TOKYO — Given the year the world has endured, it can be hard sometimes to find the blessings. Alise Willoughby has collected so many she's almost lost count.
The BMX athlete from St. Cloud will race in her third Olympics this week during two days of women's competition at Ariake Urban Sports Park in Tokyo. She enters the Summer Games as the reigning world champion and Olympic silver medalist. At age 30, Willoughby has been following a training plan that has her feeling "better than ever'' for her opening run Wednesday night, as BMX racing makes its fourth appearance at the Olympics.
Even the yearlong postponement of the Tokyo Games carried a quiet benefit. It gave Willoughby (formerly Post) more time to prepare for the Olympics under the direction of her husband, Sam Willoughby, who will be coaching her for the first time at a Summer Games.
Shortly after the 2016 Olympics, Sam Willoughby — one of the top BMX riders in the world — was paralyzed from the chest down in a training accident. He began coaching Alise a year later, and the new twist to their partnership has put her in top form for Tokyo.
"It's been a learning curve for both of us,'' Alise said. "We had an extra year to complete what's now been four years of working together. We're both learning and growing in both of those relationships, and it's made us both better.''
The U.S. is bringing an outstanding team to Tokyo on both the men's and women's sides. Willoughby is joined by Felicia Stancil and 19-year-old Payton Ridenour. The U.S. men will be represented by 2016 Olympic gold medalist Connor Fields, the world's No. 1 rider in 2020, and two-time Olympian Corben Sharrah.
Willoughby has been one of the world's best BMX racers for years. She's only added to her accomplishments since winning the silver medal in Rio. After earning her first world championship in 2017, Willoughby won another in 2019, then finished 2020 as the world's top-ranked rider.
A graduate of St. Cloud Tech, she was a state champion gymnast in high school and once hoped to make the Olympics in that sport. She wasn't immediately drawn to BMX; the first time she considered trying it, she backed out. Willoughby's parents, Mark and Cheryl Post, and brother Nick persuaded her to get past her fears, and she became a national champion at age 10.
Willoughby has persevered through several serious injuries, including a torn hamstring and knee reconstruction in 2012, and the death of her mother from cancer in 2014. Sam's accident was another test.
An Olympic silver medalist himself, Sam suffered a spinal-cord injury in the training crash. Coaching gave him a way to stay involved with the sport. Alise said his expertise and their connection made it "a natural fit,'' and her results have proven it.
"He's been a huge asset in my career," Alise said. "He pushes and challenges me.
"Sam is one of the best to ever do this, so he can relate. He can feel what I feel. And we're cut from the same cloth. He knows me better than anyone.''
Willoughby said the Olympic platform has been critical to BMX racing's growth, and to creating the opportunities for women that now exist. There was no pathway for women to go pro and make a career of the sport before BMX joined the Olympic program in 2008.
She's been a big part of that growth. Shane Fernandez, president of USA BMX, said the influence of Willoughby and Fields — another veteran — has helped shape the sport in the U.S. "They are the heroes,'' Fernandez said. "Our pros, especially the Olympic team, are what fuel every generation of BMXers.''
The qualification process for the Tokyo Olympics made it possible for Willoughby to earn a spot early, allowing her plenty of time to train specifically for these Games. This week, she could become only the third athlete to win multiple Olympic medals in BMX racing. Willoughby will be among the favorites, with two-time defending gold medalist Mariana Pajon of Colombia and Laura Smulders of the Netherlands.
With 24 years of experience, Willoughby understands what she needs to do to be in medal contention. The key, she said, is to ride even the biggest races as if she is practicing on a Tuesday night at a track like Pineview Park, the facility her family still owns and operates in St. Cloud.
Another Olympic medal would be nice, but she doesn't need one to feel blessed.
"I know I'm in better form than I've ever been,'' Willoughby said. "That's a testament to what Sam and I have been able to accomplish together.''