Willoughby sits in his wheelchair under the canopy just behind the starting gate of a different track at the Elite Athlete Training Center. To escape the wind on the supercross track, Willoughby moved his crew to the other side of the Chula Vista hill, to this smaller track. It also happens to be the site where, mere feet away on the back straightaway, Willoughby had his fateful crash.
If Willoughby is spooked by the memory, he isn’t showing it. He seems completely focused on the task at hand—or rather the timer in his hand. Post is on her bike, lined up between two other female riders, standing on their pedals, leaning forward at the gate. Willoughby is drilling his students on their starts, trying to make them clean and quick into the initial jumps and the first turn, where races are so often won and lost. But while the three women take off at the same time, Willoughby’s timer is only on Post. “She’s so much quicker than the other women,” Willoughby says. “We have to time her against herself.”
The gate falls; the riders speed downhill toward the jump. Willoughby’s goal for Post is to get from the gate to the foot of the first jump, some 15 yards away, in under 3 seconds. Post’s first shot was .298 seconds. But she hasn’t come close to that since.
“How fast was that?” Post asks, walking her bike back to the start.
“Slow,” Willoughby says.
“It felt slower,” Post says.
Willoughby resets the timer by pressing a tiny button with his thumb. This simple motion is the result of months of his hard work. Nerve by nerve, finger by finger, limb by limb, he gradually reclaimed use of his hands, arms, and core. Where possible, he refused any motorized help, opting to fight through each rehab exercise with his own might.
Post has been by his side, spotting him all the way. She’s with him six days a week when the physical therapist comes to the house and at the gym with him five to six days a week when he’s putting in more work on his own. Willoughby has returned the favor. Though he’s been preoccupied with his recovery, his obsession with BMX has never wavered. And once he accepted he would never race again, he was eager to stay involved and share all he had learned. Post, who had just left her coach after the Rio Olympics, was an obvious student.
The results thus far have been impressive. Last July, Post won the UCI BMX World Championships in the elite women division, the first American to do so in 20 years. She is now the top-ranked female rider in the world.
Willoughby and Post getting engaged in Coronado near San Diego in 2015.
Then, in December, Post and Willoughby finally got married. True to his promise, with the help of some metal braces and a walker, Willoughby walked down the aisle and stood beside his bride as they said ‘I do’ and took the next step in their life together. “I’ve seen the cracks in her armor,” Mark says. “She comes and cries on Daddy’s shoulder, that’s for sure. But she’s such a positive person, and she knows that Sam needs that. The way he took all this, I mean, more impressively than winning all the titles. I’m sure he’s broken down at times, but I’ve never seen it.”
“They took it in stride,” Nick says. “This is what is in front of us now. No questions of ‘Do I want to be with him?’ It was, ‘What do you have to do now? What’s the next step?’ And if you ask him, she saved his life. That was in his wedding vows.”
Back at the track, Post again stands on two wheels at the start line. The gate falls; she pushes with all the power in her small frame, handlebars swinging like a metronome in double time as she streaks toward the first jump. Moments later she returns beside her bike, helmet on the handle, lungs still gasping for oxygen.
“See what you got, eh?” Willoughby says, showing her the timer. It reads .297.
“Well, cool,” Post says.
Practice is over. Willoughby wheels himself through gravel and uneven terrain to the parking lot and the passenger side of their SUV, where he lifts himself into the seat. Post follows, folding the wheelchair so it’ll fit in the back with her bikes.
A few days later, Post’s paperwork will finally come through, legally changing her name to Alise Willoughby. Willoughby will be on the back of her jersey in Phoenix in February for her first major race of 2018. In the first heat, she will start clean and fast, taking a clear lead out of the front straightaway. And everyone present, every friend and fellow rider, every parent in this tight-knit BMX community who has followed this story, will mark the significance of the moment when the track announcer says, for the first time in more than a year, “Through the first turn, it’s Willoughby in the lead.”