by Steven Sanchez
The year 2020 has undoubtedly been a rough one for everybody. I don’t need to make a list of what has transpired during the last few months that hasn’t already been talked about, and thrown in our faces every day. It’s been quite an adjustment for all the people who have had to cope with just existing in this first year of the new decade. Some have found a way to thrive; some, unfortunately, have had a tough time. There are those who are just taking it day by day, and taking the good with the bad. For Valley resident and Olympic BMX rider, Brooke Crain, this year has been one heck of a ride.
The Visalia resident has thrived in a sport where the track has nothing but obstacles, ranging from hills to jumps to turns. For Brooke, her whole life has been a track full of impediments from the moment she decided to take up the sport as a kid after watching her brother race on their local BMX track in Tulare. She has faced criticism for participating in a non-conventional sport for a girl (she turned pro at 15), and has represented women in a sport that is mostly male dominated. Before the 2016 Rio Games, she broke a leg; a year later, she missed the World Championships held in America, due to a lacerated liver. At the 2018 World Championships, she crashed in the final and finished eighth. She was training for the games in Tokyo that would have taken place this year until the pandemic hit.
Not only is she a woman representing a sport that’s predominately male, but she is one of the few athletes who is out in BMX. In September 2018, she revealed her engagement to Australian BMX racer Rachel Jones on social media . They were supposed to get married this October but had to postpone it due to the virus. And then the unthinkable: Brooke lost her father to suicide.
Everyone is confronting their own set of challenges with all that’s taking place in the world, and maybe we can learn a thing or two from Brooke as we all race to the finish line of this lockdown. That’s why it was an honor to get the opportunity to speak with Brooke about female representation in BMX, her LGBTQ advocacy in the sport, how she is dealing with the pandemic, and how she personally handles adversity while she’s still on course for the most important ride of her life.
KRL: You got into BMX because you saw your brother do it. When you first took up the sport what was your approach in the beginning? I ask because I have a twin, so I know what sibling rivalry is like when it comes to sports. Were you trying to be just as good as he was, or was the goal to be better than he?
BC: When I first started I actually was terrified. I made my parents run alongside me holding the back of my shirt multiple times before I would try it on my own. I always wanted to be like my older brother, so anything he was doing I wanted to try too.
KRL: In hindsight, what was it like having a brother there to help you out with the sport? What were the advantages of having him by your side that separated you from the competition?
BC: I for sure wouldn’t be the rider I am today if it weren’t for him and his friends constantly pushing me to do things I wasn’t capable of . But by trying over and over it only made me a better rider. I grew up riding with boys so that definitely worked to my advantage.
KRL: You’re from Visalia. With all the open land the Valley has to offer, you’d think there’d be a lot of BMX and motocross athletes coming from this area, but there aren’t. Except for Tony Hoffman. When you were developing a name for yourself in the sport, did you feel pressure to represent Visalia and the Central Valley in a good light, considering you were one of the very few figures representing the area?
BC: I think it was for sure more challenging growing up in the Valley. We didn’t have many people at the top level from here, especially my age and especially not girls. So growing up, I was always doing things with boys. Which, as I said before, I think helped me but also was hard because I never had people my own speed to go up against here at home. I’ve always taken pride in being able to say I made it to the top of my sport being from a small area like Visalia.
KRL: In your own words, how would you describe the Central Valley?
BC: I would just say it’s home. It’s what has made me. I’m not sure I’d be the athlete, rider or person I am today if I would have grown up anywhere else.
KRL: It still bothers me to have a conversation about female representation. You probably get asked it a lot. Around the time you started riding I don’t recall there being many woman BMX riders, and if there were, none achieved enough popularity to be household names. What was it like not having many role models to look up to in the sport, and having to be your own mentor?
BC: I for sure still had role models, and girls in the sport who I looked up to and wanted to be just like. They just weren’t from here. Some of them I now consider really close friends, which is kind of crazy to think about.
KRL: During those years as you were coming up in the sport did you ever feel fully accepted?
