For Trailblazing BMX Racer Kamren Larsen, The Operative Word Is ‘Legacy’

by Bob Reinert

Kamren Larsen celebrates after winning gold in the men's BMX racing at the Pan American Games Santiago 2023 on Oct. 22, 2023 in Santiago, Chile. (Photo by Getty Images)

Growing up in California’s Central Valley, Kamren Larsen found a home away from home at the local BMX track. Some of his family members raced for fun, he said, so it was natural that he tried it out too.

Flash forward two decades and the 24-year-old from Bakersfield, California, is on the brink of being named to his first U.S. Olympic team. Should he see his name on the roster for the Olympic Games Paris 2024, Larsen would become the first Black U.S. athlete to compete in BMX racing at the Games.

It’s a distinction that he doesn’t take lightly.

“I think it would mean the world to me,” Larsen said in early June, ahead of the team announcement. “The first word that comes to mind is ‘legacy.’ Growing up, there wasn’t a lot of African Americans that I had to look up to. Luckily, I grew up in a household that didn’t really put that type of pressure on me.”

As the spotlight has shone brighter on him in recent years, Larsen said he’s recognized the importance of the “huge responsibility” he has.

“It also, I hope, inspires the kids of the next generation to understand and know that you can be from anywhere,” Larsen said. “You can be any skin color and make your dreams come true. Hoping to pave the way for those kids to understand that it’s possible.”

For much of his life, the Olympics weren’t really on the forefront. Sure, Larsen enjoyed some success and got to travel the world racing, but it wasn’t until the last two years that he really began turning heads on the elite BMX circuit.

“Growing up, I never thought I would really be one of those guys,” Larsen said. “I think I definitely exceeded my expectations. These last two years is kind of when everything ramped up. It just felt so far-fetched growing up that I didn’t necessarily think that I would ever be here. I feel like I finally paid my family back for the sacrifices that they’ve made.”

In April, Larsen wrapped up the 2024 UCI BMX Racing World Cup season with a bronze medal in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a result that clinched him fourth in the overall season standings. That followed his first national title a month earlier.

Kamren Larsen races during the men's elite semifinals at the 2024 BMX Racing World Cup on Feb. 25, 2024 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Getty Images)

A disappointing crash on his first turn at the world championships in May in South Carolina slowed his momentum some, but Larsen has shown over the last several months that he can contend against the best in the world.

Most notably, at the 2023 Pan American Games this past October in Santiago, Chile, Larsen made a big impression by edging fellow American Cameron Wood at the line by 0.05 seconds to take the gold medal.

“That was my first look at an Olympic-style event,” he said. “It was run just like (the Olympics). It was pretty cool. It was a big highlight for me, and honestly, it kind of ramped up my Olympic preparation for the next year. It kind of gave me some confidence and a good kind of look at what to expect this summer.”

Larsen’s Olympic journey began as a 5-year-old in 2005 at his local BMX park in Bakersfield. 

“I had family that raced very casually when they were growing up,” he said. “I think that’s probably how the idea came up of me just going out there and trying it.”

Larsen worked his way through local, state, regional and national events, eventually becoming a ranked rider. Between the ages of 13 and 15, he took a break to play high school sports, but in 2016 he received an invitation to train at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center in Southern California.

“It was a great experience,” he said. “I got like six or seven days at the facility. I got to see some other athletes train in the gym. I kind of learned basic stuff. It really kind of stoked my fire to want to take (BMX racing) as far as I could.

“Growing up, I always wanted to be a professional athlete of some sort. BMX racer wasn’t necessarily the goal. Really, since 2016 and on, I’ve been full on trying to reach this goal of becoming a Team USA Olympian.”

Larsen found that he enjoyed BMX racing more than team sports, where he would have to rely on others giving the same full effort that he did.

“I really love the process of having everything on your shoulders,” he said. “In BMX I found the harder I worked, the better I got. As I got older, the big jumps excited me, the big eight-meter starting hill that we race off excited me.”

Should he reach the Paris Games, Larsen would be joined by his coach, Arielle Martin-Verhaaren. She made the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team as a BMX racer but missed the Olympci Games London 2012 when she crashed and was injured during a training ride just prior to leaving. After meeting in in 2016 in Chula Vista, Larsen became determined to do his part to make up for that.

“Her story gave me a lot of inspiration,” Larsen said. “So, one of my goals starting in 2016 was to make it and go to the Olympics with her since she wasn’t able to compete.”