Story and photos: Lizzy Bowers firstname.lastname@example.org
// Editor's Note: Lizzy is our newest team member. She is experienced in photography and is branching out with writing and interviews. We are very excited to have a young talent that is still currently racing on the squad. Please join us in welcoming her to the team. //
"The moment I put my helmet on, it's just me and my bike. Riding can correct bad days and make good days even better," Kaitlynn White says. Kaitlynn grew up racing with her Dad and has been racing for eighteen years. She's twenty-six now, has held multiple NAG plates, is a certified USA BMX coach, and has created many memories on her bike, having fun. Kaitlynn says BMX taught her how to persevere when things get hard, just like with life, "if things go wrong, you have to keep pushing, and things will get better. I've learned how not to let the wins get to my head, and the losses get to my heart I just move on to the next race." It hasn't always been easy for Kaitlynn, either. When she was in high school, the boys in her class thought they could beat Kaitlynn, only because she was a girl. They would hear that she did BMX and would think they could come out to the track and beat her. "I would always say, come on out! Come to the track! Let's see how well you do because I've got some younger kids at the track that could smoke you!" Everyone has to explain that BMX is not motocross, but not everyone has to explain that because they are a female racer, they are fast too.
Mckenzie Gayheart says she started racing because "my older brother used to race, and one day, my brother and my Dad took me out to the track and pushed me down the starting hill. I did not like it at all until I made it around the track. Then, I loved it so much. I've been racing for ten years now." Mckenzie is the 2018 UCI BMX Challenge World Champion, as well as a main event finalist in the Junior Elite main at Worlds this year in Belgium, and rides for Factory Full Tilt/ Radio. Mckenzie says she is underestimated all the time because she is a female racer. She likes to tell people who underestimate her to watch her ride, and usually, that stops them from continuing any further. People do treat her differently at her track because she's a girl, "They think like, 'oh, you must not be good.' But then I go out and ride, and then they are like wow she is really good!".
Shealen Reno, an Elite women's class racer, has many national rankings, rides for WIAWIS/LSG, and is currently sitting 8th in Elite Women National points. She has raced for 20 years and thinks she knows how to ride a bike better than she knows how to walk. She started racing when her Dad took her out to the track to watch her brother ride. But Shealen didn't watch for long. "I told him I wanted to try BMX racing. He said, 'No way, these boys are going to be superstars.' I immediately took my training wheels off my princess bike and taught myself how to ride within a week on the sidelines of Cowtown BMX. I haven't looked back since!" Starting off being without expectation, it not only gave Shealen a great story to tell but also highlights a lot of younger BMX girls' journey into the sport; right off the bat, they are counted out. Shealean remembers a lot of times she was underestimated because she was a girl. "I think my favorite story my parents tell me was when I was five years old, my family and I were at DeSoto BMX for a local race and my dad's buddy quickly ran up to him telling him he needs to go out to the parking lot, because 'Shealen is beating up a boy.' My Dad runs out there and pulls me off this kid. He asked me why I was punching that boy, and I replied, 'He said girls can't race BMX it's for boys.'"
Shealen proved that she was going to be the superstar. Unfortunately, many female racers are not even given the opportunity to start racing and are stereotyped from the very beginning because of their gender. When boys who have never raced think that they are faster than someone who has been racing for most of her life, there must be a problem.
Every girl interviewed for this article has a story of how someone miscalculated their speed because of gender. So why is this happening in the sport, what is the problem, and how can we fix it? Are there certain aspects of our sport we can change to make BMX racing more welcoming for girls? Are there are aspects of our sport at the local and national level that are holding girls back? There isn't one "correct" answer. There are a lot of ideas, but without action taken, none of these issues are going to get better.
However, BMX has come far in its acceptance of girls to the sport, possibly more so than most sports today. From being called powder puffs in the '80s, to having most classes for girls, and an incredible AA pro class, it's truly amazing. USA BMX has done a phenomenal job with supporting girls and has listened to the public's complaints and considerations, then making real, monumental changes that have an effect on every girl in this sport. Debbie Kaslow raced in the '80s, and even though she faced a challenge racing the boys, she pushed through and made history by becoming the first-ever female National Champion in two sanctions. Reflecting on where our sport has come in the last couple of decades, Debbie remembers that she and her fellow female racers had to "advocate super hard in the '80s to get our own classification and point standings." But, the impact of having to race the boys was still huge for Debbie. It changed the way she was able to race, and what choices she made in the sport, including her decision to retire from the sport entirely when she was 16. The most insulting part to Debbie was the fact that girls were called powder puffs. For her, it was something that they were labeled, and she dreaded that term. Today, Debbie is one of the biggest advocates for female racers, and through her tough girl's team and program, she mentors a countless number of girls. Her impact on the sport has been incredible, and female racers today are lucky to be impacted by the changes she and her friends brought to the sport.
