First they said he was too scrawny to ride. Then they said he would never be a competitor. Now, 5-foot-5 BMX racer Donny Robinson is set to do battle this summer in the first Olympic sanctioned BMX competition. MF.com caught up with Robinson to get his thoughts on hill sprints, the rise of BMX racing, and why Latvian Cyborgs are gunning for the gold this year.
What does having BMX as an Olympic sport mean to you?
I was thinking about this last night. I was never supposed to make it as a BMX racer because of my size. So for me it's that pinnacle. But I also think it doesn't get any bigger than having the chance to be an Olympian in the sport that was never supposed to be an Olympic sport.
It must be interesting for you considering that most kids who take up sports like track or gymnastics know that if they become the absolute best in their sports they'll have a shot at the Olympics. Until now, that wasn't the case for BMX.
I used to do gymnastics when I was younger. Let's just take the '96 women's team for instance. I was drawn to them and what they did. I was like, I love gymnastics and I love the Olympics but I would have to give up BMX to be an Olympian. As bad as I wanted to feel the pride of representing my country on the world stage and doing something great at the Olympics, I couldn't see giving up my passion of BMX for just that. So to have the chance to do both now is unreal.
How did your other activities, like gymnastics and dancing, contribute to your success in BMX?
I've always attributed much of my success to gymnastics. My mom was a gymnast, so I got that gene from her. Having that upper-body strength and explosive power you need to be on the floor as a gymnast, helped me out a lot when it came to BMX. You need that explosiveness and that's why I kept doing it till I was 17 years old. You can only do so much in the gym and on the bike. Dancing was just fun. It was more choreographed Broadway type stuff. But the balance between dancing and gymnastics gave me the body I'm able to keep now for BMX.
How much time do you spend in the gym as opposed to your time on the bike?
I now spend about 80 percent of my time in the gym. Two to three times a week it's lower body stuff with squats, lunges and core work. I spend 4-5 days in the gym with lower body and upper body. The other couple days are plyometrics. The bike training doesn't happen so much at home. We're not home much anyway but when we are we try to work on strength and explosiveness. When we go to the races, which are every week, it transfers over to the bike.
Have you always worked out so much with BMX?
It's just been the last four years actually. My dad and I have made our own training programs through workouts we got from other riders and their dads. So, for example, I do grass sprints and hill sprints. I'll sprint 100 yards on grass, which simulates a long sprint on a track. I do those types of exercises. It's all about working hard. But in the past, I felt if I wasn't dead tired at the end of the day that meant I wasn't training hard enough. All the way up till I was 19 it was just about knocking it out as hard as I can. Then I got a trainer a few years ago and it's changed 180 degrees. It's about training smarter now. It's so much easier for me now because I don't have to guess on what's going to help me.
How does your size affect your training? Are there certain things you do that a taller guy like Mike Day can't or vice versa?
It's always been about what I can't do. Everybody's always said 'you can't do this because it's a big guy's sport. They have more power than you and when they hit you you're going to fly off the track.' I've been able to prove people wrong on that because I've found my strength and use it to my advantage. With my size, I can fit into smaller spots on the track and make tighter moves. The reason I'm competitive is because I have a good strength-to-weight ratio and have been able to build up enough strength to get out in front of these guys. I'm not in the pack and getting bumped and hurt like I was when I first turned pro. Mike Day was meant to be on a bike. Regardless if he's racing or doing tricks, the kid just flows. If you have a rhythm section and deep jumps, those are his skill areas. He's just so smooth and having such long legs can gain that speed where I can't because I have shorter legs. But I'm stronger than Mike, so I can get out in front better than he can. But he can come from behind better than I can too.
BMX has always seemed like a traditionally American sport. Who do you see as the biggest competition internationally going into Beijing?
In the past few years, the Australians and Dutch have been super consistent and you always know they're going to be threats. Since we've been riding with these guys more we've gotten to know their riding style a little bit. The Australians are kind of like the U.S. riders. It's tough to tell what the differences are. In the last 8 months these two Latvian kids — we call them the Cyborgs — they train just like Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. They look just like him — they're blond and huge. They're doing really well right now and we're wondering what they're doing that's making them improve so much. Their style on the bike and the way they take the track is so basic. There's no style to it — just power and getting the job done. That's kind of different than the U.S. riders and Australians. We're more loose on the bike and like to style a little bit.
What's the biggest misconception people have about BMX?
When you say BMX, people think of Dave Mirra. That's the biggest challenge we've had so far. You've got to say BMX racing and then people get it. BMX racing is racing — it's one lap and not judged. The person who crosses the finish line first wins. It's not a team sport, you get to make your own destiny. And by the way, we're going 40 miles per hour on 40-foot jumps next to seven other riders that are an inch from your handlebars. You gotta get through to the viewers and let them see how gnarly of a sport this is and how awesome it is for riders but also for the spectators to watch. You're on the edge of your seat. Anything can happen in BMX. The best rider doesn't always win — because of a mistake out of a gate or someone hits you coming out of a jump — that's the excitement of BMX racing.