BMX couple hero images

One Winning Couple

As BMX competitors, Alise and Sam Willoughby are unstoppable. As spouses, they’re unshakable.

Sam Willoughby is perched atop a hill overlooking the BMX supercross track at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center, just outside San Diego, when he feels a sudden change in the air. The light breeze that has been carrying cool air uphill off of nearby Lower Otay Lake has picked up into a full-blown headwind. The gusts might prove a welcome respite from a warm SoCal February morning for the other Olympians and Paralympians—the sprinters, long jumpers, and kayakers—training at this facility. But for BMX bikers flinging themselves from the dirt jumps below, even a moderate gale can push their light bikes off course, making it even tougher to stick the landing on just two wheels. And when the tires leave the ground, disaster is only one wrong move, mental lapse, or stiff breeze away.

Willoughby knows this better than most. A 20-year BMX veteran, he’s won two world championships and an Olympic silver medal, representing his native Australia. That was before he flipped his bike during a routine training run, a freak accident that ended his riding career. That’s why, at age 26, Willoughby is a BMX coach, sitting in his wheelchair, pointing his handheld video camera down at his five racers instead of pedaling alongside them on the track below. It’s also why he occasionally puts down the camera and looks to the southeast to gauge the wind.

The coach is taping a pair of students working on the front stretch when he hears voices cry out in alarm.

“Oh …,” says Willoughby, trailing off as he turns just in time to see one of his riders sail over his handlebars and plant his face in the dirt. The rider rolls over on his back, arms splayed out on an incline above the heap of his bike. His neon green helmet is cracked, its visor shattered. Apparently, he tried to clear a triple jump—three hills at once—and came up short.

Willoughby breathes easier as his charge sits up on his own, removing his helmet and holding his head in his hands, before eventually pulling himself to his feet.

It’s not clear whether the wind was a factor in the accident, but the bluster shows no signs of abating. After a few minutes, Willoughby gestures with a cutting motion across his throat. “Yeah,” he says, “we’re done.”

Willoughby rotates his chair and begins the arduous task of rolling up the steep slope to the parking lot. He pauses when he hears the automated command from the start gate: “Riders ready!” He turns to see the gate drop, and one of his riders, Alise Post, rolling down the ramp, brown ponytail trailing behind her. She is 27, a year older than her coach, and by far his most rebellious rider. She’s also a fellow world champion and Olympic medalist. And she’s Willoughby’s wife. The two have known each other for more than a decade—and in many ways, each is the only reason the other is here.

Post picks up speed down the ramp before launching into the first jump. She sails, wobbling slightly in midair before quickly righting herself and landing safely. She dismounts and walks her bike off the track, having seen for herself that Willoughby was right about the wind. The coach just shakes his head as he wheels silently up the hill.

Whether as racer and coach or wife and husband, Alise and Sam Willoughby complement each other.

Alise Post has been a daredevil as long as anyone can remember. Her father, Mark Post, recalls when she was barely able to walk, pretending to be a cheetah up and down the back of the living room couch in St. Cloud, Minnesota. “She was pretty damn fast on all fours,” he says.

By the time she was 6, that balance and agility had led to gymnastics and dance. But Post was equally interested in what the boys were doing, particularly her brother, Nick, eight years her elder. She was his shadow, he her mentor. He helped her with her tumbling, spotting her and tossing her around.

“I don’t know if you’d call it gymnastics in its pure form,” Nick says. “She’d run at me in the living room and I’d throw her, and she’d manage to land before hitting the piano.”

Post, in turn, was always poking her nose into whatever Nick and his friends were doing, which, when he was 14, was using scrap wood and dirt to build bike jumps in the backyard. Already a confident rider, Post rarely backed down from a challenge, perceived or literal, despite the scrapes and bruises that came with it. That’s why, when Nick and his friends went to compete in their first race and he noticed other little girls competing in the dirt, he came home and suggested to his sister and parents that she enter the following week’s race.

In that first race, Post made it all the way to the start line. She looked down the steep hill that would give her the momentum to carry her through the course—and promptly turned around. “I chickened out,” she says. “I didn’t want to crash.” Her mom, Cheryl, and dad almost canceled her membership to get their money back, but after she got her first crash out of the way in the next race, Post eventually finished second.