Another advocate for female racers is Lisa Motley, the east coast team manager for Yess BMX. When she raced in the '80s, there were no pro girls and the oldest class was 14 and up. But Lisa didn't let that in any way stop her, she went on to have a World Title and the overall Female World Championship title in 1981, won both Grand Nationals, won the Can-Am games, as well as hundreds and hundreds of national competitions. Lisa also has encouraged many girls in the sport, through running her teams in a positive and supportive atmosphere, never discriminating because of gender, and being a female ally other female racers can turn to when needed. Back in the beginning, she even "held three free events at the Grands that were just for girls called the powder puff picnics. There were hundreds of girls in attendance. Some of the girls already raced, some were siblings of racers, and some were moms. They were able to have a rich, meaningful dialogue about BMX in an all-girls setting. The girls who are pro today attended these events.”
BMX has come so unbelievably far in the last decade, especially for female racers. No girls today will ever experience the struggles and systemic obstacles in their way like Lisa and Debbie faced, but there are still aspects of our sport that could be changed to make BMX even more accepting and welcoming for female racers. Recently, there have been apparent changes, like moving girls to intermediate instead of straight to expert. Although this might seem like an inconsequential or small change, the drastic results this has already have are encouraging. Kaitlynn says that she has already seen those changes too. She thinks this change is crucial because it helps keep girls in the sport since the girl's classes "Are vicious; we are rough. I think it's good to give girls that are new extra time to get their skills up." She's already seen an impact at her home track, as more girls have been attending the races and the coaching sessions she runs. Just like the male racers are not ready to race in expert straight out of the novice classes, neither are the female racers.
Another significant change has been the addition of the Juniors class. Having the Juniors class would have not only encouraged Debbie and Lisa to continue racing but also would allow other girls to have role models paving the way for them. When Kaitlynn was at the age to turn pro, there was no junior class, and although she didn't want to turn pro, she knew a few girls in her class that did. "Having a Juniors class would have been perfect for the girls I raced. I think it would have been awesome for them because it would have been the next step to becoming a pro." More pro women are a way to raise the number of young racers in the sport, not only because it shows them that they have a future in this sport, but also because it creates a more welcoming community at every track for females. Shealen raced in the first Juniors class for one year before it was removed. Because of her experience racing in the junior class, she is glad that the junior level has been brought back, because "it is developing a great group of girls coming up in the sport." Creating a path for younger girls who want to turn pro is huge, and will only help grow the sport. Mckenzie is one of those girls and is racing in the Juniors category this year. She decided to race in the junior class, because, "I love a challenge and I love racing the big hill. It's been hard, but it's made me step my game up one hundred percent." She plans on racing her second year of junior next year. Without the Junior class, Mckenzie says she would have stayed in the 17-20 class, and then after turned pro, which is becoming more and more common. This causes a lot of women racing in the 17-20 class who are not training to one day become pros, or who are just racing for fun, to be pushed out of national, gold cup, and state competitions because they are racing women who should be racing at the pro classified level. Because the top racers are waiting to turn pro after they age out of the 17-20 class, racers in the 17-20 class are basically racing in an A pro class. Competition like this is not bad, but when female racer numbers are dropping off significantly as they get older, it's one of the aspects that need to be addressed as one method to fix this issue. Having a Junior class for female racers is a step in the right direction.
Is BMX ready for an A pro class for female racers? I think to answer this question; we need to look back into the past. Debbie says, "making sure that we remain equal to boys and men, making sure that we have all the same opportunities that they have is important." And women do not have the opportunity to turn A pro. Instead, they are thrown in racing the Elite pros, which is incredibly intimidating. Lisa thinks that even though girls can race in the junior class until they turn 18, "there could be a little more. There's no girl A pro, no girl pro opens, no real opportunity to race their peers except junior Elite / Elite women races." And, if we have learned anything from the past, when given the opportunity, female racers will show up and with time, will fill those classes. The sooner that change is made, the sooner more girls will be encouraged to take racing even more seriously. Fewer girls will quit as they get older, local tracks will view female racers more seriously, more girls will have the opportunity to race pro, and the Elite women will be viewed even more seriously. Today is the day to make those changes, as the future generation of female racers cannot wait. As Shealen says, "Don't be afraid to forge a new path for yourself and for all those who will follow.”
