BYU students are accustomed to bikes – many have one and use it daily. Others spent two years on a bike while serving an LDS mission. What most aren’t accustomed to is hurtling around turns and over jumps, elbow to elbow with other racers.
For Arielle Martin, this is a typical day.
Martin, a Cedar Hills native, ditched her training wheels at age 2 and climbed on her first racing bike. Following in her father’s footsteps — or tire treads, rather — she’s been racing since she was 5. Nationally ranked by the time she was 10 and pro by 15, she was the youngest girl on the national circuit. She was the third woman in the world to do a backflip on a bike.
Martin, a 2007 BYU graduate in exercise science, is on the USA Cycling team with high hopes for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, competing in bicycle motocross.
Martin said it was hard competing professionally while in school, but professors worked with her schedule once they understood what she did.
“Some of those big classes, like Chem 105, they don’t really care if you come or not, but once I got into the upper graduate-level classes the professors all thought it was really cool and were really willing to work with me,” Martin said.
Martin has excelled in BMX for years, claiming podium positions in the top competitions in the world. In 2011 she won the UCI SX World Cup and took silver in the Pan American Games.
BMX has gained more notoriety in the world, just as women in the sport have.
“Watching it evolve and grow and really being able to have that Olympic platform now, people are recognizing it,” Martin said. “It’s very cool to see it get the exposure I think it deserves.”
Martin said she likes the fact women are seen as underdogs and enjoys proving they’re just as good as the men. She has always been fascinated with women pioneers, like Lindsey Vonn, who are doing the same things that five to 10 years ago people thought only men could.
“I’m happy to maybe be included as one of those women in a guy’s sport and loving every minute of it,” Martin said.
When BMX was announced to debut in the Beijing Olympics, Martin was a favorite to go with a strong lead in points, but a crash in the final qualifying race lost Martin her position on the team. Jill Kitner, Martin’s teammate and friend, edged her out by one point and went on to win a bronze medal.
“It was one of those, at the time, very tragic experiences,” Martin said. “But [Kitner] and I grew very close through it and I helped her train to go back and get out there in Beijing. She called me right after she won [bronze] and we got to share a pretty special experience through it all.”
Missing out on Beijing only motivated Martin more. She described the crash and point difference as a fluke, but also as something she’s come to terms with.
“I’d never lost to a single American going into Beijing and it was just crazy I didn’t end up being there,” Martin said. “I’m just making sure that I do everything that I can, and if it’s God’s will I make the team this time, then so be it.”
Martin’s determination to compete in the Olympics is unlike any athlete of her caliber, according to her coach, James Herrera.
“All athletes at this level have a fairly sound work ethic and innate desire to win, but Arielle takes it to another level,” Herrera said in an email. “I’ve seen very few people dig so deep and be willing to turn themselves inside out to win.”
Martin’s husband, Michael Verhaaren, who serves in the Army, attributes his wife’s success to determination and stubbornness.
“Once she makes her mind up of what she wants to do, that is what she’s going to do,” Verhaaren said.
Herrera also attributes Martin’s success to her “go big or go home” attitude.
“One characteristic in BMX that sets people apart is their willingness to boost over big obstacles,” Herrera said. “Arielle goes bigger than most girls I’ve ever seen.”
This applies to everything in Martin’s life, not just BMX. She hikes and snowboards, and she and her husband both have Ducati motorcycles.
“When I wanted to get a motorcycle she wanted nothing to do with riding on it with me. She wanted her own motorcycle,” Verhaaren said.
Qualifying for the Olympics is never a sure thing. Martin still has several races before the team is officially announced in June, but she, her husband and coach are confident she’ll land one of the spots for London. Herrera and Martin continue to train. Herrera attributes her thinking to her time spent at BYU.
“She definitely had a great set of educators and influences as she’s a very forward thinking, analytical individual,” Herrera said. “We bounce lots of training-related strategies off one another, always looking for the thing that’ll give us the one percent edge on the competition.”
The Olympics bring immense pressure, but Herrera said he and Martin cope by focusing on the task at hand.
“We’re doing everything in our power to ensure success. When you focus on the process the outcomes will always be golden,” Herrera said.
Herrera is certain Martin has the talent to win gold.
“Arielle embodies the Olympic spirit and is the kind of person that deserves to win a gold medal,” Herrera said. “Very few people in our world have ever worked for anything so hard and possess the kind of character that you’d expect from an Olympian. She’s an amazing ambassador for our sport and country. Being with her through this journey and watching her achieve her dream will be a major highlight in my career.”