‘Just gotta send it’: smiling my way into history
The day after BMX star Caroline Buchanan missed Tokyo Olympic selection, she got recruited for a prestigious mountain bike event in Germany. The Aussie became the first ever woman to produce a front flip in competition.
In an alternate reality I would have been recovering and reflecting on a third Olympics in green and gold instead of sitting on a mountain bike in a German quarry, telling myself to smile before attempting something no woman had ever achieved.
I looked down at the dirt jump, said ‘just gotta send it,’ and did exactly that. As I came around I saw sky, and the quarry and then I thought ‘come on, come on!’. And when my wheels touched down I’d become the first female MTB rider in history to land a front flip in competition.
It was the first time I’d ever attempted the trick on dirt, but the process to get to that ‘send it’ moment was obviously calculated, with a few hurdles to overcome.
I have my positive affirmations and one of those is I tell myself ‘Caroline, you’re extremely talented, just smile and let it flow’.
That’s always been something I’ve done, whether it was racing or freestyle. Just a simple smile can change your whole body dynamics.
You always want to bring out the best performer in yourself and to me it’s a cue to go, ‘your body knows what to do, let it happen, smile and let it flow.’ That helps me deliver.
Achieving this feat gave me a different feeling to winning world championship titles and other big events in the past.
With those, you’re racing against competitors. The feeling of doing a world first trick for myself was extremely rewarding, because the biggest battle is in your mind.
I knew I had the physical ability to do it, and I trained it, but I had to get over the mental hurdle. Take that deep breath, have that little reminder to myself, and then execute it.
You have to put all the fear talk behind you, and that’s the biggest challenge, especially nowadays with how the world is.
You have all those reminders pop up: ‘I don’t want to get injured, I don’t want to be in a European hospital by myself with COVID going on, I don’t want to travel back to Australia and sit in hotel quarantine for two weeks injured and alone’.
The fear talk in your head can be as big a challenge as executing the trick – the ability to put it behind you and focus on the positive.
I got the sense humans are fragile
Injury is something I’ve endured plenty of in the past – the worst coming in December 2017 when an off-road buggy rolled on me. I was in the ICU for four days.
I got the sense that you’re not invincible. That humans are fragile. But I thrive on adversity.
I’ve got metal and hardware in my body for life. There have been three sternum reconstructions with three different metal plates. The third one that went in is an X shape. It’s got 10 bolts through it, and two wire cables bracing it together as well.
It means I need to work on my mobility and stretching constantly. The pain response increases if I’m not eating well and keeping my inflammation down. I have an infrared sauna at home, use detoxing and stay healthy. That all helps.
My rib cage is stiffer because it’s all bolted together, so I do a lot more breath work and mobility with yoga.
If I have that maintenance, then it is a thing of the past. But if I get a bit lazy, I notice my body doesn’t work the same as it used to.
It was never going to stop me pursuing my sport. I wear a lot of body armour and chest protection, but it’s more for peace of mind.
I’d never want to land on the bike, or cop a pedal or bar end to it, but my surgeon told me it would take the same weight of a vehicle to do the same kind of impact. So I knew that I couldn’t really re-damage it on a bike.
‘You called me at the perfect time, let’s go’
I had competed at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics and my accident did have an impact on my bid to go again in Tokyo.
Because of COVID, our selection events, like a lot of sports in Australia, were cancelled pre-Olympics.
Selection became discretionary, with some of the results they used going back to 2019 events. That was challenging for me, having been out injured for two years in the lead up to the qualifying period.
I was banking on World Cups and other events being on the calendar and looking for results in those – but they were cancelled.
I knew, getting close to the Games, there were no events popping up and I saw the writing on the wall.
So I started planning ahead towards what was going to happen if I wasn’t selected and then what I was going to do with my career, juggling COVID, juggling everything.
I knew that the last stone that I really wanted to turn in BMX was to go to another Olympics. I’d already achieved world championship titles, national titles been to two Olympics for BMX already.
