Alise WilloughbyCyclingNews

‘The Beast’ Rides On: Alise Willoughby’s Journey Toward Paris Goes Through BMX Worlds In South Carolina

by Chrös McDougall

Alise Willoughby poses for a portrait during the 2024 Team USA Media Summit on April 15, 2024 in New York. (Photo by Getty Images)

It’s Friday night at the local BMX track, and the announcer has a problem: The hotshot young girl about to race doesn’t have a nickname.

“He said, ‘I can’t think of anything the rhymes with Alise,’” that girl recalled.

So on a whim, he called her “The Beast.”

“I probably weighed 60 pounds,” the former Alise Post said. “I was a little gymnast, like probably 8 or 9 years old at the time. And the irony of it, all the dads and moms thought it was hilarious.”

Now 25 years later, that young rider is 33 years old with an Olympic silver medal and a pair of world titles to her name. At 5-foot-2, she still physically resembles Belle much more than the Beast, but the nickname still applies — though Alise, who married Sam Willoughby in 2017, now sometimes gets called “the Willoughbeast.”

“So yeah,” she said. “It stuck.”

And so has she.

Over nearly two decades of racing, Alise Willoughby has had a front-row seat for a period of massive growth in the sport, including its 2008 debut at the Olympic Games, while also accomplishing just about all there is to accomplish as an athlete.

Yet when the elite riders sidle up to their starting positions Friday to open the 2024 world championships in Rock Hill, South Carolina, Willoughby intends to be among them, aiming to add a third world title at the same venue where she won a first seven years earlier. Then, if all goes as planned, she’ll be heading to the Olympic Games Paris 2024.

Alise Willoughby competes during the women's BMX semifinals at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 30, 2021 in Tokyo. (Photo by Getty Images)

In a sport where some of her opponents were born after Willoughby’s first professional title in 2006, the veteran remains as motivated as ever.

“I still think there’s more there,” Willoughby said at last month’s Team USA Media Summit in New York. “And until I feel not motivated to show up at training, that’s when I’ll pull the plug on things. But I still feel like I have more to give and that I can be better and have more potential.”

Willoughby has been building on that potential from her earliest days on the bike back home in St. Cloud, Minnesota, a city of 70,000 just an hour northwest of the Twin Cities.

The kid sister to a pair of BMX-loving brothers, Alise raced for the first time at age 6. By 11 she was sponsored and stringing together a run of amateur and then professional titles. She should have been a shoo-in to compete at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 — if not for the 19-year-old age minimum in effect at the time. Instead, the 17-year-old returned her focus to St. Cloud Tech High School, where she was also a three-time state champ in gymnastics, a track-and-field standout and a straight-A student.

Upon moving to Southern California, where she attended the University of San Diego and established a training base at the U.S. facility in nearby Chula Vista, Willoughby set about fulfilling her BMX potential at the international level.

A crash in the semifinals upended her Olympic Games London 2012 debut, but Willoughby was back in 2016 to earn a silver medal, which is still the top performance by a U.S. woman in the sport. She won her first world title the following year, then added another two years later in 2019.

BMX can be a brutal and unforgiving sport, though, and Willoughby is well-versed in that side, too. She’s gotten up from countless crashes and come back from multiple surgeries. And then there’s the inherent unfairness of the chaotic, sometimes random 30-second races.

Three years ago at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, Willoughby arrived with gold-medal aspirations. A pair of crashes in the semifinals abruptly ended that.

“I think the biggest thing I’ve learned even since Tokyo,” she said, “I don’t think anyone was outworking me. I don’t think anyone was more prepared. I truly believe I was in the best shape in Tokyo. It just wasn’t my day. But just because you show up and do everything right, the game doesn’t care. You’re not entitled to anything.

“Once you grow to learn to accept that you have to put in the work with no guarantee, I think you’re mentally more able to accept the outcome of things.”

Perhaps never has that been truer than with Sam Willoughby. A 2012 Olympic silver medalist and two-time world champion for Australia, he set out for a training session a few weeks after the 2016 Olympics when a fluke crash left him paralyzed from the chest down.

He and Alise, who were engaged at the time, married on Dec. 31, 2017. Sam is now supporting his wife as her coach.

“You have to find the silver lining,” Alise said. “And honestly, Sam is my biggest motivation in the respect that he shows up every day even though … it’s unfair what happened. He shows up, and he gets on with it. So you know, if he’s going to do that, I’m going to do that.”

And so every day, Alise gets up and heads to the track, her focus on whatever the goal is for that day’s training session or race. At this stage in her career, she says she doesn’t have anything left to prove. She just wants to be the best she can be.

“I’ve achieved most everything that you can achieve within the sport, but I know that I have more in me and there’s still more potential there,” she said. “So I’m chasing that. That’s what makes me sleep at night and helps me just be able to focus on ticking the boxes every day.”