Sport

Olympic hopeful Caroline Buchanan: 'We just saved our BMX trophies and our bikes'

Andrew Webster

The fire is coming. There is no time left. What do you take with you?

Wedding dress? Photo album? Laptop?

Gold medal hope: Australian BMX rider Caroline Buchanan.
Gold medal hope: Australian BMX rider Caroline Buchanan. Photo: Cole Bennetts

When the 2003 Canberra bushfires ripped the heart out of the outer suburb of Duffy, 13-year-old Caroline Buchanan and her family grabbed the possessions that mattered most.

"We just saved our BMX trophies and our bikes," she explains. "We got our bikes and threw them in the trailer. My Dad, Laurie, jumped off the roof and said: 'We gotta go'."

Why the bikes?

"Because they were so important."

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From there, the Buchanan family drove through the apocalyptic scene all around them to her grandmother's house. The back of the home was on fire.

Laurie dragged her from the flames, literally straight out of her slippers. When they returned the next day, they were the only things that remained.

Then the family, which includes mum, Gail, and older brother, Sam, high-tailed it to Goulburn because the feeling for those in the middle of the firestorm was that the nation's capital was about to become toast. In the end, four lives were taken, nearly 500 were injured and 200 homes destroyed.

"We were pretty much running for our lives," Buchanan says. "It came really fast. It came out of nowhere."

Buchanan had grown up on the edge of a mature pine forest. She started riding her BMX in the front yard and then progressed to the plantation across the road, using the terrain to develop her skills.

Cycling was in the blood. Laurie was a competitive track cyclist in Britain, and Sam also competed in BMX. Before the fires, the family's youngest was winning national titles, too.

The day after the fire, they returned home.

"We weren't sure if our house would be there when the residents were allowed back in," she says. "It was house, no-house, no-house, house, house … We were 'no-house'."

All that was left amid the rubble was the washing machine. Gail opened it up and a load of washing was still intact. They wore those clothes for the next week. "It was all we had.

"And our bikes," she says. "From then on, I had a different perspective on sport. As a family, we used sport to keep us on track. It didn't matter where we lived after that, what was going on or what we did or didn't have, we had sport. We had our bikes so as a family we had something. As a family, after the fires, we just rode our bikes."

If you don't know Caroline Buchanan, you should. She's the 25-year-old BMX rider with the Pink-styled haircut who has won numerous world titles and will be one of Australia's leading gold medal prospects at the Rio Olympics in August.

This Sunday, she competes in the Oceania championships in Auckland as part of Olympic qualifying.

The sport might not be on everyone's radar now, but it will be come August.

BMX racing was the skinny jeans of the London Olympics. It was so fashionable David Beckham took sons Romeo, Cruz and Brooklyn to watch the finals.

"I did think about that in the Olympic final at the start gate," Buchanan says with a smile. "They were always putting him up on the screen. That was another thing you don't think of when you are preparing. I wouldn't have Beckham at a world champs sitting there and watching."

Buchanan smashed the earlier rounds in London and had first choice of the lane. She opted for three, and then Great Britain rival Shanaze Reade took lane one.

"I thought it was a great idea at the time," Buchanan says.

Instead, Colombian Mariana Pajon chose lane four and shut down both of them, claiming gold, while Buchanan and Reade missed the start and finished outside the medals.

At the finish, Buchanan was an emotional wreck. While she had won world titles in BMX and mountain biking, she suddenly realised the Olympics was on another level.

Distraught: Buchanan after the final at the London Olympics.

Distraught: Caroline Buchanan after the final at the London Olympics. Photo: Pat Scala

"After London, I knew I had to be more prepared for Rio," she says.

The nature of the sport and the competition format, though, means there is only so much preparation that can be done.

In short, the sport involves a frantic 40-second race over a 450m dirt track – although the sprayed surface feels like concrete for those who tumble off – at speeds of 60 kilometres per hour with three turns and jumps of varying difficulty.

The start is like a horse race -  if you don't get into a good position early, your race is essentially over.

"We're all animals locked up behind a gate," Buchanan explains. "It is very competitive. The inside is an advantage but you can really win from any lane. Anything can happen, a lot of crashes, you can be taken out from behind. There aren't too many rules.

"It can get very tough. There aren't many Olympic sports where you can take someone out and it's fine. There's always two ways to win - win dirty and take someone out and risk yourself crashing as well, or play to your strengths, have a strategic battle.

"That's what makes it so rewarding when you do win and overcome all that. It would be simpler going to an Olympic Games knowing you had to nail one trick that you've done a hundred times and if you do it you'll win. Or if you're a swimmer, if you swim a certain time you will win. In BMX, there are no guarantees."

Sounds like madness.

She laughs.

"One medal. One shot. One lap. Eight riders. No lanes. No right of way. Just go."

On the finish line in London, Buchanan made a pledge to herself with Rio in mind. She wanted to achieve a crazy goal of winning three world championships in 56 days in three different sports.

And then she went out and won downhill mountain biking, mountain cross and BMX world titles.

Since then, she has blossomed. When she is not on the road, she divides her life between Canberra and Southern California. She is media savvy and has a huge following on social media. She is the face of the sport alongside Sam Willoughby, who claimed silver in the men's event in London.

Her nickname had been "Cannonball" around the London Games, but it has worn off.

"I get called Pink quite a lot," she says. "The Pink of the Action Sport World. Or Queen of the Dirt - some call me that. There are some that come and go. Caroline. She's a bad arse. I like her."

Given the unpredictability of the sport, it is impossible to call her the favourite for the women's event in Rio.

Such is the progression of the sport, the course has become more challenging. Speeds have increased, and the jumps will now be triples instead of doubles. It will be bigger and more technical, which suits her.

When she gets to the start line in Rio, and she is holding her breath and waiting for the red light and four beeps that will signal it is time to fly and the gate drops, Buchanan probably won't be thinking about how far she has come.

A year after the bushfires ravaged her family, her brother was involved in an accident while racing BMX.

"He broke the C3 and C4 vertebrae in his neck," Buchanan says. "He was a quadriplegic momentarily, then a paraplegic and then he regained some feeling and underwent surgery. He was the one who got me into the sport of BMX. He did all his rehab and I kept riding."

Canberra rebuilt itself after the bushfires, too.

"People literally gave others the shirt off their back," she says. "And their shoes. And then they built Stromlo Forest Park. It's a big world-class mountain bike venue in Canberra, built out of the ashes. That's where I won my first mountain bike world championship in 2009. I was 18.

"We were a young family and we lost absolutely everything. For months afterwards, you go to grab something and then you realise you don't have it.

"We lost everything that day, but we had our lives."

And their bikes.

*Buchanan is an ambassador for BMX Australia's National Sign On Day from February 6-21. Website: www.bmxaustralia.com.au.

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