LOS ANGELES -- In the depths of the Staples Center on Thursday night, cordoned off inside a corral of metal fencing, a handful of sweaty X Games dirt bikers unwound after a brief but spectacular Best Whip competition.
The gold medalist, Josh Hansen, had been whisked away to a television studio to talk about his win, which he earned by throwing his motorcycle upside down and backward 40 feet in the air before whipping it straight at the last moment. The silver medalist and perennial favorite, Jeremy "Twitch" Stenberg, was down to his skivvies in the corner. Edgar Torronteras, a Spaniard who might have contended in the fan vote had his followers not been fast asleep in Europe, walked around shirtless.
In the middle of them all, the night's surprise bronze medalist, Vicki Golden, calmly removed her jersey, then threw a clean shirt over her sports bra and bare midriff. No heads turned. No jaws dropped. Golden, a young woman making waves in a man's world, simply went about her business, just as she has for much of her life.
But this night was different. Golden drew attention recently for being the first female to earn an invitation to a freestyle Moto X event at the X Games. As such competitions go, Best Whip ranks one notch above a demo, the winner being determined by a real-time popular vote on Twitter. But the six spots are coveted by freestylers, who take pride in their whips like baseball players take pride in hitting tape-measure home runs.
As when Annika Sörenstam made history by playing in a men's PGA Tour event in 2003 -- a berth that came via sponsor's exemption -- Golden's entry was not universally popular. A number of proven male freestylers were passed over in favor of Golden, including two-time Best Whip gold medalist Todd Potter, which caused some offline grumbles within the tight-knit moto community.
Even Golden, who turned 21 on Sunday, acknowledged that she was surprised to have been chosen over Potter (each rider must submit videos to event organizers pitching their case). "If it was up to me, I think Todd deserves it more than I do," she said last week. "But I've been given an opportunity and I'm going to take the opportunity."
She did so with flair, gunning her 250cc bike -- which packed far less punch than the 450cc bikes her rivals rode Thursday -- into the manmade ramp like a drag racer. Her flowing blonde ponytail was the only giveaway that she was a woman -- that is, if you don't count the fluorescent-pink boots she painted for this occasion, or the pink stripes on her jersey, or the pink lightning bolts on her helmet.
"I never see a girl whip it like that with a bike," Torronteras said afterward. "It's so beautiful. It's power. This girl is not normal."
Golden held the lead off and on throughout the contest. She said she tried not to glance up at the scoreboard but couldn't help herself as the crowd roared.
Competing against men -- something Golden has done since she was 8 -- has always held special appeal.
"I feel like there's more pressure on me because I'm, I guess, the outcast," she said. "And obviously, being the outcast, more eyes are on you and you're expected to do more. I think I've always put more pressure on myself against guys, just because I feel like they're all better than me. Even if they aren't, it's a challenge to do something better than them. I just get fired up to try and be better than guys.
"It's the same with girls, but there's not as much intensity when I want it. [There's] something about beating guys."
Stenberg acknowledged Golden's talent after holding her off for silver -- "She rides better than most dudes," he said -- but not every male competitor was oozing warm and fuzzy feelings.
"That was kind of different," Hansen said. "I mean, I get it. It's good for TV and all that. But I don't know what to say about that."
Golden, for her part, stayed out on the track to congratulate Hansen after his victory. "That was the biggest whip I think I'll ever see in my life," she said. "He deserved to win."
After the competition, when most of her peers would have thrust their energy drinks into the camera, Golden conducted interviews next to her bike while holding a jar of Mandingo Pickles, a Michigan company that serves as her biggest sponsor. She thanked her supporters, including her brother, Robert, who joined a small cadre of her friends in the stands Thursday night.
Golden's parents couldn't be there. Her father was paralyzed in a dirt bike accident when she was 12, and her mother remains his primary caregiver at home in San Diego.
"My mom wanted to be here, but I think she probably would've had a heart attack if she were here tonight," said Golden, who will defend her 2011 and 2012 Women's Moto X Racing titles Saturday night. "I was going way too high; it's probably better she was watching at home. She wasn't missing much here."
On the contrary, whether on television or in person, it was hard to miss the mark Golden left on her sport Thursday night.