 

Post at age 6

Other pastimes have come and gone in Post’s life—T-ball, sprinting, triple jump, and pole vaulting—but only gymnastics and BMX stuck. Her family was supportive from the start. For a time, they drove more than an hour to practice at the nearest BMX track in Brainerd, Minnesota. Later, Mark and Cheryl got together with another local BMX family and built a facility in St. Cloud, which Mark runs to this day.

Meanwhile, Post continued to excel on the bike. In 1999, just two years after backing out on that first hill, she was Minnesota state champion. By 2000, she’d won the central regional title. In 2001, she won her first girls overall national championship. She was 10 years old. A natural athlete, she seemed to be able to do anything she wanted on two wheels. A local announcer poked fun at her tiny 60-pound frame, dubbing her “Alise the Beast.” The nickname stuck.

Despite her size, Post had the muscular and flexible build of a gymnast, which proved ideal for absorbing the beating riders take grinding through, soaring over, and slamming back down on the roller-coaster courses. Her compact core and dynamo legs were ideal for generating quick bursts of speed out of tight corners and into the straightaways, where pros have to accelerate from 5 mph to 50 mph. And her tumbler’s focus on each minute movement served her well in a sport where races last only 40 seconds and the slightest misstep or shift in weight could turn a rider and her bike into a twisted wreck of bone and metal.

Post loved riding. Still, BMX was never her sole focus. She was also vaulting up the gymnastics ranks. Her bubbly, always upbeat personality drew legions of friends at school and in the gym.

After amassing a trove of amateur trophies, including four national championships, Post turned pro in 2006, and, at 15, quickly rose to the National No. 1 Women’s Title, the youngest rider ever to do so. Her picture was now in magazines, like BMXer, which named her Rookie Pro of the Year, the first woman ever to take that title. And now filmmakers were interviewing her and shooting her on and off the track to spread her celebrity throughout the small but tight-knit BMX world.

Sam Willoughby first heard of Alise Post growing up in Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, 9,600 miles from St. Cloud. Like Post, Willoughby had started riding BMX when he was 6 years old. But growing up far from the sport’s epicenter in Southern California, he lived vicariously through the BMX VHS tapes and DVDs he collected from the States. Post was a recurring character in these race films, always on the podium, always smiling, always wearing her signature choker necklace.

Willoughby developed a long-distance crush on Post. But the Aussie was hopelessly head-over-handlebars in love with the sport. When he was 15, he put aside all other exploits, including Australian rules football, and dedicated himself entirely to BMX. This included a strict daily training regimen, both on and off the bike. He quickly climbed through the relatively thin Australian ranks to represent the country in the 2006 Union Cycliste Internationale BMX World Championships in Sao Paulo, Brazil. There, he was finally face to face with the superstars of cycling that he’d watched for years on his DVDs at home. Willoughby competed in the 15-year-old challenge class, and Post competed in the 15-year-old amateur girl class.

The tradition among riders at these worldwide competitions is to swap jerseys with other competitors and take back a souvenir from another country. “I wanted Alise’s jersey,” Willoughby says.

“I wanted an Australian jersey,” Post says. “I had no idea who Sam Willoughby was.”

Despite this mutual supply and demand, and a common acquaintance who, at Willoughby’s behest, tried to broker the deal, the two never caught up with each other in Brazil. They again missed each other in 2007 in Canada. But in 2008, in Taiyuan, China, after a couple messages exchanged through MySpace, Post and Willoughby finally met in person. They were staying in the same hotel and hung out together after the races, late into the night. Still, Post had a high school boyfriend, so things remained on platonic terms.

The two have known each other for more than a decade—and in many ways, each is the only reason the other is here.

At least that’s what Post told her dad later that year when she proposed that Willoughby, eager to make a splash in the U.S., move to St. Cloud to live with them. “There was a boy from Australia who needed a place to stay,” Mark says. “She tried to make us think that it had nothing to do with them liking each other. Then here comes this blond-haired, blue-eyed boy with a smile from ear to ear, teeth that don’t quit, and I’m like, ‘Yeah, right!’”

