EDWARDS — When Stephanie Darling took her son to the county’s BMX track in 2010, she never expected he would become a national champion a few years later.
On Dec. 1, 8-year-old Max Darling won his division at the USA BMX Grand Nationals in Oklahoma, the largest domestic event in the sport.
For Stephanie, the race was nerve racking, but made the trip from Edwards to Tulsa, Okla., well worth it.
“It was a really exciting race,” she said of the finals. “I think the parents were more nervous than the kids. ... Max was chasing this other kid down; he was in second coming around the last corner. At the end was a short stretch to the finish and Max ended up beating the other little guy by maybe an inch at the finish line.”
Every year, riders off all ages compete in the races, which pit eight competitors against each other on an arena course that sees humps, jumps and banked turns en route to the finish line. Max, who races for team bikeparts.com, had to pass through four rounds of qualifiers, quarterfinals and semifinals over the course of the weekend to be among the final eight riders on Sunday.
“I kept trying my best and at the end I got him,” Max said of his victory in finals.
Stephanie said seeing her son rewarded for his hard work is one of the many reasons she’s happy to support his involvement in the sport.
“I just love seeing that smile on his face,” she said. “He was racing against other kids from Colorado, and they’d keep seeing each other every step of the way. It’s fun to see them all wishing each other good luck ... he’s made a lot of new friends through BMX.”
While Stephanie says Max put in a lot of practice to achieve his great results, it has taken a lot hard work from her along the way, as well.
“He first started when our neighbor suggested we come check out the track in Eagle,” she said. “So Max brought his little Walmart bike out there, and he loved it. So for his birthday, we bought him a BMX bike, and he’s been on it ever since.”
He began racing in the 5 year old novice division and worked his way up to the intermediate division.
“You start at the local track, and then the next step is chasing the state circuit, so then you start going to the state qualifiers, and then you have a huge state race in Grand Junction,” Stephanie said.
Max was also No. 1 in his age group at the state championships, paving the path to national competition.
“We travel to Denver sometimes and race on the indoor track, and we went to New Mexico, Illinois and Nevada and Oklahoma for national races,” Stephanie said.
With a national victory under his belt, Max is now only four more national wins away from bumping up to the expert division, a pathway that could lead to the pinnacle of the sport.
Max said his goal is to race in the Olympics one day. Stephanie said Max was glued to the TV during the BMX event at the London Games.
“We still have (the Olympic race) recorded,” Stephanie said. “He still goes back and watches it all the time; he loves it. ... When you play basketball, you’re not running into Michael Jordan when you’re playing. But at these events, you’re waiting for your class and you’re running into David Herman or Sam Willoughby and those people who you see in the Olympics. You can get an autograph from them or even just getting to watch them race is awesome for these kids. Those are their role models.”
‘EAGLE County is MAKING A NAME FOR ITSELF’
Other local riders including Jonah Zeigler, Kiowa Ritcheson, Austin Campbell, Gavin Goike and Cole Weathers also made it to nationals. Local resident Benno Scheidegger also qualified; Scheidegger won the age-7 intermediate division at Grand Nationals last season.
Cole’s father, Chris Weathers, said racing with the caliber of BMX athletes the Eagle County BMX track is producing — specifically Scheidegger — is what helped Cole finish in the top 10 in the state race series and receive an invite for the exclusive Race of Champions at the USA BMX Grand National. The Race of Champions takes place before the open divisions at the Grand National every year; this was 8-year-old Cole’s first year qualifying.
“He moved up from novice class to intermediate class at the end of last year; at the beginning of this year, he was dead last almost every time by a large margin,” Chris said. “But he’s come a long way, he’s worked hard. We’ve traveled to Denver, Grand Junction, Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, Salt Lake City; he’s raced a lot of different kids on a lot of different tracks, and now he has the mileage and now he’s winning those races.”
At the Race of Champions, Cole was on his way to the semi finals, but his foot slipped off his pedal, and by the time he recouped he was passed.
Regardless, “the real story is (Max Darling),” said Chris. “His trophy is twice as tall as he is.”
Between Scheidegger last year and Darling this year, Eagle County athletes are becoming a regular sight atop the podium at the BMX Grand National.
“Eagle County is making a name for itself in the national scene,” Chris said.
That’s thanks to the Eagle County BMX track in Eagle, which opened in 2010 as the only BMX track between Grand Junction and Denver.
The family that operates the track, Jay and Sari Lucas, say it’s amazing to see the level to which local riders have taken their track.
“When we started I wasn’t sure if the Eagle community would accept the sport of BMX,” Jay said. “Just four seasons later, I cannot express how proud I am of the all kids and adults who have dedicated their efforts to the sport and helped the track grow to where we are today. ... Results like Max’s mark the future of BMX in Eagle.”
Staff Writer John LaConte can be reached at 970-748-2988 or email@example.com