After qualifying for the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) BMX World Championships, local fifth-grader Nora Willmert, 10, and seventh-grader Avery Chartrand, 12, traveled to Belgium last week to compete against the world’s top BMX racers.
“The girls had a wonderful time in Belgium,” said Avery’s mom, Alissa Chartrand, noting they enjoyed meeting riders from around the globe. “They traded their jerseys with riders from Great Britain and Ireland.”
During the World Championships, Nora made it to the semi-final race, becoming one of the top 16 racers in her age group. Avery did not do as well as she’d hoped.
“Avery was a bit disappointed with her results,” Alissa said. “She was hoping to make it out of rounds, but an unfortunate crash in front of her caused her to miss the next round by one spot.”
After their race day the group set off to explore Europe, visiting France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
“We always like the girls to experience sights and the different cultures away from the track,” Alissa said. “This has definitely been a trip of a lifetime for these girls.”
an early start
Nora has been racing BMX for five years, and Avery has been racing since she was four years old (eight years). Both race at the expert level.
Alissa said her family got involved with BMX due to the proximity of the arena. Some friends invited their son to try it out, “and the rest is history,” she said.
“It’s crazy to think that a little girl of eight and 10 can qualify at a world platform,” said Katherine Willmert, Nora’s mom.
“(BMX) is an opportunity for many kids to be able to do that,” she said, “and we have a fantastic facility here that just grooms these kids to be top athletes in the sport.”
Nora grew up watching her older brother. When she was three or four years old, she told her parents she was going to race when she turned five.
“(She) basically skipped the strider thing, just peddled at home,” said Nora’s dad Reid Willmert, with Katherine noting they didn’t really think she was interested.
“The day she turned five she said, ‘I’m five now. I’m BMXing,’” Katherine said, with Reid adding, “She cried down the hill the first time.”
Competitors all the way
“It’s a really fun sport,” Nora said, noting the racers are friends. However, when the race is on, they are fierce competitors. After the race is over, everybody is congratulating each other and friends again, she added.
“There’s very good sportsmanship,” said Reid, noting that if someone goes down on the track, other riders will wait at the end of the track to make sure the rider is okay.
“One of the things that drew us to the sport is the family atmosphere,” he said, “and then just sportsmanship in the whole. It’s pretty cool to watch.”
Avery said she likes to compete with other girls racing BMX, and there are a couple girls who switch out placement in the top spots.
“I like to see what happens at different tracks for them,” she said.
“What I love about (Avery),” her mom said, “is that she’s a fierce competitor, but if you ask anybody here, she probably talks the least.”
And Avery gets a little embarrassed with the notoriety of being a top BMX racer, according to Alissa.
“I just love that inside of her is this little fire, ready to go,” Alissa said. “She’s just as calm, cool and collected in her own little world, but get her out on the track, and she competes just as fierce.”
‘Any kid can do it’
Both Avery and Nora have participated in BMX races throughout the United States, and this is their third time qualifying for the World Championship.
They participated in the World Championship race in 2017 in South Carolina. However, the World Championship in 2018 was located in Azerbaijan. The girls parents’ did not feel safe traveling to the Middle Eastern country, so the girls did not participate in the World Championships last year.
The girls are part of a factory team and are sponsored, so some expenses are paid. However, the cost of travel still falls on their families. Both families say they do what they can to finance their girls’ participation in races to other states and countries. They split travel expenses with other families, and vacations are spent at race tracks, Katherine noted.
“Minnesota is known as ‘Minnesota strong’ across the BMX community,” Katherine noted about the families working together. “‘Minnesota nice’ is known in the BMX community.”
BMX racing does not have to be expensive, though, Alissa said. Those beginning or trying it out can pay when they show up to race, and equipment can be rented or borrowed when just starting out.
“Any kid can do it, there’s no sitting on the bench,” she said. “You come, you do it.”
Katherine agreed, but said the sport can be intimidating.
“It’s a fast sport and it’s busy,” she said, “but all you have to do is go up to any staff person and say, ‘I’m new here,’ and they will just be taken under the wing. A little three-year-old can be in the gate with a 20-year-old fast kid (at practices). It builds a lot of confidence with the little kids, because they are with the big kids even at practice.”
She added that at races, kids are racing other kids their own age.
The coach of Avery and Nora’s factory team is Donovan Long of Houston, Texas, who coaches kids from all over the U.S. He is also the director of the 2020 World Championships that will be hosted by North Houston Bike Park.
Typically, BMX bike tracks are reconstructed with new obstacles every few years. Isanti BMX is currently being restructured, and it is being modeled after the North Houston Bike Park.
The girls train hard to get where they are at, practicing and training every week. Training consists of sprints, weight-lifting, working out and riding the track.
Avery, who says she is at the track nearly every day it is open, also coaches clinics for younger riders on Wednesdays.