- Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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LONDON -- To understand the sport in which BMX racer Connor Fields competes, simply scan his athlete bio.
A two-time national champion, Fields finished first in the time trial at the 2012 UCI BMX World Championships in Birmingham, U.K., and 30th in the overall standings. For every first-place finish, he lists a near miss, an eighth place, a 10th. For every DNF, there is a gold medal.
BMX racing is unpredictable. One mistake by any rider on the course can dash the gold-medal dreams of the entire field.
"That's what's great about BMX," Fields said after finishing seventh in his Olympic debut. "You never know what's going to happen."
Coming into the Olympics, no one believed the U.S. team would leave without a medal, certainly not Fields, a strong favorite for the podium in London. But that's what happened Friday afternoon. Of the five U.S. athletes who qualified for the team, only two made Friday's finals. Brooke Crain, who found out one day before the team left the United States last Wednesday that she would replace injured rider Arielle Martin, finished eighth, and Fields, the young rider from Las Vegas with two World Cup wins this season, finished seventh.
Latvian Maris Strombergs, the defending gold medalist from Beijing, made it two in a row on the men's side, and Colombian rider Mariana Pajon won the women's race. In the most unpredictable of sports, Strombergs is the only male BMX racer in the world who can call himself an Olympic gold medalist.
Friday morning before arriving at the BMX venue at Olympic Park, Crain wrote Martin's initials on the palm of her left glove, a sign of respect for the rider she replaced and a reminder that she had completed an improbable ride simply by lining up in the finals' start gate.
"I'm here to represent Arielle," Crain said. "I was just the alternate, so I'm riding for her. We had five girls who could have been in that final, and I unfortunately didn't make the [initial] cut, but I trained as if I would be here. I'm just happy to be here riding my bike."
Alise Post crashed in her third semifinal, and David Herman finished fifth in his heat. Nic Long's Olympic run ended in the quarterfinals.
To understand the sport in which these riders compete, simply scan their bodies.
As Post spoke to the media, she shook while trying to make sense of her crash and listed her long injury history over the past few years.
"I think I'm OK," she said when asked if she had suffered injuries in Friday's crash, "but the shock hasn't worn off."
As Fields dissected his race, he took off his gloves to reveal hands bloodied from an earlier spill. His left pants leg was ripped clear through to his knee pad.
"I did a good job recovering from the spill in the first heat, but I had a bad start in the final and got behind the Dutchman," Fields said. "We just didn't have a good showing this weekend. I had every intention of taking a medal. Now I just have to take it on the chin and move forward."
That, too, is what the U.S. team must do. This was a young squad. Not one BMX athlete competing in London was on the team when the sport made its Olympic debut in Beijing four years ago. Fields was a freshman in high school and watched the event online with his parents in the middle of the night. Of the five riders, only Herman and Post are old enough to drink in the U.S.
"I'm so young," Fields said. "I'm 19, and to say I represented my country in the Olympics and make the finals, that's amazing."
To understand the sport in which these riders compete, simply scan their faces.
After a day as disappointing as any of these five athletes have experienced, there was positivity and talk of the experience they will bring into Rio in 2016.
"I'm so thankful for everyone who helped me get to this point," Fields said. "Last night, I was looking out over the [athlete] village and wrote in my journal about how far I've come."
These riders did not come to London to crash. They did not come here to leave without a medal. And still, they smiled.
To understand the sport in which these riders compete, remember that.
One day you might dash through the field. The next you return home bloodied and bruised. That's what makes BMX racing so great.