NIKITA DUCARROZ OLYMPIAN

Glen Ellen’s Freestyle BMX star pedals her way to Tokyo.

The distance from the backyard BMX bike ramp behind her family home in Glen Ellen to the Ariake Urban Sports Park in Tokyo, Japan—site of the first-ever Olympic BMX freestyle competition this August—is about 5,100 miles. It takes about 11½ hours to fly there from San Francisco.

But for Nikita Ducarroz, who will be one of those Olympic riders, the time and distance have been infinitely longer. It has been a journey of years and immeasurable miles, out of darkness and fear, through crippling anxiety and depression, terrified of airplanes, unable to attend public school or venture beyond the family driveway.

Until she began riding a BMX bike.

Then, layer-by-layer, she began growing stronger and bolder, emerging from the chrysalis of her fear as a strong, focused, daring, and determined competitor until, by 2019, she reached the heights of international freestyle, and is currently ranked number 3 in the world among female riders.

Nikita Ducarroz

Along the way she moved out of the protective womb of the family home to live independently in San Diego, earned an online degree in sports management from Grand Canyon University, and launched a very public Instagram site—called “Mind Tricks”—to promote open discussion of very personal mental health issues. In a moving video posted on her Facebook page, Ducarroz explains why.

“I used to feel flooded with anxiety,” she says. “I couldn’t breathe. I know what fear looks like, because I used to hide from it. My friends, my family, the BMX community, they listened, they got me out of the dark place, they gave me a chance to be free, and I went for it. Now, I look fear in the eye, because avoiding your fears only makes them scarier.”

“I want to give back to the community, to help others overcome their anxieties and fears. So I created Mind Tricks with my friend Patrick Kelly to bring a platform where we could share stories of mental health and things we’ve gone through. Having dealt with anxiety and depression myself, I just wanted to find a way to talk about it more in the open and let others do the same, because talking about it has always been just a big help, and there’s other people going through it as well, you know, to give a platform to other people to do the same.

“It’s important for other people as well just to know that it’s there and get the word out that mental health is not something that we need to keep in the dark. We’re here to empower the makers and promote the people challenging the norm, providing a platform from which they can continue to change.

“Become the one who listens, and be good to people.”

A visit to the Mind Tricks Instagram site, flooded with photos and testimonials from the BMX community, is cleansing, comforting, inspiring.

Nikita is 23 now, although she often seems older and wiser than that, and there’s a lot of public attention following her as she literally circles the world, following a trail of BMX competitions. In the past year her travels included North Carolina, Japan, the UK,

Switzerland, France, Austria, Poland, Costa Rica, back to California, France again, the Netherlands, Denver, Huntington Beach, Arizona, Switzerland again, and China.

Before the Olympics entered the picture, the BMX world was considerably simpler, with fewer events and less focus on accumulating points for a chance to qualify.

But still, says Ducarroz, “It’s cool, because it used to be only a couple of events, and it was like you could go to every single one. And then you were wishing there was more. And this year, there were so many events that I had to turn down because it wasn’t physically possible to go to every single one.”

The proliferation of competitions also had the effect of changing rider strategies by heightening the opportunity-versus-risk equation. While a lot of factors go into judges’ scores in BMX competitions, difficult tricks successfully executed will often determine the winner.

Some of those tricks include aerial spins of 540 degrees or more, 360-degree flips, taking hands and feet completely off the bike in midair, and numerous other high-speed motions that can all end badly.

To date, Nikita has broken both feet, torn both a PCL and an MCL, chipped both elbows, “and little things like that.”

Before the Olympic opportunity arrived, when riders got hurt they just sat out events until they healed. But in the last year, missing an event because of injury could kill your chances of making it to the Tokyo games.

“Once the whole points race came into play it was a little more nerve-wracking, because it was like, you have to weigh all these events, but also, if you get hurt it could really screw you over because you’re losing all these points and that could really hurt you in the end game.

“This year it’s definitely on everybody’s mind keeping up with the events, progressing and raising our level so that when we get to the Olympics, we’re able to compete our best. But how far do you go so that you make sure you don’t get hurt and then lose your chance to go to the Olympics? I feel like we could get hurt at any time, and you kind of just have to be smart, but don’t let it consume you.”

For a painfully graphic understanding of what can happen in a BMX bowl, check out the crash reel on Nikita’s Facebook page.

Lately she’s been working with both a trainer in San Diego, and a coach—a professional rider from the Netherlands—who watches her ride, suggests new ideas, pushes her when necessary and helps with what Nikita’s mother, Nicole, calls, “the mental game.”

“I’m lucky to have found someone who really, somehow, just gets my personality and is able to work with it,” says Nikita.

Watch a few BMX freestyle competitions and it soon becomes clear that each rider brings a particular style to the event. So what’s Nikita’s style?

Watch a few BMX freestyle competitions and it soon becomes clear that each rider brings a particular style to the event. So what’s Nikita’s style?

“I’ve honestly never really known how to describe it. People have said it’s an athletic style of riding. I think you have riders that primarily just go really high and have really smooth style. And then you have riders who throw all these crazy tricks but don’t necessarily go high or have the style. I’ve really tried to just have a mix of that because I’ve never been strong one way or the other. So I’ve just tried to have a good amount of both.”

Nikita’s father is Swiss, she was born in France, and she grew up in the Sonoma Valley. She has dual Swiss-American citizenship and, by virtue of her birthplace, could compete for the U.S., France, or Switzerland. She chose

Switzerland to honor her father’s homeland and the country she knows from childhood visits.

“It’s pretty cool just being able to represent that side of my family,” she says. “It’s all very new for them. They have their whole race program set up, but with the freestyle, it’s all brand new. This year we had them do a national championship because that would help me get points. It was really cool because so many Swiss riders came out, a much bigger turnout than any of us expected. People were really stoked on it, and it was good for them to see that there’s a lot of riders that are killing it in

Switzerland.”

One result of the increase in freestyle riders is that Nikita is now a Swiss celebrity. “I visited my grandparents, and there’s this incredible skate park 10 minutes from their house. It’s on this plaza we used to go to all the time as kids, right in the center of Geneva. I went there to film a video and met so many riders. It was crazy. They all knew who I was. I was like ‘whoa.’”

Fame aside, female freestylers still don’t get the same recognition—and more importantly, the same prize

money—as men.

Mom Nicole points out that, while some non-Olympics-points competitions have leveled the playing field, the BMX World Cup is exponentially out of balance. “I think first-place women’s is like $1,500, and first-place men’s is like $8,000,” she says.

With eight months to go before Tokyo, has the enormity of the event sunk in yet?

“I’m waiting for the moment when it’s going to hit me, like whoa, what the heck. What happened? I feel like when I go I’m going to be star-struck, probably like everyone around me. I’m kind of just waiting for that moment when it’s just going to actually hit me what’s happening. It’s probably not going to be until I’m actually there.”

Of course, in so many ways, Nikita Ducarroz is already “there,” a shining example of courage, determination, hard work, raw talent, and a depth of understanding and compassion that can only come from having passed through a tunnel of darkness into the light. 

Story by David Bolling | Photography by Steven Krause