BC: No. I never felt accepted for who I am until 2018, and I still have my days and moments.
KRL: This is an area that prides itself on sports and agriculture. When it comes to sports, for guys it’s football, baseball, basketball, and wrestling. For girls, it’s volleyball and softball. BMX is a rarity. What was it like during your formative years, telling your classmates that you were a girl involved in BMX?
BC: I got left out of a lot growing up because nobody really understood why I couldn’t make a sleep over or go to a party on a Friday night. It wasn’t until later into high school that my few close friends really got what I was doing and why I had to miss out on so much.
KRL: Being from the Valley, sometimes you feel this area is the center of the universe., When you travel, you see there’s a whole new world outside your own. What was the traveling like and how did it shape your outlook on life, in comparison to the world you knew back home?
BC: I will forever be so grateful for all the places my bike has taken me. I have close friends all over the world. My fiancé is Australian and I met her while we were at a race in Germany. I mean I wouldn’t change one bit about my life and all that BMX has given me. I always enjoyed coming home to our small town and getting the local stuff that you don’t find anywhere else. Home is just home and nothing compares.
KRL: You represented the country on the Olympic stage twice: first in London 2012, and then in Rio 2016. I must say, out of all the places you could live, even choosing a place where they might embrace your sport more, you chose to come back home. Why is that?
BC: I always chose home because of family. My niece is 10 now, my nephew is three, and I’ve already missed out on so many birthdays and small things in their lives. So when I’m not on the road I love being home. I am a very big family person. Up until this past year my fiancé and I did everything with my mom and dad. They were our best friends. Now that I have recently lost my dad, I love that I’m able to be here for my mom and get her through the best that I can.
KRL: You spend your summers volunteering for a nonprofit, Freewheel Project, which helps underprivileged kids learn how to ride a bike, manage money, and focus on drug and alcohol prevention. Besides the bike element, out of all the charities in the area—and there are quite a few of them—what made you want to be involved with this one?
BC: I unfortunately don’t do the Freewheel Project anymore as it has since moved on. But the years that I did do it, was such a blessing. I love giving back to the sport that has given me so much. I still do weekly lessons at the local tracks in Lemoore and Hanford every Thursday. It’s extremely rewarding to help a kid (or adult) accomplish their own goals on the bike, and hopefully I can give back a little piece of what the sport has given me.
KRL: A misunderstanding some may have of the sport is that, since it costs money to join, to compete, to travel, and to afford equipment, it’s only for the privileged. How do you go about trying to make BMX more appealing to everyone and not based on financial status?
BC: Honestly yes, it can get expensive. But so can every sport. We have loaner bikes we let kids ride, as well as helmets at every local track. All they have to do is wear long sleeves and pants and go from there. It’s not as much as it may seem. At the local level, you would pay an annual fee of $60 for a membership. and then $12 for racing. I believe it’s $6 for practice.
KRL: Do you feel that people’s attitude towards the sport has improved throughout the years?
BC: That’s a hard one. I don’t feel it has grown the way I wish it would since I started. Our local BMX community is awesome. So considering that it’s not a sport a lot of people think about trying, I guess it’s changing.
KRL: Recently Kelly Slater brought surfing to Lemoore with the Surf Ranch. Have you thought about spearheading a campaign to bring professional BMX competitions to the Central Valley?
BC: I would love to! We have had a few nationals with pro racing in Lemoore over the years, but nothing like the events Kelly Slater holds.
KRL: You were in the biggest decision of all, which was whether or not to come out. You dated, and then became engaged to Australian BMX racer Rachel Jones. When you decided to come out, what was initially your biggest worry? Were you concerned about the reaction from the sport, the sponsors, or your family?
BC: I was concerned about it all. Sponsors, friends, Olympics, kids who looked up to me, their parents. You name it I was scared. I had nothing to worry about. My BMX community and family and friends have been nothing but kind and supportive to Rachel and me. I have had so many kids come out to me and look to me for advice, that alone made every worry I had over many, many years completely worth it.