Once Willoughby took up residence in the Post home, the difference in approaches to training between the two 17-year-olds was starker than any culture clash. The Aussie was an introvert, always wrapped inside his mental race preparations. “If you didn’t know him, he’d seem arrogant,” Mark says. “He was so focused on winning.”

Willoughby kept a meticulous daily journal of every step he took and each calorie he put into his body. “If training starts at 9 and you’re there at 8:59, you’re late,” says friend and fellow biker Tyler Brown. “Whatever it says on the schedule, it has to be done that way. He has these mental boxes that have to be checked.”

Willoughby even carried a timer that beeped when it was time to exercise or stretch. Every time the device went off, no matter where he was, even one time at the grocery store with Cheryl, he’d stop and break into his routine on the spot. “The second day he was at the house, he came up from the basement in bikini shorts,” Mark says. “He sat down in the middle of the floor and started rubbing baby oil on his legs. He’d read it did something. I looked at Cheryl. She had a big smile on her face, like, ‘Whatever.’”

Meanwhile, Post was still in high school. She was still running track and doing gymnastics in addition to BMX. She still hung out with friends from a dozen different circles. “She was a top rider,” Willoughby says. “I was eager to see how she trained. She didn’t do anything. She just played all these sports, drank milkshakes, and hung out until 3 a.m. with her friends.”

It was time for Post to choose a path. As she neared graduation, she had achieved enough in gymnastics (three straight state vaulting championships) to draw interest from NCAA Division I programs. But that route, those long year-round hours training in a claustrophobic gym, wasn’t for her. BMX had just been added as an Olympic sport, and Post knew from her previous sponsorships that a successful rider could sustain herself financially.

Post decided to go for it. In 2009, she and Willoughby, who by now had started dating, moved to San Diego, where much of the sport, including the new U.S. Olympic team, was based. There, Post and Willoughby would chase individual BMX glory together.

They were both under 19 in 2008, and therefore unable to compete for Olympic gold in Beijing. So the goal upon arriving in Chula Vista was the London games in 2012. And, as it turns out, the new couple of opposites complemented each other quite well. Now, far from the distractions of home, school, and other sports, Post was free to follow Willoughby’s example and dedicate more of her work and mental energy to the bike, her sole means of income. The gregarious Post, meanwhile, was able to pull Willoughby out of his shell and get him to socialize more. She also instituted a weekly date night in San Diego to give his hard-charging work ethic the occasional much-needed respite, however brief.

The results were more than promising. Willoughby won junior world titles in 2008 and 2009 before making the leap to the senior circuit, where he quickly grabbed a world title in 2012. “He literally changed the face of our sport,” Brown says. “His intensity, his structure, his approach, his speed around the track, and his power.” Referring to the last two traits, Brown says most riders were one or the other. “He put it all together.”

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 19
Post (far right) took home silver at the Rio Games in 2016.

Post finished second in the nation and took bronze at the world championship in 2010, before several injuries sidelined her for most of 2011. But with Willoughby’s support, she was able to work her way back in time to join him at the Olympics in 2012.

London was a dream for Willoughby. He cruised through the preliminaries to the single-race final where he finished a close second to the defending gold medalist, Latvia’s Maris Strombergs, nabbing the silver and becoming Australia’s first-ever BMX medalist. England was a bit gloomier for Post. On the same day Willoughby stood on the podium, Post wrecked on the last straightaway of a semifinal heat. She tried to get up after the race had finished, but her leg buckled beneath her and she fell once more to the ground. Bawling behind her goggles, she was helped across the finish line by two officials.

Things got worse. In May 2013, Post got a call from home. Her mother had been diagnosed with late-stage melanoma. Post began traveling back and forth from California to Minnesota to wherever for race weekend, trying to soak up as much time with Cheryl as possible. Somewhat distracted, Post wrecked in a race and injured her shoulder. She went home for most of the rest of the season, which ran through Thanksgiving. Post tore herself away from her mom’s bedside in January 2014 to compete in Reno for that season’s first race. Cheryl watched the live stream from St. Cloud. Post won, once again crossing the finish in tears. Two days later, Cheryl was gone.

