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Who is Colombia’s most successful cyclist? You can forget Nairo Quintana or Egan Bernal. BMX champion Mariana Pajón has something none of those Tour de France stars do. In fact, she has two of them: Olympic gold medals.
If the measuring stick is the Olympic Games, Pajón is in a class of her own. The 29-year-old from Medellín is the only Colombian athlete to win two Olympic gold medals, and she was Colombia’s flag-bearer in the opening ceremony at the 2012 London Games.
And just as the likes of Rigoberto Urán blazed new trails into the elite men’s peloton in Europe, Pajón was a trailblazer in her own right in BMX. When she started hitting the jumps on a local track, no one was quite sure what to make of the pint-sized bottle rocket.
“When I started the sport, there were no girls,” she said in an interview with the Olympic Channel. “I was the only girl in my category, and I led the way so others can follow behind me. Initially, they shut the door on me and told my parents that girls shouldn’t do this. That gave my parents even more motivation, and they said, ‘If this girl wants to do this, and maybe she can go far, let’s let her try.'”
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And try she did.
Pajón started competing internationally in her teens and soon became a force on the BMX circuit. After racking up world titles in BMX in junior and elite women’s categories, she was the hot favorite in London for the 2012 Olympic Games. She did not disappoint, beating back such rivals as Shanaze Reade and Caroline Buchanan to win Colombia’s only gold during that year’s Games.
Her profile was already red-hot before the London Games, and it skyrocketed in the wake of the gold medal performance. Her success put her on par with the likes of Quintana and Urán, who won silver in the elite men’s road race in London.
In the ensuing years, she emerged as the “Queen of BMX,” and was all but unbeatable in major events, adding 14 career world titles to her crowded trophy shelf. Her explosive speed and technical skills made her a dominant force going into Rio de Janeiro, where she successfully defended her Olympic title.
She’s had her share of injuries in her career and seriously injured a knee in the approach to Tokyo. The recovery took more than a year, but she was back on the bike in time for a gold-medal defense, only to see it delayed until 2021 due to the coronavirus.
“People only see me when I got the medals, but there is a lot of work behind them,” she said. “I was not born a star. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I just went for it. I crashed a lot, I suffered a lot of injuries. It was never easy.”
Colombia has won only five gold medals in Olympic history, and Pajón owns two of them. Track cyclist Maria Luisa Callé won Colombia’s first cycling Olympic medal — bronze in the points race in the 2004 Athens Games — while Pajón’s gold medal in 2012 was the first gold for Colombia since the 2000 Sydney Games, and the only gold that year. In 2016, she cemented her Olympic legacy by winning one of Colombia’s three gold medals at the Rio de Janeiro Games.
Pajón is hoping to strike gold one more time in Tokyo.
“When I put my helmet on, it’s like I am going to battle, and I will fight until I achieve what I want,” she said. “I am a warrior. And I won’t stop even if it hurts. I am only satisfied when I give 100 percent, and everything comes out of me.”