiesendanger, another rider, rode up next to me and said, 'You can't sit up here too long. You gotta go.'"
Against the better wishes of his prefrontal cortex -- the part of the brain that controls reasoning and regulates impulses to do things like pedal down a 28-degree slope at 40 mph -- Sharrah dropped down the massive start hill and hit the first jump.
"I felt like I was flying like a bird," he said. "It was so peaceful in the air, such a free feeling. I wasn't nervous anymore. I've been hooked ever since."
That was three years ago and Sharrah was coming off a successful amateur racing career. Today, he is on the short list to make the three-man team that will represent the sport of BMX racing in the London Olympics. It's been a fast ascent from nascent pro to Olympic hopeful. But that's the only speed Sharrah knows.
The young boy with the daredevil attitude
Dressed in a red, white and blue USA BMX riding jersey and the only Red Bull helmet on the track, Sharrah is at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., to take part in a two-week training camp in preview of the upcoming UCI World Cup race and BMX Nationals at the end of March.
He woke up at 6:30 a.m., was in the dining hall by 7 and, at 10, is already midway through his first riding session of the day. In the afternoon, he'll work out then ride the course again in the evening, when he will focus on his starts, holding speed over the jumps and choosing the best lines around the turns. This is Sharrah's third stay at the center in the past 365 days, and each time he arrives he finds himself staring at that start hill. It's hard to believe just four years ago he had never even seen a Supercross track.
In June 2008, the sport of BMX racing was set to make its Olympic debut in a month and a half. Sharrah (his last name rhymes with "hurrah") was on summer break from Amphitheater High in Tucson, Ariz., where he'd be a sophomore in the fall. He was still racing in the junior division and a year from having his driver's license, so he asked his dad, Jack, to take him to watch the U.S. Olympic trials. Chula Vista was a six-and-a-half-hour drive from their house, so they packed up the car and drove east on a Saturday afternoon.
"When I saw the track, I was in awe," Sharrah said of the mega-sized Supercross track. "I couldn't believe there was something like this out there to ride. I'd always loved hitting big jumps, but I didn't know guys raced over them. I thought, 'There's no way anyone rides this course.' Then the guys came out and raced and my jaw dropped. Right then, I was inspired to get to this level."
When he returned home, Sharrah started supersizing the practice track he had been building and riding on since he was 5 in the one-acre lot his parents owned next to their house. The course is where he first learned to jump and fell in love with the feeling of flying over dirt.
"When Corben was 3, he started building ramps in our front yard," said his mother, Karen.
The neighborhood kids, all much older than Corben, soon noticed the young boy with the daredevil attitude and preternatural bikehandling skills and told him he should come out to the local racetrack, Manzanita BMX Raceway.
"When he was 4, he found a phone number he thought was for the track and started calling it on his own," Karen said. "A lady finally called me and said, 'Excuse me, but your son keeps calling my house. I do not own a BMX track.' We decided it was time to take him to the track."
It took one lap for Corben to realize he loved jumping in the yard, but he also had a passion for racing. He moved his jumps from the front yard to the open lot and began shaping the dirt with a shovel until he created a mini racetrack. Every morning, he woke up and went straight to his track. Within a few months, BMX racing was a Sharrah family affair. Karen, Jack and Corben's three older siblings -- Jacob, now 22, Kim, 24, and Cassondra, 27 -- all began spending their weekends at the track.
"When he was 5, Corben told us he was going to go from novice to intermediate to expert level before he was 6, and he did it," Karen said. "He made expert just before his sixth birthday. He has always been one to set his goals very high."
By time Corben turned 8, his parents decided his track was too big to continue building by hand, so they bought him a tractor and upgraded it with a bigger engine when he was 13.
"But it's not like we live out in the country," Corben said. "We live in the middle of the city, five minutes from downtown Tucson and across the street from my middle and high schools."
Everyone in the neighborhood knew Corben as that kid with the BMX track who drove the streets in his tractor.
"Even when he was 8 or 9, his friends were 15 and 16," his mother said. "He could jump things at that age; they couldn't jump, so they'd come to the house to ride with him."
Over the next few years, the flood of riders slowed to a trickle, then stopped altogether; he built up the track to a point that it was too difficult for anyone else to ride. It was like being the only kid with a swimming pool in a town in which no one else knows how to swim.
'If he sets a goal, it's going to happen'
After returning home from Chula Vista, Corben watched the 2008 Olympics on TV and saw Mike Day and Donny Robinson take silver and bronze medals for the United States and started visualizing himself standing atop the podium. At the same time, those in charge of USA Cycling's BMX program realized while their 2008 showing was solid, it hadn't done much thinking past Beijing.
