In 2011, at X Games 17, Australian BMX pro Steve McCann entered a very exclusive club started by BMX Vert pioneer Mat Hoffman almost a decade earlier -- the no-handed 900 club. Hoffman pulled the world's first no-handed 900 in 2002 at the X Games in Philadelphia, and for nine years, the trick remained untouchable in BMX Vert competitions.
That is, until Steve McCann came along.
"The no-handed 900 was something I had worked on going into the Dew Tour finals in 2010," says McCann, 29, during a moment of downtime from his adopted home at Woodward Camp in mid-Pennsylvania. "But I never got the chance to try it. These tricks are not something you do every day -- it's more down to the moment when you're really feeling it. I was really excited at X Games 17 and wanted to do it there, and it came out perfectly"
Born: February 3, 1983
Lives: Woodward, Pa.
X Games Disciplines: BMX Vert, Big Air
Sponsors: Mongoose, Alpinestars, Movietickets.com, GoPro
Words of Wisdom: "The difference between a great moment and sitting on the sidelines is a small crash. We ride the fine line between some unforgettable X Games moments and sitting on the sidelines."
Born and raised in Melbourne, Australia, Steve McCann moved to the U.S. over a decade ago and competed on the BMX Dirt and Park circuit extensively before transitioning into Vert and Big Air competition. "I found a niche that worked for me and good people around me. And that all helped. It's still tough sometimes, but at the end of the day, I'm pursuing something I love and I make it work. I enjoy the experience no matter how tough it might be," says McCann.
Ultimately, McCann settled for a silver medal behind BMX Vert's most decorated rider, Jamie Bestwick, who won his fifth straight gold medal on that historic night in July. But after the fanfare and celebrations of a BMX Vert five-peat at X Games had ended in the flat bottom of the vert ramp, the focus shifted back to McCann's Vert runs, which included no-handed flairs, no-handed 540s, triple and double tailwhips, all in the 10-12 foot range and landed with incredible precision.
Steve McCann had left an indelible mark. And even though he finished two points behind Bestwick, the end of that contest signified a shift in BMX Vert competitions. Before X Games 17, BMX Vert was a battle for silver behind Bestwick. After X Games 17, Steve McCann had effectively leveled the playing field.
The story possesses all the great makings of a modern-day BMX gladiator drama -- established, essentially unbeatable pro against a new very formidable force with an ungodly powerful vert pump. But Steve McCann doesn't see it that way.
"I don't go out trying to beat anyone," says McCann. "I go out with an idea of what I want to do, and whether it's a first place run or a fifth place run, it's about pushing myself to new levels and being happy with it. If I'm not happy with the way I rode, I obviously didn't push hard enough."
McCann's toughest competition isn't the dozen other riders on the deck of the vert ramp. It's himself.
"I don't worry about what other people are doing -- I just think about what I want to do," he says.
McCann was born and raised in Melbourne, Australia. When he was old enough to start riding a 16-inch bike, he spent the entire day trying to learn to ride without training wheels.
"My parents couldn't stop me after that," says McCann. "They built a BMX track about a mile from where I lived, and I would go there every day, but I was more interested in tricking the jumps while going fast. I moved into riding trails, and it evolved from there."
In 2000, at age 17, McCann entered Australia's Planet X Games and won the dirt class. The next year, McCann returned to the competition and was recognized by the visiting U.S. Specialized teams for his talents. Specialized team manager Travis Chipres, a legendary BMX racer from the '80s, offered McCann a ticket to the U.S. along with a sponsorship. McCann accepted the offer, and a year later, he became a part of a new Mongoose Bicycles program alongside Chipres.
McCann moved from Australia to Woodward Camp and focused his efforts on dirt and park competitions. A year later, McCann placed a respectable fifth in BMX Dirt at the 2001 X Games in Philadelphia. Throughout the first half of the early '00s, McCann vigorously worked the BMX Dirt and Park competition circuit, traveling to as many events as possible and entering the occasional vert contest to keep things fresh for himself.
Typically, the discipline of BMX Vert requires a minimum two-decade commitment to rise to the top of the field. But McCann was clearly on the fast track. By 2007, he had progressed from casual vert rider to finishing third overall in the 2007 Dew Tour series.
"After moving to Woodward, I had the opportunity to ride things that I didn't think were really possible to ride, and I had chances to compete in events that I had never competed in," he says. "Basically, what it came down to, was that I said "Yes" to new experiences, and that's lead me to where I am today, riding MegaRamp and vert after coming from dirt and moving into park riding.
A year later, he won his first X Games medal in BMX Vert, a bronze medal behind Chad Kagy's silver and Bestwick's gold. McCann missed X Games in 2009 because of an injury, but returned to grab dual silver medals in Vert and Big Air in 2010, followed by a gold medal in Big Air and the often-referred-to silver in Vert in 2011.
What's remarkable about McCann's rise through the vert ranks is that it was almost an afterthought to his pursuits on dirt and park.
"People don't realize that I only started riding vert seriously a few years ago," says McCann in passing. The fact that he's only seriously been pursuing vert for less than a decade is incredible in itself -- that he's been able to rise to the top of the discipline and push the progression and consistency of some near-impossible vert tricks is awe-inspiring.
X GAMES LOS ANGELES 2012
Later this month, McCann will return to X Games Los Angeles with invites in both BMX Vert and Big Air. He is quick to acknowledge the drama of the first-place chase, the competition, and the sheer pressure he's unknowingly applied to Bestwick over the past year (McCann won BMX Vert at the 2011 Salt Lake City Dew Tour a few weeks after XG17), but that is not his driving force in competing at X Games.
"For me, the X Games comes down to moments," he says. "Last year was one of those moments when everything went in tune. It doesn't happen very often, when everything just feels so perfect. Every wall in that contest just felt like I was on. Putting everything I have together is what it comes down to on the vert ramp. You just concentrate on what you're doing and living in that moment, and that's why I'm here."
In the weeks leading up to X Games Los Angeles, McCann has chosen to stay at Woodward Camp, riding vert and the Mini MegaRamp in preparation for the end of June. He doesn't refer to these weeks in the lead-up as "training." Instead, he says that he's riding as much as possible and getting comfortable doing "the tricks that you don't do every day." He has a new trick up his sleeve that he chose not to reveal, and he's focused on reinventing the moment he achieved one year before, when everything fell into place and all eyes were on McCann's runs.
But this year, that moment has gold written all over it.