The risk was immense and the fall was brutal.
Charlotte Worthington was attempting a feat never before tried in women’s BMX freestyle competition – a 360 degree backwards loop-the-loop which she’d only practiced three times before on this wooden Olympic surface.
She fractionally rushed it – ‘I was probably a little bit giddy and span a little bit too early,’ she said in the aftermath – and ended up clipping the lip of the bank she was landing into, plummeting from her bike.
Charlotte Worthington has taken gold for Team GB in the women’s freestyle BMX with the first ever 360 backflip
The British celebrates after a sensational second run which saw her earn a monster score of 97.50
Worthington pictured with her gold medal during the ceremony after the women’s event
That very much seemed to be the end of an Olympic dream for the 25-year-old, who was cooking up fajitas in a Mexican restaurant in Manchester four years ago.
But the 25-year-old threw herself into the somersault again second time around, taking a gold medal in a final where the best of two scores counted. Team-mate Declan Brooks then took bronze in a monumentally competitive men’s event.
‘There was no way I wasn’t going to try that trick second time. I was all in on doing that one, Worthington reflected. ‘As soon we set the goal of gold medal, it was go big or go home.’
The ‘360 back-flip’ was just one part of a routine of unerring balance, athleticism and artistry which took Worthington to a score of 97.50, surpassing American teenage prodigy Hannah Roberts who threw down her bike in jubilation after a seemingly untouchable first round routine.
Worthington missed her first attempt at the 360 but recovered to get back on her bike
The Brit beat the much favoured American rider Hannah Roberts, who took the silver medal
The vocabulary of this new sport might be new – the ‘can-can’, ‘leg plant’ and ‘one-handed table top’ all feature – but it was mesmerising: part of an Olympics seeking to broaden its appeal.
Worthington, beginning her routine at the highest point of the course, threw herself into a forward roll on a bike. But the back flip through a full revolution – the Yurchenko double pike vault of BMX – was the big one. Worthington had tested it out only on foam and resin at British Cycling’s BMX base, known as ‘Adrenalin Alley’, at Corby, Northamptonshire. Applying it to unyielding wood, another challenge entirely, is something she’s done out here.
‘I’ve been working on it a few months,’ Worthington said, with her gold medal around her neck. ‘I keep my cards close to my chest because it definitely pays off in these situations.
‘I’ve also learned on the years prior to this that if you gamble – and you give yourself that chance – it’s going to pay off better and going to feel better if you hold off and think what could have been.’
Her arm hurt when she fell. In the crisis point between runs, team GB BMX coach Jamie Bestwick also reminded her of the team’s yogic mantra – ‘Breathe’ –.
The unyielding heat of this venue didn’t help. Temperatures were some of the highest experienced at the Olympics. Team GB had prepared for this by turning up the heaters at Adrenalin Alley to 25C but they could not replicate a searing Tokyo sun, reflected off the course’s bright surface.
Worthington and her team celebrate after her gold medal in the comeptition is confirmed
But Worthington has given four years of her life to get here, since leaving her job at the Beagle Mexican restaurant in Chorlton, South Manchester. Back in her cheffing days, riding BMX bikes and scooters was a hobby and the notion of them being an Olympic sport wasn’t remotely possible.
There’s no obvious sporting gene in Worthington’s family. Her dad, John, is a self-employed gardener. Mum, Sarah, is supply teacher. But she has benefited from the fact British Cycling identified BMX and mountain biking as new avenues for Olympic success, as the dominance enjoyed for so long in the velodrome comes under threat.
UK Sport had initially denied funding to the men’s mountain bike and women’s BMX for this cycle. When British Cycling performance director Stephen Park successfully lobbied for a reallocation of money to BMX, it was envisaged that medals may flow in the 2024 Paris Olympics. But Great Britain have immediately taken gold medals in three of the new cycling disciplines, with four medals in BMX.
Brooks’ bronze was just as remarkable. He was knocked unconscious attempting his biggest trick in the world championships in Montpellier, France, on June 7.
‘That one is always just sitting at the back of my head and that’s why I put it right at the start of my run because I wanted to get it out of the way,’ said the 25-year-old, whose attempts to make ends meet have included work as a stunt rider for the 2018 film ‘Mary Poppins Returns.’
Brooks’ tactical decision to keep his biggest combination of routines back meant he scored modestly in Saturday’s heat. It meant he was one of the early riders in the final. He has an agonising ten-minute wait to be sure bronze was his. Australian Martin Logan and Venezuelan Daniel Dhers took gold and silver.
The Brit praised rival Roberts before moving to the Ariake Urban Sports Park to cheer on fellow Brit Declan Brooks in the men’s event
The freestylers’ success has the potential to bring more people into forms of cycling with a far broader social background than track or road cycling. ‘For the kids at home watching you’ve just got to pick up a bike and have fun with it, because that’s what I did, ,’ Brooks reflected. ‘If you want to come in this direction, great. If you don’t, it’s fine. Just have fun with your bike.’
Someone wondered if this meant Worthington’s days making fajitas and burritas in the Beagle were now over. ‘I bloody hope so!’ she said.
Worthington then moved to the stands at the Ariake Urban Sports Park to cheer on fellow Brit Declan Brooks in the men’s event.
The 25-year-old pulled off two big front flips in his second run to improve on an initial score of 89.40, with his 90.80 putting him in provisional second.
He would be dislodged by the veteran Daniel Dhers as the Venezuelan, 36, posted a 92.05, with neither man able to match Logan Martin.
The Australian highlighted his first run with a no-handed front flip, scoring 93.30, and he began his second knowing gold was already in the bag, sitting up to celebrate early after slipping a pedal.