"We were a new program without a lot of depth," said Mike King, USA Cycling BMX program director. "The hardest years were post-Beijing. So we developed a program to identify talent and, in 2009, also created a women's program. Today, we have five or six guys who could win a gold medal in London. We couldn't say that before Beijing. We created depth. That's a luxury other countries don't have right now."
When the organization began targeting young riders, Sharrah topped that list. In the summer of 2009, it invited him to take part in an elite junior camp at the training center in Chula Vista. He worked with USA coaches and rode alongside some of the riders he watched in the trials the summer before.
Then the kid who told his folks he would be an expert by 6 started setting new goals: to turn pro, win a World Cup race, earn big-time sponsorships and make the 2012 Olympic team. In early 2010, he turned pro and was named American Bicycle Association Rookie Pro of the Year by season's end. GT Bikes signed him to its pro team, and he later won a national championship and his first UCI World Cup race by the middle of 2011.
"The beauty of Corben is the guy can manifest anything he puts his mind to," said BMX coach Greg Romero, who coached Day and Olympic bronze medalist Jill Kintner leading up to the Beijing Games and has been working with Sharrah since 2010. "He is so powerful in that way. If he sets a goal, it is going to happen."
He was manifesting it all, checking goals off his list like grocery items. But at times, he wondered, "Can I get any better than this?" Sharrah was riding as well as he ever had, winning elite races on the best courses against the best riders in the world. Was there anything left in the reserve tank? He wasn't sure. For years, his improvement had been so steady and so steep, he wondered if he reached his plateau. Then at the 2011 world championships in Copenhagen, Denmark, a rider crashed in front of him, causing him to crash as well. He flew over the bike and his right leg took the initial impact.
"I'd never really broken a bone," he said. "I'd dislocated a couple fingers, but when I hit the ground, I knew something was wrong. My right leg was bent and wrapped around my other leg. I knew better than to look at it."
Medics ran onto the course and carried Sharrah off the track; they then stabilized his leg, lifted him onto a spine board and carried him to the medical trailer to wait for an ambulance. At the hospital, X-rays confirmed what everyone feared: His femur was broken. The break was so clean and complete, the impact so violent, it caused the bottom half of his femur to shift to the right. Then, the muscles in his leg tightened and pulled the bottom half of the bone up toward his hip until the two halves of his femur were positioned side by side like matchsticks.
"At first, they didn't put me all the way under," he said. "They gave me an epidural, but I could hear and feel grinding and pulling. I told the nurse, 'I need to be knocked out.' The next thing I remember, I woke up with a rod in my leg."
A broken femur typically requires six months of recovery time. With the Olympics one year away, Corben knew he didn't have that luxury. "I wanted to cut that time in half," he said. "I couldn't change what happened. I could only focus on taking little steps to get better."
For the next few months, every day was a climb, every workout a new milestone. Two days after surgery, he walked with crutches. Two weeks later, he walked into his doctor's office in Arizona without them. At three weeks, he was back on his road bike, and at the month-and-a-half mark he was in the gym lifting and training harder than ever.
"Corben responds really well to a challenge," Romero said. "He's stronger than he was before the crash. We do strength testing every month, and his numbers are through the roof."
Sharrah recently measured a 38-inch vertical leap -- the same as Lakers star Kobe Bryant -- and at 6-foot he can dunk a basketball two-handed.
"As a coach, I'm blessed," Romero said. "I never had to be positive for him after the accident, because he was positive from the start. He always viewed his injury as an opportunity."
Almost four months to the day after his crash, Corben returned to racing at an ABA National in Tulsa, Okla., and was signed by Red Bull in October, the final sponsor on his dream sponsorship list. In February 2012, he was one of five men named to Team USA's funded team for the first two World Cup races of the year, including the race that brought him to Chula Vista for training camp.
As he stares up at that start hill, he knows every race is an opportunity to prove he deserves a spot on the Olympic team, which will be named in less than three months.
At the World Cup at the end of March, Corben finished second in the qualifying time trials but was knocked out in the semifinals. The next day, he finished seventh at nationals. It's not the return to elite-level racing he'd hoped for, but it's a start.
"An experience like this shows you who you are and what kind of toughness you've got," he said. "I could have just given up and a lot of people would have understood if I did. It's taken a lot of work and determination to get back here, but I wouldn't have been OK with giving up."
Not this close to the biggest finish line of his career.