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Connor Fields' bumpy road to Rio

Connor Fields

Connor Fields' bumpy road to Rio

USA BMX rider Connor Fields overcame serious injury to earn his spot on Team USA

Almost four years after missing out on an Olympic medal in London, Connor Fields’ Rio hopes hung in the balance just four months before the 2016 Games.

On April 2, 2016 Fields suffered a broken wrist while preparing for the UCI BMX World Cup in Manchester, England. Fields was looking for his third straight podium finish at a World Cup when it happened. It was a standard training run, nothing special about it.

“I kind of misjudged the distance of a jump and I went too far,” Fields said. “It just kind of caused me to lose balance on the bike and when I fell over, I extended my hand -- like a natural human reaction when you’re going to fall is to put your hand out -- and when I did that I knew instantly the moment I hit the ground. I knew my wrist was broken.”

Three-plus years of work since the London Olympics -- not including the more than a decade of work it took to make it to London -- could all disappear with one simple mistake. Had Fields just gripped his handlebars a bit tighter and allowed his body to absorb the blow, he may have been fine. That unconscious choice to brace his fall -- something so ingrained in humans that infants do it instinctively -- might ruin everything Fields had been working towards.

“You know, I’ve been at the top of the sport the last few years,” said Fields. “I’ve obviously had good races and bad races mixed in, but by far the hardest thing I’ve had to overcome, and I’m still working on overcoming, is breaking my wrist four months before the Olympic Games. Not just a mild break either, I really did a number on my wrist.”

Four months and 15 days away from the starting gate dropping in the first BMX heat at the Rio Games and the No. 1 rider in the USA BMX power rankings was going to have to undergo surgery on his wrist.

So the next day Fields was on a flight back to his home in Las Vegas, but it wasn’t until more than a week later that he was able to undergo surgery on his wrist. The 2012 Olympian knew he had broken his scaphoid -- a tiny bone in your wrist -- but he was unaware of the extent of the injury. He expected a 30, 40-minute surgery, maybe an hour, tops.

“When I woke up it was dark outside and it was clearly much later [than I expected]. I asked the nurse what time it was and found out I had a five hour surgery,” Fields recalled. “The next day I saw the doctor for the follow-up and he explained what I did and what [he] had to do to repair it. Every day since then it’s just been a race against the clock to heal up.”

Healing for the Olympics wasn’t the only obstacle, though. Fields was yet to qualify for the Rio Games. Prior to the injury, Fields was a presumptive Olympic selection. He was the top ranked U.S. rider in both national and international rankings, but he would be sidelined for the next two, possibly three months. Who knew if he would even be the same rider once he returned from injury?

All told, Fields would miss multiple UCI World Cup events, the 2016 UCI World Championships, and the U.S. BMX Olympic Trials. He dropped from first in the USA BMX power rankings to third (the top rider in the power rankings is automatically selected to the Olympic team).

A third place finish at the world championships in Medellin, Colombia, allowed fellow USA rider Nic Long to leapfrog past Fields to grab the top spot in the power rankings and an automatic bid to the Olympics. With Long’s fate sealed, two men’s Olympic BMX spots remained for the United States.

Connor Fields

Connor Fields rides during the 2012 London Olympics Credit: Getty Images

One of those spots would be awarded to the winner of the U.S. BMX Olympic Trials, while the other would be decided via a discretionary pick made by the coaches. Unable to compete in Trials, Fields’ only hope was the discretionary pick.

“I felt helpless; I couldn’t do anything to control my own destiny. Ultimately if I was to compete in the trials and lose, then that’s on me, that’s my fault I didn’t win. But if I was to miss out on an Olympic spot just because I wasn’t able to do anything, that would be really hard,” Fields said.

Heading into Trials, Corben Sharrah was the top ranked rider in the field. The No. 2 ranked rider in the U.S. power rankings when Fields went down, Sharrah is consistently one of the top 10-15 riders in the world and is among the best BMXers the United States has to offer. If Sharrah faltered during Trials, the discretionary pick would have essentially been a two-rider race.

“The big question was, if Corben was to lose the trials, who were they going to send: Corben or Connor? Pre-injury vs. post-injury there’s a completely different debate there,” said Fields.

If Sharrah lost, would USA BMX select the rider who has been competing at a high level all year, earned one of the United States Olympic quotas and, probably most importantly, is healthy, or would they go with Fields?

“We got lucky. Corben took care of business. He handled that pressure and he won,” Fields said.

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Now that Sharrah and Long were locked in, Fields was hopeful that he’d receive the discretionary pick, but it wasn’t a sure thing. The United States is the No. 1 ranked country in the UCI’s nations ranking, possessing not only great talent, but great depth.

On June 23 -- 12 days after Sharrah won Trials -- USA Cycling announced the discretionary picks. Fields was among them.

After months of agonizing pain -- not only from the injury itself or even the rehab, but from the mental anguish of possibly watching your dreams slip away from you without a thing you can do -- Fields is headed to Rio.
The journey has been long, it’s been weird, but it’s not over yet. Without any major competitions under his belt before the Olympics begin, will Fields know what he has to do as he pulls up to the starting gate in Rio?

“You know, they say ‘it’s like riding a bike.’ You don’t forget.”

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