The day after I found out about missing the selection for Tokyo, I got a phone call from the organiser of the Audi Nines competition in Germany. She told me it was the first time women were invited and I’d been selected as one of the nine girls globally.
I told her, ‘you called me at the perfect time, let’s go’.
It was already where I wanted my career to be heading. Sometimes, with the universe, if you are in line with your direction, those doors open easier.
Stomped it first go
My boyfriend John is a motorbike rider who’s competed for Suzuki Australia and raced the national Supercross circuit and has started doing a bit more freestyle as well.
We got an airbag and rebuilt our backyard compound with motorbike jumps and ramps and in starting to transition from the BMX and Olympics, I put a lot of time in on that airbag.
I visited a friend – Australian Nitro Circus athlete, Ryan Williams – who has an airbag in his backyard. He did the ultimate peer pressure thing and said ‘you’re gonna learn a front flip today’ and within a couple of goes he taught me how to front flip to his airbag.
After that I knew I could have taken it to dirt at home but I also felt it should be special, in the moment of an event like Audi Nines, with global media reach and all the best athletes in the sport there.
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To do a world’s first? That’s the environment to do it.
The jump in the quarry was actually a lot shorter than the jump in my backyard. So I had to change my technique a little bit on the lip to lean back and get that rotation a little bit earlier.
But the guys gave me great support, demoed it a few times for me then just had that little reinforcement to go, ‘Alright, now’s the time.’ I stomped it first go.
Flipping out in front of 40,000
This is the path I’m meant to be on now, helping pave the way in this virtually new sport for women.
Mountain biking, and I really don’t know why, hasn’t had many events open to women. Without the opportunity or the platform, that’s caused a massive gap in the progression of girls.
There hasn’t been a pathway for female athletes, with no income or real future in it.
I think what’s happening is a bit of a domino effect where when you open a door in one sport, the next one sees it and they have to follow.
It’s a combined effort of all these action sports, such as BMX freestyle, skateboarding and surfing being in the Olympics now, and X Games adding more medal events for women, rather than just demos.
Now there are events like Audi Nines, Crankworx and X Games where women are in with the men and they’re broadcasted.
There are a lot of girls like me who have taken a career path down other avenues because that’s where the money, sponsors and endorsements have been and now this is opening.
I’m heading to an event next month in New Zealand where I’ll compete in a few different disciplines. There’s pump track, which is no chain, just all raw pumps skills. Then slalom, which is down a course with corners and flags and jumps and that’s head-to-head racing.
There is another category called speed and style, which is the speed of slalom but they have two trick features. That’s blending the freestyle and the racing together, a category which I’m super inspired by now.
I was aiming to compete at the Nitro Circus World Games in Brisbane in October. However, those have just been cancelled.
But that remains a major goal – getting on the Nitro Circus mega ramp and doing the front flip, front flip no handers and double backflips in front of a 40,000 strong crowd.
The change has been really refreshing. I started racing when I was five years old. I was competing at nine years old at international events.
I turned nine years old in Paris, 10 in Argentina, 12 in Holland. I’ve experienced high performance sport, and now I’ve got the option in my career with my brand and sponsors that I can take these avenues where I can do different sports and enter different realms.
My mission is steadfast
The disciplines I’m tackling might have changed, and I’ve made some tweaks to my scholarship foundation, but my mission to help other females make a career in the sport remains steadfast.
For the last seven years, I’ve supported 12 girls to go from the national championships to the world titles under my Buchanan Next Gen program.
It was inspired by surfing champion Layne Beachley, who was one of my mentors when I was about 14 and helped me through her scholarship foundation.
Ignite is an evolution and rebranding of what I’ve already done to suit the world we live in now, making it more project-driven instead of funding the athletes’ travel.
I’ve opened it up from the ages of 13 to 19 and opened up the sports, so it’s for anything BMX, anything mountain bike and anything Moto.
I’ll choose a girl in each of those categories and at the moment, the girls are pitching their projects to me. The scholarships will bridge the gap between where they are now and where they want to be.
For me, there are more tricks out there to conquer. And more girls to inspire and support from the future, helping them do cool stuff they can’t yet imagine.