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Pro BMX: The return climb

Valencia grad Mike Day looks to make it back to Olympic Games after back injury

Posted: June 16, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: June 16, 2012 1:55 a.m.

Valencia High graduate Mike Day won the United States’ highest BMX Olympic medal when he took home silver in 2008. Four years later, he is trying to return to the 2012 Olympics after a back injury almost ended his career.

 

It’s the kind of sport where fortunes can change so quickly, every moment of glory must be cherished.

Bicycle motocross racer Mike Day probably knows that as well as anyone in the business.

The Valencia High graduate has been to the top of the mountain in terms of success as a BMX rider, only to see it all nearly come tumbling down just a few years later.

But four years after winning a silver medal in the men’s BMX event in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, he’s getting ready to attempt a second straight trip to the Summer Games.

Today, he’ll face the same Olympic Trials at the same place in Chula Vista, where he’ll be among eight BMX Olympic hopefuls vying for one ticket to the Olympics in London.

“I know no one thinks I’m going to win,” Day says. “That’s fine with me. Nobody really thought I was going to make the team in 2008, and I got a medal.”

Not just any medal. The 2008 Games were the first to include BMX racing as an event, and silver was the highest achievement attained by any American.

Day was narrowly beat out by Latvia’s Maris Strombergs for the gold.

The 27-year-old Day says he still remembers feeling like an underdog headed into the 2008 Olympic Trials people said he was relatively inexperienced and unproven at the time.

This time, skeptics have other reasons to question Day’s chances.

Day is coming off one of the worst years of his professional career after having back surgery in 2010.

The past two years have been a grind, to say the least.

“It was hard to watch him go through that with the injury, and go from one of the fastest guys in the world to having to work his way back up again,” says Steve Day, Mike’s dad.

It started shortly after he returned from Beijing, when Mike started feeling sharp pain in his lower back.

By late 2009, the pain was becoming debilitating, and he decided to get physical therapy treatment.

He hoped that would solve the problem.

“It didn’t,” Mike says. “It got worse and worse and it just got to the point where it kind of took over everything I did, from doing the dishes to taking the trash out. Everything revovled around how my back felt.”

Soon, he had to come to grips with the problem and decided to go in to have his back X-rayed.

One doctor initially told him to retire, saying it wasn’t worth the trouble to fix his heavily damaged spinal disc.

“I just couldn’t quit, it was too hard,” Mike says. “I was only 25 when I got the operation. There were still a lot of years to go.”

In the end, he found a doctor willing to perform the surgery, which replaced his herniated disc with an artificial.

The first few months of recovery after the procedure proved to be a slow, often discouraging process.

When he first returned to the track, he wasn’t racing at anywhere near the level he’d grown accustomed to since turning professional at age 17.

He was still attending Valencia High School at that point, and he later graduated the same year, in 2002.

Back then, he was competing locally at a track which used to exist next to Bowman High School in Santa Clarita.

“To me, he was a regular kid here that just rode and rode and likes to ride,” Steve says. “And he ended up being one of the best in the world. It’s been a real neat thing to watch.”

The track in Valencia closed in 2006, but Mike’s career was in full bloom by then.

After high school, his career went on a steady incline as he worked his way through the American Bicycle Association and various events around the world before shifting to the sport’s highest level of competition, the Union Cycliste Internationale BMX Supercross World Cup.

He won a UCI BMX World Cup race in 2007 at Salt Lake City and recorded several top five finishes in other major races between 2003-2007.

It all led to the peak in the 2008 Olympics.

“In ‘08, it was all new,” Mike says. “Everything was the first Olympic team and just taking in the experience was unreal. I kind of take that feeling and I use it as motivation.”

It’s the thought of standing on an Olympic podium this summer in London that keeps Mike going.

He’s spent the past few months living in the San Diego area while training for the Olympic Trials, but plans on moving back to Valencia later this summer.

The training has been intense, but Mike says he feels up to BMX-level speed for the first time since his operation.
He switched back to the same type of bike he was riding in 2008, a GT Speed Series Pro XXXL, but changed coaches to get a different perspective.

He’s a few years wiser and has experience on the big stage, though he says the BMX field has become stronger as the sport has evolved in the past decade.

It’s all led up to today, when Mike has a chance to prove he’s still got it. It’s a chance to prove he’s still an Olympian.

“He’s still got a tough road ahead and hopefully he can still do something,” Steve says. “But if he doesn’t, I’ll still be proud.”

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