KRL: You’re the first open athlete in the world of BMX. How has the sport responded to your orientation? What’s it like having the title of being the first open LGBTQ figure in the sport?
BC: I wouldn’t say I was the first “open athlete.” In the U.S. I am for sure, but there are a few girls from other countries who are out. But I guess “coming out” wasn’t a big thing for them. For me it felt like the world was going to end.
KRL: The Central Valley is very conservative and traditional. How did Visalia react when you came out and how has your hometown treated you since?
BC: Honestly, I don’t hear much from Visalia at all. I am not sure 98% of the population here even knows what BMX is or that I went to the Olympics. So, I’m just another person drinking coffee from Component on a Saturday morning with my dogs and fiancée.
KRL: You’re a woman of many firsts in your life. Does carrying all those responsibilities ever become too much to handle at times?
BC: Yes, for sure it does. I always feel the pressure to have to be strong for others and to be the person I always needed when I was growing up. I know that’s not the case and I have had to really prioritize my own mental health this year.
KRL: You were training for the Tokyo Olympics until the pandemic came and put a stop to that. How have you dealt with the quarantine, and has riding helped you cope with what’s been going on in the world?
BC: 2020 has been the worst year I could ever have imagined. I was supposed to be going to the 2020 Olympics, but that got postponed for a year. Then in July I lost my dad to suicide. Rachel and I were supposed to get married in October and we had to postpone it to next October. It’s just been a lot of heaviness on my heart. I know we are all going through our own challenges in life. If this year has taught me anything it’s that things—money, the car you drive—none of it is important. What is important is your relationships with people, the love you give to others. I’m trying my best to be strong for my family, for my mom, for Rachel but this year has tested me in more ways than I could ever explain.
KRL: With all the success you’ve had in the sport ,you’ve been through your fair share of adversity as well. Before the 2016 Rio Games, you had a broken leg. A year later, you missed the World Championships on home soil because you lacerated your liver. Then at the 2018 World Championships, you crashed in the final and finished eighth. How do you cope with adversity? What’s your process?
BC: I just always think how fortunate I am. After everything, every crash, every heartbreak I’m still so lucky to be doing what I love 21 years after I started. I know I won’t remember the broken leg and how I got it, or the race where I got second place. I’ll remember the memories I made with my friends and the ones I love, the places I went and the joy it brought me to just ride my bike.
KRL: You went to a sports psychologist when you came out. During this time, when people are trying to shake the stigma of mental illness and therapy, do you suggest it if people are going through difficulties? And how can the sport bring more awareness to mental rehabilitation and therapy?
BC: I am an advocate of therapy! I see my therapist every week. I don’t know what I would have done then without it, and I for sure don’t know what I would do now without it. Mental health is a touchy [subject] to me, obviously, because of losing my dad to it. I just wish he would have talked about what was going on with him. For so many years he kept it in. If he had gotten the help he needed years ago, he could have still been here to watch me compete at the Olympics, to walk me down the aisle, to watch us have our first child. There are so many things he’s going to miss out on, and we will miss him. All I can say is please, please, please seek help, talk to someone. You are not alone. You are loved and you are needed tomorrow. There is zero shame in therapy.
KRL: I’m not too sure of what BMX is doing but since I am a football fan I know they made changes and improvements to equipment to prevent concussions, changing the rules for fewer injuries, and adhering to the concussion protocol. Your sport has a high possibility of mental and physical injury. From your perspective, what is the sport doing in terms of injury prevention?
BC: Any changes with equipment, rules, new protocols to insure more safety, for sure. Our helmets are all pretty top of the line now for concussion prevention.
KRL: You said you were the smallest person wherever you were. But your accomplishments are big. So now, what’s it like knowing that you’re not “small” anymore?
BC: I still feel like an underdog. I have not accomplished near as much as I wish to have during my time racing bikes. I may or may not never get the champion title, but I hope to help kids like me know they are loved and accepted, and they have someone who is rooting for them. I just want to make a difference in my sport and be the person I always needed growing up feeling alone.