Small Latvian city keeps creating Olympians, including Maris Strombergs

Olympic trainees converge at Sarasota BMX Track

The newly renovated Sarasota BMX Track is home base for Olympic trainees before departing for Brazil and will host a UCI BMX Supercross World Cup event in the fall.
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The newly renovated Sarasota BMX Track is home base for Olympic trainees before departing for Brazil and will host a UCI BMX Supercross World Cup event in the fall.

The sun finally poked out at the Sarasota BMX Track on Wednesday morning and Maris Strombergs ducked under a tent to cool off after his first training run. He tore his shirt off and sat on a bench across from Edzus Treimanis, his teammate, who will be joining him in Brazil next week as Latvia’s two BMX riders in the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Ivo Lakucs, their coach and another former Olympian, stands over them, recapping their day before they retreat to IMG Academy for the rest of the afternoon.

This has been the scene for Strombergs, Treimanis and Lakucs for more than 20 years. Lakucs, who is eight years older than Strombergs, was and Latvia’s first BMX star, and four years after he started riding at a small track in his hometown, Strombergs and Treimanis joined him.

This was long before BMX became announced as an Olympic sport in 2004 and even longer before Strombergs became an international star, eclipsing the legacy Lakucs created while paving the way for Latvian riders. Strombergs is now the only male Olympic gold medalist in the brief history of BMX and independent Latvia’s only multiple gold medal winner. Last week, he carried the flag for Latvia at the opening ceremony for the 2016 Summer Olympics before coming to Florida for a week of training in Bradenton and Sarasota with Olympic athletes from five countries.

More than 5,000 miles from home, trying to make history yet again, Strombergs is sitting around just like he did as a child in the city of Valmiera in Latvia.

“All the guys in BMX from our country getting to Olympics, we’re all from the same city,” Strombergs said. “We always had a good group of younger kids growing up.”

Latvia is already a small country with less than 2 million residents and Valmiera is one its smallest cities. The country defines a city as having at least 25,000 residents, and Valmiera is the second smallest of Latvia’s nine cities. It’s not even the only city with a BMX track. But somehow, it’s been the home to every male BMX Olympian from Latvia to qualify for the games.

About Sarasota BMX Track Recently renovated course is designed by Johan Lindstrom, the designer of all three Olympic courses. Olympians from Latvia, Germany, Thailand, the Netherlands and Colombia are training before departing for Brazil. Grand opening is Aug. 27. Sarasota BMX will host a UCI BMX Supercross World Cup race in October.

Lakucs remembers the sport’s explosion of popularity during the late 1980s when Janis Silins, a former cycling coach in Latvia, reached out to Gerrit Does, the founder of the International Bicycle Motocross Federation, to bring the sport to the country. By 1989, Lakucs said, about 900 people around the country were biking at their small courses spread across Latvian cities and towns.

The athletes’ parents were typically the coaches, and Latvia was 10 years behind the rest of Europe and another decade behind the United States in terms of development. The jumps at Lakucs’ local track in Valmiera were small enough for Lakucs to measure by holding his arms apart. In his first race against other Europeans, he remembers, the Latvians were only coming down the third straightaway when everyone else was crossing the finish line.

“Everybody a little bit laughed about us, but it was fine,” Lakucs said. “We wanted to win. That pushed us really hard.”

But in 1989, Lakucs’ team, BMX Talava, became the first to leave Latvia for a competition out of the country. At the time, Latvia was still a member of the collapsing Soviet Union and travel was restricted. The government didn’t worry about a team of kids riding bikes, though, so Lakucs and his friends went to Germany, where they were a fascination of the local media. He remembers one newspaper writing a story about how most of the kids had never eaten a banana before.

We were just sport for small kids, no politics inside. That's why we get outside.

Ivo Lakucs, Latvia BMX coach

This began a storied career for Lakucs, who is now 37 and coaches Latvia’s two Olympians. He began traveling out of the country more often for competitions around Europe and in 2003 won the European BMX Championships.

Strombergs, who is now 29 and most likely competing in his last Olympics, began riding in 2003 with a few friends in his neighborhood, including Treimanis. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, they’d meet up to make the 20-minute bike ride to the BMX track. There still wasn’t particularly advanced coaching, but there was Lakucs.

“He took us under (his) wing and helped us out a little bit,” Strombergs said. “He was someone we could look up to. That kind of helped. I think other riders from other cities, they didn’t have that.”

Less than four years into his career, Strombergs won the 1996 Union Cycliste Internationale worlds challenge class for his first international medal. He then won a European youth championship and a junior championship in 2005, right after BMX was announced as an addition to the 2008 Summer Olympics and right when BMX Talava became Latvia’s official Olympic training ground. As Valmiera produced more and more international contenders, the track was forced to grow into a full-blown Supercross facility — one of only two in Latvia.

And when 2008 arrived, Strombergs went from a rising star in an unknown sport to a history-making gold medalist — the first in his event and the second male gold medalist ever for independent Latvia. He was offered the honor of carrying the flag at the 2012 Summer Olympics, but he turned it down in favor of training.

The reception back home, however, changed his perspective. A few days after his event in 2008, Strombergs flew back to Latvia and drove into Valmiera around 1 a.m. The streets were flooded with fans to greet the hometown hero. This year, he accepted the flag-bearer honor and became the first male BMX rider to carry a flag in the parade of nations.

“It’s something special. I just really wanted to do it,” Strombergs said. “When you start to get older you appreciate those things.”

David Wilson: 941-745-7057, @DBWilson2