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Would she go for it again? That was the big question at the Ariake Urban Sports Park on Sunday. Having attempted a sensational ‘360 backflip’ on her first run in the women's Olympic BMX Freestyle final, only to fall, Britain’s Charlotte Worthington had two choices.
She could rein it in a bit, play it safe on her second (and final) run, and simply try to secure silver or bronze. There would be no shame in that. The American Hannah Roberts, winner of three of the last four world titles and a heavy favourite coming here, had just thrown down a massive 96.10 on her first run before throwing her bike to the ground in celebration. Roberts clearly believed she had it sewn up. So did most those watching in the arena. Worthington’s second option was to go for broke again.
But really, there was no choice. "It's been gold medal or nothing this whole journey,” Worthington explained later when asked whether she felt it had been a gamble to go for the 360 backflip again. “It's ‘go big or go home’.
“I've learned competing that if you gamble and give yourself that chance, it will pay off better than if you hold back and wonder what could have been.”
Worthington, who was working full-time as a chef at a Mexican restaurant in Chorlton when BMX Freestyle was added to the Olympics in 2017, was not going to die wondering. With Guns n Roses’ ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ blaring from the speakers, she prepared to unleash the beast she had been working on in secret for months.
A 360 backflip - unlike a regular backflip - sees the rider take off, do a backflip, but also spin 360 degrees through a horizontal plane at the same time. No woman had ever landed one before in competition. At the second time of asking, under huge pressure, and on the biggest stage of her life, Worthington absolutely nailed it.
This was what she had been training for at Adrenaline Alley in Corby throughout lockdown. This was why British Cycling had built a replica of the Tokyo track in a huge warehouse in Telford. They only completed it in early June, giving Worthington and team-mate Declan Brooks no more than a few weeks to practice. But that was all she needed.
Worthington had told Telegraph Sport in January that whoever won Olympic gold was going to have to unveil something with “wow factor”, something never seen before. No one had seen this before.
Unlike the men’s winner Logan Martin, who posts all his tricks on Instagram, Worthington kept hers under wraps. “I like to keep my cards close to my chest as it pays off in these situations,” she said. “[But] I've been all-in since doing that trick and there was no way I wasn't going to try it. It was a huge relief landing it. I sort of zoned out for the rest of the run.”
She might have zoned out but the atmosphere her trick created was absolutely electric. It is one of the great tragedies of these Games that no fans are allowed inside the venues to watch these amazing athletes up close. But they are doing their best.
Hundreds had congregated on nearby Yunikamome Bridge, watching over the top of the grandstand, straining to catch a glimpse of Japanese BMX superstar Rim Nakamura. When Worthington landed her trick, and the commentators went berserk, and Guns n Roses were doing their thing, they erupted. Worthington was given a 97.5 by the judges. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen that awarded before,” admitted the men’s winner Logan Martin later on. “That was unreal.”
Poor old Roberts, who having mentally checked out had to get her head back on and try to go again. It was no surprise when the 19-year-old pulled up early in her second run, having aggravated a foot injury on a tricky landing, her withdrawal prompting wild celebrations from Worthington and her coach, former X Games star Jamie Bestwick.
Roberts must have been crushed but she just seemed happy for her rival. It seems a trait with these urban sports in general. Less hostile, more supportive of each other, just having more fun generally. We saw it at the BMX racing as well.
“Charlie (Worthington) did some crazy things,” Roberts smiled after the podium ceremony. “I’m super stoked for her, there’s nobody else I’d rather take second to than Charlotte. She absolutely killed it.”
Quite what impact all this precious metal has on the sport back in the UK remains to be seen. Declan Brooks’s bronze a few minutes later was just as incredible in its own way. The standard in the men’s sport is clearly unbelievably high; front flips, back flips, flares. Martin - an X Games star with his own track in his garden - even landed an extraordinary no-handed front flip. It was mesmeric.
At the very least it has vindicated British Cycling’s decision to diversify its medal strategy. Heading to the velodrome on Monday, Britain’s cyclists have five medals in the bank already, three of them gold. Worthington, a perfect case study in the transformative power of elite sports funding, having only taken up BMX seriously at the age of 20, is the latest. “I hope our success encourages other children and particularly girls to get into BMX,” she said. “It’s an incredible sport.” She won’t be going back to the Mexican then? “I bloody hope not.”
Exclusive: Britain’s BMX freestyle riders prepared for Tokyo in secret warehouse which housed replica of Olympic course
Britain’s BMX Freestyle riders spent their last few weeks preparing for Tokyo 2020 in a secret warehouse in Telford where a replica of the Ariake Urban Sports Park track was built earlier this year, Telegraph Sport can reveal.
Charlotte Worthington and Declan Brooks, both 25, became Team GB’s latest BMX sensations on Sunday when they took gold and bronze respectively in the Freestyle.
Their medals came just two days after Beth Shriever and Kye Whyte took gold and silver in the BMX racing. What with Tom Pidcock's gold in the mountain biking on Monday, British Cycling have now won five medals in total, including three gold, before the track competition even gets going in Izu on Monday.
Worthington’s win came after she landed a stunning ‘360 backflip’ early in her second and final run, having crashed while attempting it on her first.
She might not have had the confidence to do it had she not had access to an exact replica of the Ariake track, built in the space of four weeks in May and early June, not long after the Tokyo 2020 course design was made public in April. It is understood the facility was made available to the riders on June 8. Worthington admitted to reporters after her gold medal that she had not been practising the move for long.
The facility cost around £500,000 to build and was funded out of Places to Ride, a £15million legacy programme set up after the Road World Championships in Yorkshire in 2019.
The fund is jointly managed by British Cycling, Sport England and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and aims to boost participation in cycling.
Around a quarter of the money, £3.6million, has gone to BMX-related projects with Corby’s Adrenaline Alley - one of the best BMX facilities in Europe and where Worthington and Brooks usually train - and Harrow Pump Track among dozens of grassroots facilities and clubs in England to have secured investment.
The rest of the money needed to make the Telford facility ready for elite riders such as Worthington and Brooks, plus the warehouse rental costs, which are understood to be somewhere between £30,000 and £40,000 a month, was paid for out of the World Class Programme.
The idea is it will now be handed over to the local community. A tendering process is underway with the winning bidder effectively getting the track free of charge on condition they make it available to the Great Britain Cycling team on a set number of days per year, plus commit to developing the sport at a grassroots level.
The Telford location was apparently chosen because it was one of the few available and affordable warehouses in the country, large enough to house a 50m x 33m track, and not already occupied by Amazon.
It clearly made a competitive difference to Worthington and Brooks.
The hope is it will now make a difference to children in the West Midlands. There was some pushback before Christmas when UK Sport announced it was cutting funding in the next Olympic cycle for what were perceived to be 'posh' sports such as rowing, equestrianism and modern pentathlon.
But Worthington, who grew up in Manchester and honed her scooter and BMX skills at skate parks like Platt Fields, Beast Rampz, and Bones, told Telegraph Sport earlier this year that she felt it was important to make room for urban sports which inner-city children were more likely to take part in, such as skateboarding and BMX.
“I’m no expert on [the funding] side of things,” she said. “What I will say, though, is that it’s incredibly important – now more than ever with coronavirus having impacted on so many inner city kids’ ability to get out and exercise – that children in urban areas can be inspired by what we’re doing.
“That’s why I think it’s great that BMX freestyle is an Olympic sport now. The exposure it’s getting is going to open it up to so many people. It’s awesome to be at the forefront of that.”