GB’s Charlotte Worthington cooks up BMX freestyle shock for Olympic gold

From pan-flips in Chorlton to backflips on a bike in Tokyo, it has been quite a ride for Charlotte Worthington.

After leaving college Worthington worked full-time in restaurants near Manchester cooking pies and Mexican food. It was a recipe for late nights, fatigue, and the kind of diet not typically associated with Olympic athletes.

But BMX freestyle was added to the Olympic programme in 2017, giving her a target that she reached in style as she became the first woman to land a 360-degree backflip in competition. The twirling trick sealed gold on Sunday ahead of the American star Hannah Roberts.

Worthington fell when she tried the backflip in her first run but did not hesitate to attempt the risky feat again, knowing that a second slip would destroy her podium hopes. “I think it’s been gold medal or nothing this whole journey. I think as soon as we set the goal of gold medal it’s go big or go home,” she said.

“I’ve learnt on the years prior to this, competing, that if you gamble and give yourself that chance it’s going to pay off better – and you’ll feel better than if you hold back and think of what might have been.”

Cheering her on was her teammate, Declan Brooks. Worthington later returned the favour, crossing her fingers in the stands as the 25-year-old from Portsmouth took the bronze in the men’s event to cap a triumphant Olympics for British BMX riders. Bethany Shriever won gold in women’s BMX racing two days earlier, with Kye Whyte taking the men’s silver. “We got so emotionally invested in those guys,” Brooks said. “It definitely spurred us on.”

Brooks and Worthington train at Adrenaline Alley skatepark in Corby, Northamptonshire, where they attempted to replicate the scorching Japanese summer by turning on the heaters during practice. They only managed to raise the temperature to 25C.

That was six degrees cooler than sun-broiled Tokyo as riders flew, spun and twisted across an obstacle course of ramps and walls in two 60-second runs, performing tricks with names such as the one-handed tabletop, the truck driver and the can-can to a soundtrack of hip-hop beats and squealing tyres. Judges ranked routines out of 100 based on difficulty, originality, height, creativity and execution.

Gymnastics with handlebars, BMX freestyle is a new event at Tokyo 2020, like skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing, as the Olympics chase younger audiences and the misfits go mainstream. It has delivered some of the most distinctive images of the Games as riders rotate head-over-pedals with the five rings as a backdrop. And it features some of the most soaring cyclists since ET, the Steven Spielberg film that helped to bring BMX to wider attention in the 1980s. Brooks has his own Hollywood story: he was a stunt rider in Mary Poppins Returns.

Success requires bravery as well as technique; the higher the jump, the better the score, but the harder the fall. Brooks was a doubt for Tokyo after a failed double backflip knocked him unconscious at the world championships in Montpellier in June, leaving him with head and shoulder injuries. So he did the trick early in his routine here, to get it out of the way.

Roberts, the three-time world champion, broke her back in a tumble aged 10, landing beside several of her teeth. Now 19, she was the strong favourite here, pumping her fists, weeping with joy and flinging her bike down a purple-and-black ramp in relief and delight after a near-perfect first run scored 96.1. “You can tell Hannah is definitely stoked,” the venue’s announcer observed.

The tally looked unbeatable. What Roberts did not know is that Worthington had been secretly practising her 360 for months and was sure she could stick the landing when it mattered most. “I keep my cards close to my chest because it definitely pays off in these situations,” she said. “It was definitely a gamble and it’s amazing when gambles pay off.”

The rest of her ride was scarcely less impressive and after an agonising wait the score flashed up on the big screen: a staggering 97.5. She was in first place. But Roberts, the last of the nine competitors to go, still had another chance. Breathing deeply and chewing her mouthguard, she stumbled off her pedals while landing an early double tailwhip and screeched to a halt, calling an end to her run with 50 seconds left and sparking wild celebrations among the British contingent.

“Charlotte came through and kicked my butt,” Roberts said as she hobbled out of the arena with her right foot in a walking boot, the legacy of an injury in training.

Worthington, the daughter of a gardener and a supply teacher, started off riding scooters as a hobby and realised she loved “anything with wheels”. She did not ride BMX seriously until she was 19. “It was only when I started going to a couple of events, taking some opportunities, that I started to meet people from British Cycling and I learned about BMX being in the Olympics,” she said. “I started taking opportunities that came my way and it all snowballed into this journey.”

Now she has Olympic gold to add to her British and European titles and a return to her previous career seems unlikely. Asked if her chef days are over, she replied: “I bloody hope so.”