Post tried to escape her pain by losing herself in racing, but fate conspired against her. In April, at the season’s first World Cup event, she broke her tibia in a wreck that sidelined her for months during the thick of racing season. “I was forced to deal with my mother’s death,” she says. “I started to wonder what I was doing with racing.”

Her father and friends rotated in and out to help her on crutches in her and Willoughby’s three-story condo. She started seeing a sports psychologist. But as she recovered and dedicated herself to getting back on the track, it was Willoughby and his continued success that helped as much as anything. It was as if he was racing for the both of them.

Post returned in July to compete at the world championship in the Netherlands. She won the silver, her best-ever finish. Willoughby won gold in the men’s elite division. Around his wrist was a black wristband with pink letters. It read, “TEAM CHERYL: NEVER GIVE UP.”

Heading into the 2016 Olympics in Rio, both Post and Willoughby were among the riders to beat. Post had just won bronze at the world championship in May and was ranked No. 3 among women worldwide. Willoughby had crashed in that event but was still No. 4 in the men’s class and the defending Olympic silver medalist.

This time, Post rolled to a silver medal, crossing the finish a mere .342 seconds behind Colombian Mariana Pajon. Willoughby swept all three semifinal races, entering the final as the top rider. Post, fresh off her success, rushed to find a vantage from which to watch. She noticed, as few did, Willoughby drag his rear wheel over the first jump, a mistake that quickly put him too far behind the field to catch up. He finished sixth.

Willoughby won silver at the 2012 London Olympics.

After the race, Willoughby revealed that he had torn his ACL five months earlier—an injury he probably hadn’t fully admitted to himself. At first he tried to power through, racing just two weeks later in Louisville, where he made the same mistake in the first jump as he did in Rio. He returned to Chula Vista deflated and weary—physically and mentally.

He had meticulously plotted out almost every minute of his life since age 15, directing all of his energy and will toward winning at BMX. That single-minded dedication had made him one of the greatest riders in the world, a distinction he still held despite his finish in Rio. But the pressure had been steadily building to keep pushing. Now, after 10 years, he was ready to let up a little.

Three weeks after Rio, Willoughby had almost talked himself out of going to the track for a Saturday practice. Instead, he settled for a light ride around the smallest track at the Chula Vista training facility. Even on the car ride there, Willoughby received a text from a friend: You’ve got nothing to prove. You need to rest. Willoughby replied: Maybe I will. Then he got out of the car and onto the bike.

He was too tired to do sprints, so he just tooled around on the jumps. And on one of the inclines, his front came up. He lost control and flipped backward, landing on his head. “When I hit the ground, I remember thinking, Why am I not winded?” says Willoughby, who’d fallen countless times before. “It felt like my legs were way off in the distance. I knew it wasn’t good—but I wasn’t panicking. I thought, It will all come back. I’m just in shock.

“He looked scared,” says Brown, who was there. “I was holding on to his hand and telling him, ‘You’re holding my hand.’ He couldn’t feel it.” Brown told someone to call 911; a life flight was en route.

Post was back in Minneapolis, about to attend a Twins game. When she saw several missed calls from Brown, she knew something was wrong. He tried not to alarm Post, telling her only that he was flown to the hospital. But Post could hear the fear in his voice. She caught the first flight to San Diego.

After a battery of tests, Post and Willoughby received the news together. Willoughby had sustained injuries to his C6 and C7 vertebrae, essentially breaking his neck and severely compressing his spinal cord. This caused paralysis in both arms, both legs, and his chest. His riding career was over. Doctors doubted whether he’d ever regain control of any of his extremities.

In the presence of Post’s unyielding optimism, Willoughby simply aimed his ambition at a new goal. He would work every day, as hard as he had trained for any race. And he would, one day, walk down the aisle and stand beside Post as the two were married.

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.

proposal
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.”


Tony Rehagen is a writer in St. Louis. His stories have appeared in Popular Mechanics, GQ, Men’s Health, and ESPN The Magazine. Email him at rehagentony@gmail.com.

Photography by Peter Yang

Originally Published June 2018