On a more positive note, one huge win made in the last few years is that female Elite racers are paid equal to the men. That's huge. Monumentally huge. Other sports need to take note. According to USA BMX, "the USA BMX event prize money has been modified to ensure equal payout for both Elite Men and Women." an although Shaelen says, "turning pro is a big step, the amount of time it takes to train, travel and perform is a full-time job. So not only the time you put in, the financial return is not always enough to support a person without a second job", there is progress being made, starting with equal pay. Equal pay should not go unnoticed, as it is truly amazing and incredibly inspirational for every female racer.
Another win for the sport is the motivation female racers today have for bettering the sport for the next generation of girls. Everyone I have talked to is doing their best and has many ideas on ways to improve the sport for the future female racers. Debbie has seen a lot of girls stepping up, too. She has seen a lot of girls becoming mentors to younger girls, which she thinks is "a big part of getting people to stay in the sport, and also to encourage new riders to enter the sport." Mckenzie is one of those mentors making a difference. She supports younger girls by "making time for them and working with them, riding with them, and making it fun. It always seems to encourage them, and then they push their limits. To see them smile, it's amazing because it's the next generation!" Mckenzie also has a unique strategy to reach girls. She loves to reach out to them by sending a text, where she chats with them about normal things, like how they are doing. She's always encouraging and keeps things positive and fun. Shealen also supports the younger generation of female racers by having fun, possibly in the most fun way of all, "having an all-girls jam ride sessions." She thinks that because everyone is just going out to have fun on their bike and encouraging each other, it creates a positive atmosphere that allows girls to try more skill related things, skills they otherwise wouldn't try.
Without a doubt, having a positive atmosphere inspires growth. Tracks with positive scenes for female racers have more women attending, more families with every member included, and a more welcoming setting to every single new rider regardless of gender. In an atmosphere where female racers are valued and treated equal to the other male competitors, female racers flourish. I have had the opportunity to race at quite a few local tracks in the northern California area, and the environment compared to my home track is unreal. Kaitlynn is one of those female racers who race at these tracks, and she says in all her years racing, she has never, that she can remember, felt not welcomed or out of place at her home track because of her gender.
Consequently, there are over twice the number of female racers at each track and a huge vibrant mom's class. Mothers and daughters are encouraged to race, and families don't hold their younger girls back from racing. The older and younger boys are supportive of the female racers, do not brag or talk down on the female racers, and consider them equal. When I line up in the gate to race the boys, I am not singled out because of my gender. Instead, I am encouraged to compete and give it my all. This environment has brought so many other girls into the sport, but also made BMX more enjoyable for everyone involved. This environment is what I want to see at every local track.
Unfortunately, this is not the atmosphere every track has. As Shealen remembered fighting a boy because he said BMX is for boys, and Mckenzie is discounted all the time at her home track because she is a girl, there are quite a few tracks that do not have an inclusive environment for female racers. Even when I lined up in the gate at a track I frequently raced at to race the boys, every time someone would jokingly make fun of the boys by saying, "All right, ladies!" I always would say quietly, "but I AM a lady." There is no shame in being a lady, primarily because of all the astounding female racers in this sport. Saying this to the boys in my moto is not only hurtful to me but is also harmful to the boys I raced, not to mention it spread a negative attitude of competition. Unfortunately, this attitude also showed up in the number of female racers at this track. It was scarce. Having a negative atmosphere at tracks towards female racers not only hiders the track's ability to accept more racers into the sport, but prevents families from genuinely being able to participate. It prevents the rider count growing to its full potential, and it creates an environment where the boys are not shown how to respect and treat women. With a few encouraging words and removing biases, these tracks could so easily create a much more welcoming atmosphere and help to grow the entire sport of BMX.
BMX is truly an amazing sport. There are so many extraordinary people in this sport, so many incredible lessons to learn, and plenty of experiences that can apply directly to life. At the most basic level, BMX is just fun. We all are just riding our bikes and having fun on two wheels. Like the unreal female racers highlighted in this article, you can make a difference in the future generation of female racers as well. Next time you are at the track, say something encouraging, positive, and motivating to a younger girl. As Kaitlyn points out, it doesn't matter who is racing; it's all just competition. The girls are just as ambitious and vicious as the boys, sometimes more so, and "just because you're racing a girl, it doesn't mean it's going to be an easy race." Stop pre-staging ahead of the girls, stop talking down on girls at local races, stop viewing girls classes as less competitive as the boys, and start to be encouraging, supportive, respectful, and, if anything, realize that racing as a female is a lot different than racing as a male.
One thing remains the same, though; It's all BMX.