Meet Mariana Pajón, the Olympian Who Forced Colombia to Take BMX Seriously

It’s with good reason that Mariana Pajón is called the queen of BMX. The Colombian biker won gold at the Pan American Games, Olympic Games, and multiple World Championships. She gave Colombia its second gold ever in London 2012, and this year, she’s going to Rio for a repeat.

She originally got into BMX because her brother took up the sport when she was 2. As she said in an Especiales Pirry doc, at 4 years old, she already rode with a club. Soon enough, she got so good that parents started to complain when their children habitually ate her dust. Nearly two decades later, the story is hardly different. She led almost the entire race in her first Olympic competition.

But even though she’s always had the talent, she hasn’t always had the room to grow. As she started to compete at an international level, she struggled to get support from the Colombian government.

In 2007, when she felt most let down by her country, she got a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity from the United States. “When she was most frustrated by the lack of support, she was offered all of the guarantees,” said Guillermo Arturo Prieto La Rotta in the doc. “They’d give her an education and housing for her and her family, plus a million dollars a year, if she accepted the American nationality and raced for the United States.” She didn’t even consider it, because of her love for and loyalty to Colombia.

The country didn’t take the sport and Pajón seriously until it became an Olympic event in 2008. That’s when Colombia realized Pajón had a great chance at medaling. Even then – as the Especiales Pirry doc points out – the 2010 World Cup in South Africa served as another reminder that the country didn’t prioritize her sport. At the same time as the football championship, she participated at the 2010 UCI BMX World Championships, which also took place in South Africa. Colombia didn’t qualify for the World Cup, so its only representation came from Shakira, who sang “Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)” at the opening ceremony. The Colombian media made it out to the games, but none bothered to travel to see Pajón’s gold medal-winning performance.

She’s big time now. By 2012, she had the huge honor of waving the Colombian flag at the Parade of Nations during the Olympics opening ceremony. She said that leading up to London, the government has supported her completely.

Along the way, Pajón has continually sacrificed her body to chase her dream. “I’ve broken my shoulder, broken my knees, broken my feet, broken my hands, I’ve broken ribs, I’ve broken the coccyx in my back,” she told CNN. That includes a shattered wrist in her first professional race.

Pajón takes her job as a role model and inspiration for other women seriously. She told Rio 2016 that she wants to show the strength of women in sports. “The role of women in the Olympic movement is very important,” she said. We can show that we can be Olympic champions, that we can participate in any sport we want and do it well, just like men.”

She got so good that parents started to complain when their children habitually ate her dust.

Interestingly, Colombia’s other Olympic gold medalist María Isabel Urrutia also shows the strength of women, both physically and politically. Urrutia won gold in 2000 for weightlifting. Then, two years later ran for – and won – a seat in Colombia’s House of Representatives.

At only 24 years old, Pajón still has plenty of BMX left before she moves on to the next dream. Her post-cycling ambitions are not political, however; she told Semana she’d like to study medicine.

Whenever she calls it quits though, the future of the sport will be just all right. The next generation of Marianas are already here.