BMX cyclist Fields enjoys streak of World Cup wins
Connor Fields remembers getting off to his best start of the day. He remembers cruising to the front and carrying momentum into the final corner. And he remembers his legs giving out.
''I had nothing left in the tank,'' Fields said, ''and bam, the Aussie caught up to me.''
The Aussie was Sam Willoughby, who came charging up alongside Fields in a World Cup event, and they crossed the finish line so close together that nobody was sure who'd won. Willoughby thrust his hands in the air, and Fields collapsed on his seat, wiped out by just over 32 seconds of furious riding.
It wasn't until the photo was posted that the 19-year-old Fields was declared the winner of last weekend's World Cup stop in Randaberg, Norway.
The difference: two-thousandths of a second.
The closest finish in Supercross history also made Fields the first BMX rider to win three straight World Cup finals. The Olympic hopeful won the season-opening stop on his home track in Chula Vista, Calif., along with last season's finale at Chula Vista, and has built such a lead in the USA Cycling power rankings that his spot on the team headed for London is almost assured.
''It's a credit to my preparation in the offseason, the six months from October to March, just doing so much work and preparing,'' said Fields, who grew up in Las Vegas and trains in California.
''Not spending time with my friends because I was doing training camps,'' he said, ''it's kind of all paying off now. The fruits of my labor are starting to show.''
Heading into the third stop on the World Cup schedule, May 11-12 in Papendal, Netherlands, Fields has a stranglehold on the No. 1 spot in the world. Willoughby is far back in second place, and reigning Olympic gold medalist Maris Strombergs of Latvia lags behind in fourth.
That means the unassuming Fields, who was too young to even think about competing when BMX made its Olympics debut in Beijing in 2008, has emerged as the favorite for the London Games.
''He's got all the tools necessary for him to succeed,'' said Mike King, who directs the BMX program for USA Cycling. ''He's doing all the right things, saying all the right things. He's been very vocal about saying that when he's happy off the bike, he's having fun.''
Fields is certainly having a ball right now. That wasn't the case 18 months ago.
Fields achieved tremendous success as a junior, making three podiums and showing signs of future stardom. But his right knee had been causing him pain, and it reached the point where he could no longer ride without feeling as though his kneecap was grinding against bone.
He was diagnosed with patellofemoral pain syndrome, a relatively common condition among athletes. The cartilage in the knee thins and softens, creating painful rubbing in the joint.
Fields elected to have surgery in March 2011, a lateral release, which alleviated some of the pain but also knocked him off the track until midway through last season.
''I kind of had been dealing with it for a long time,'' he said. ''I couldn't handle it anymore, so I had the surgery to clean out the knee, put it back where it goes.''
Fields called the injury a blessing, because it allowed him to take a much-needed break from riding. He returned to make the main event at the world championships in Denmark, and showed he was back to form when he won the season-ending World Cup race in Chula Vista.
Not only did he win the final, he also posted the best mark in the time trial.
''He had a lot of potential coming into 2011, and then he had a knee injury that actually started at worlds back in July in 2010,'' King said. ''So we didn't get a chance to see who he was until July last year, and what we've seen has been pretty incredible.''
It's not just that Fields is winning finals. He's winning everything.
At the season-opener in Chula Vista, he had the fastest time in the time trial. He won his qualifying heat by besting a field of eight riders, and then won his quarterfinal and semifinal heats, before holding off Willoughby and American teammate David Herman in the final.
''Pretty impressive,'' said Mike Day, the reigning Olympic silver medalist. ''Confidence is everything in our sport, and he's on a really good roll right now.''
Fields still heard critics after his dominance in California, those BMX insiders who claimed that the young upstart couldn't win anywhere other than Chula Vista.
That made his performance last weekend in Norway all the more gratifying.
Fields had the fastest time trial, and again won his qualifying and quarterfinal heats to reach the semifinals. There he held off Willoughby to make the finals, and beat his Australian rival again to win his unprecedented third straight World Cup stop.
''We've had some consistent athletes, but for him to put together not just three wins, but three dominating wins - he's almost had three perfect events where he has not lost a single heat race or qualifier,'' King said. ''I know for a fact that nobody has ever done that before.''
Fields shrugged off the notion that he's peaking too early.
He said a plan developed by his coaches last August has been followed to the letter, and he expects to be riding his best when the Olympics roll around in August. He still believes he can rider better, which ought to send a ripple through the rest of the BMX world.
''To be honest,'' he said, ''I think I'm just getting started.''