Nyquist's new wind
Not counting Ryan Nyquist, the average age of the BMX Park and Dirt competitors at X Games Foz do Iguaçu next week in Brazil will be 24.
That's 10 years younger than Nyquist, who at 34 will be the only rider over 30 in either event.
The California native is not just attending to collect an appearance fee, though with 14 X Games medals -- second most in the sport's history behind Dave Mirra's 24 -- he would be the closest rider due one. On the contrary, a decade removed from sweeping the Park and Dirt titles at the 2003 X Games, Nyquist is a legitimate contender in both events.
He earned silver in Park at XG Los Angeles last summer, his first medal of any kind in six years. And although Dirt hasn't been held at the X Games since 2006, Nyquist remains arguably the best dirt rider on the planet, capturing the Dew Tour title last October and entering Brazil as the popular pick to win.
Barring an unlikely sweep, the fact that Nyquist is even a contender in two disciplines evokes amazement from fellow riders and BMX insiders because of his age. Mirra, who quit BMX competition to race rally cars four years ago, told Nyquist on the phone last week how inspiring it is to see him not just in the mix, but beating athletes half his age so many years after they battled for supremacy in the '90s and early 2000s.
"The coolest thing about him is he still wants to win," said Mirra, who made his X Games debut in 1995, two years before Nyquist made his. "My last few years, I didn't care if I won or lost."
"When Ryan's having fun, in my personal opinion, there's still no one who will stay with him," said Tony Degollado, former team manager with Haro Bikes, Nyquist's longtime sponsor.
Still, Nyquist's return to elite form may be most remarkable because of the marathon stretch of personal and professional barriers he overcame to get there. When he claimed silver in Dirt in 2006, it was the 10th straight year he'd earned an X Games medal. But ESPN dropped the dirt discipline after that year, and Nyquist fell into a rut.
He struggled to adapt his riding to concrete park courses, which had replaced the forgiving wooden ramps of old. "When you crash on cement, it hurts," Nyquist said. "I was going into events timid, and I could tell. I wasn't having a good time at X Games anymore because I wasn't able to ride like I wanted to."
Nyquist had lived in Greenville, N.C. -- "Pro Town USA" among BMX bikers -- for much of his career, but in the summer of 2008, his mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer back home in California.
Two weeks after receiving the news, he and his wife, Ali, who was six months pregnant with their first child, put their house on the market and moved back to San Jose to be with his mom. Ryan left for X Games the day after he got home. He finished 11th and missed the finals.
His mother passed away roughly a year after he moved back, and Nyquist opted not to compete at the 2009 X Games. He finished 14th and 10th the next two years, then broke two bones in his hand and endured three surgeries from subsequent complications that kept him off his bike for seven months. He questioned whether he'd ever compete again.
Then came the 2012 X Games, where he surprised everyone with a silver medal. Nyquist said it was the first time he felt comfortable on concrete since his X Games drought began. People who spoke with him afterward noticed a different tone in his voice. "It was the old Ryan," Degollado said. "I was like, Ryan's back."
Added nine-time X Games Dirt competitor Cory Nastazio: "I've doubted the guy time and time again, and I quit doing that five years ago. You think he's getting old, you think he's played out, but he blows my mind with how he comes back."
Nyquist has found peace off the bike too. Nearly a decade ago, he and Mirra -- Nyquist's hero growing up -- were the two most dominant riders in the sport and as close as brothers personally. But around 2004, they had a falling out and didn't speak for two years. They have since reconciled, and Mirra is now one of Nyquist's biggest fans. "I'm always rooting for him and I'm always proud of his success," Mirra said.
Nyquist, long known for his sense of humor on the BMX circuit, remains a jokester (he and his two brothers recently launched an iTunes app based on quirky challenges, such as eating an apple to the core in five seconds) and an intense competitor. But he's also a family man. He draws inspiration from his sons, Tristan, 4, and Jameson, almost 2. "I want to set a good example for them and show them that hard work does pay off," he said.
Thanks to preschool events and swim classes, Nyquist's training time has been cut from six hours a day to two or three if he's lucky, a factor that makes it tougher to compete with the younger riders. But any advantage the phenoms have in bravado and repetition is offset by Nyquist's experience and perspective.
"When I go to the skate park, there's not a lot of dilly-dallying," Nyquist said. "I appreciate it so much more. Any time on the bike now is precious to me."