It’s been a big year for Hannah Roberts—and not just because the 19-year-old from Buchanan, Michigan, became the first American to qualify for BMX freestyle, which makes its debut at the Tokyo Games this summer.
That achievement, of course, isn’t one Roberts, who began riding BMX at the age of nine, takes lightly.
She punched her ticket to Tokyo in February, months before the qualification period was initially set to end. It was an exclamation point on a career that between 2019 and 2020 saw her win all three world cup events, her second world championship and a Pan American Games gold medal.
But after the pandemic hit in early 2020—and ground her jam-packed competition schedule to a halt—Roberts embarked on a year of personal betterment off her bike. Like many of us during quarantine, she adopted a puppy, Koda, to join her other dog, Cash. She bought her first house in October, in Jacksonville, North Carolina. She and girlfriend Kelsey Miller got engaged over Thanksgiving and were married at New Year’s.
It’s been a big year for Roberts; but now that the competitive BMX freestyle season has officially resumed—Roberts earned her third world title in the women’s BMX park world championships final Monday in Montpellier, France—she’s dialed in. And she’s standing on the foundation she and her family have built through the hardships of the last year.
“Just being able to have a home base and a place to call my own, it’s definitely holding me more accountable,” Roberts said. “My wife is amazing. She makes me eat right and work out when I’m supposed to. That helps on days I’m struggling to get out of bed or going through my lows. Even when I’m too tired to drive to a training center, she’ll drive me and sit there and call out tricks.”
When BMX freestyle debuts at the Tokyo Games in July, it will be the first time many around the world have seen the sport—BMX racing has been part of the program since the 2008 Beijing Games, but the freestyle side has been growing rapidly over the last five years when it was announced it would added to Tokyo.
It will also, unfortunately, be the first time many are even hearing of the sport’s top women—Roberts, fellow Americans Perris Benegas and Chelsea Wolfe, Great Britain’s Charlotte Worthington, Germany’s Lara Lessman, Switzerland’s Nikita Ducarroz and many more.
Momentum was building for women’s BMX freestyle through the events held in the Olympic qualification window beginning November 1, 2018—but Covid-19 put all those events on hold for more than a year and a half.
Roberts’ world championship title that she secured Monday came 19 months after her previous international competition—also the world championships, also a win.
The other two action sports debuting in Tokyo, skateboarding and surfing, have made enormous strides over the last five years in gender equality, including equal participation, equal prize purses and major sponsorship opportunities. But women’s BMX freestyle is still playing catch-up.
“Having BMX [freestyle] in the Olympics is huge for us because we don’t get equal prize pay; I think there are only three events that pay equally,” Roberts said. “It’s better than nothing; having it where it has to be equal is more helpful to get younger girls in the sport.”
Fellow American Perris Benegas, 25, has also qualified for Tokyo and will join Roberts in introducing the sport to the world at large—and also, quite possibly, on the podium.
This past year has been the biggest for companies to start sponsoring women’s BMX riders because of the upcoming Olympics, Robert says. In the U.S. in particular, where the federal government does not subsidize the national team, Olympic hopefuls depend on sponsors to train full-time.
In April, Roberts announced she had joined Team Milk, which is sponsoring three other Olympic hopefuls who are competing in new or returning sports: Maurio McCoy (skateboarding), Cat Osterman (softball) and Ariel Torres (karate).
“To have something for the younger generations to look forward to like riding for Team Milk or whoever they want to, it’s gonna get more people into the sport and push the progression,” Roberts said. “Without Team Milk I would have a normal job because of paying bills and trying to be responsible. I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity they have allowed me to have.”
Not all food and beverage sponsorships can tout that they provide athletes a direct benefit to their training, but the calcium in milk keeps Roberts’ bones strong—important for a sport with a high injury rate. “It’s delicious, it helps me ride, it helps fuel my training sessions,” Roberts said.
Roberts is unquestionably a trailblazer of the sport in America. And she’s not afraid to push herself to—and sometimes past—her limits to maintain her status as the gold medal favorite heading into Tokyo.
Just look at her history in the sport. After being inspired by her cousin, Brett Banasiewicz, a professional BMX rider, to take up the sport at eight, a fracture to her T4 vertebra at age 10 from a fall off a six-foot ramp left her in a back brace for a month.
After her recovery, she entered her first competition at the age of 12—and very few women have been able to keep up with her since.
The first woman to land a 360 tailwhip in competition, Roberts is continually progressing the women’s side and looking to add to her repertoire of tricks to stay on top.
She’s also been working on a few new under-wraps tricks she hopes to work into her Olympics run; only she and her coach know about them.
“Now I’m just taking my time and dialing everything in,” Roberts said. “I have a few big flip whips and a front flip I want to do at the Olympics if I can figure out where to do them.”
There’s a particular trick Roberts hopes to debut at the Olympics she did land once, but it didn’t count, she says, because her foot hit the ground when she did it. She’s also taken her fair share of falls on it and even dislocated her shoulder attempting it; but when it comes to the Olympics, Roberts’ philosophy is to just send it.
“Hannah continues to be a force to be reckoned with in the world of BMX freestyle,” said Yin Woon Rani, CEO of MilkPEP. “More importantly, she continues to pave the path for future female athletes in her sport. She is a true role model, and we could not be more honored to play a role in her training and performance.”
Roberts’ hope is that after BMX freestyle wows the world on the Olympic stage, other competitions will have no choice but to make its prize purses gender equal—or simply offer a women’s competition, period.
The Olympic qualification structure under UCI, the world governing body of cycling, has created more opportunities for women to compete alongside men in world cups and world championships. The first-ever UCI urban world championship 2017 had prize parity.
But private competitions don’t necessarily have to offer equal opportunity. X Games has held women’s BMX demos in the past, but it has yet to offer women a medal event.
But there has been progress; in 2018, Vans BMX Pro Cup announced equal prize money for men and women—$25,000 paid out for each gender. USA BMX Freestyle, which is under the USA BMX umbrella as the racing association in America for BMX, is also instituting a network of amateur BMX contests across the U.S. to develop and target talent. The end goal is to increase access and get more kids—and especially girls—on bikes.
“There are a lot of women and some men who are extremely good but they can’t afford to do everything that other people can, so they have to get a job—and without that full-time dedication and focus it is super hard to get good in the sport.” Roberts said. “After the Olympics, I’m excited to see companies pick up younger kids and get their process started earlier.”