Alise Post and Sam Willoughby wouldn’t be the first engaged couple to compete in the same Olympics, but the BMX riders’ story is more unusual and emotional than others.
They are separated by nationality. Post is American. Willoughby is Australian. They are both medal contenders as the Rio Olympics approach.
They met in 2008, in person at a customary jersey swap when Post wanted to leave the World Championships with an Australian uniform, and virtually via MySpace messages.
“I always had a crush on Alise,” Willoughby, a 2012 Olympic silver medalist, said in a recent phone interview. “I would write her almost like a fan. She didn’t reply that often, but I got a few replies.”
Willoughby, then 16, and Post, then 17, both promising junior riders, fell shy of the age minimum of 19 to compete in BMX’s debut at the Beijing 2008 Olympics.
Willoughby, an Adelaide native who had given up Australian rules football to concentrate on BMX at age 15, decided in late 2008 to move to the U.S. as he pursued a professional career.
He stayed that first year with Post’s parents in St. Cloud, Minn., saw snow for the first time (“I tried to make a snowman, couldn’t do much”) and began dating Post.
Post grew up a state champion gymnast writing school reports on Nadia Comaneci but also picked up BMX at age 6. One of her two older brothers urged her into it, looking to toughen her up. She eventually embraced it and earned a nickname — “The Beast” — that sounded close to her first name.
Both Post and Willoughby qualified for the London 2012 Games. They raced on the same day. One earned a medal. The other tried in vain to crawl toward the finish line.
Post crashed in the final straightaway of her last semifinal heat.
She attempted to get up after the others had finished but tumbled to the ground in her first steps and was eventually helped across the finish by two officials, each holding up Post by one of her shoulders. A red, white and blue helmet hid her emotions.
“All I remember is a lot of tears and just feeling like I haven’t been able to give it my best,” Post said.
Later that day, Willoughby showed veteran poise in the men’s final on the same course. He slid into second place around the first turn, behind the defending Olympic champion, and remained runner-up through the finish while other riders spilled behind them.
In April 2013, Post’s mother, Cheryl, was diagnosed with melanoma. She died Jan. 14, 2014.
“My mom always instilled in me to never quit on something,” said Post, who now rides with the words “Cheryl Strong” facing her on her bike’s front hub axle and on the outside of her helmet. “It would be so special to be able to have a better experience in Rio than I had in London.”
Then in April 2014, Post broke her tibia at the season’s first World Cup, adding to an injury history that included a broken fibula and partial to complete tears of ankle and knee ligaments, a meniscus and a hamstring tendon, plus two hand surgeries following her 2012 Olympic crash.
She came back that July to earn silver at the World Championships in the Netherlands.
Also at the 2014 Worlds, Willoughby earned gold in the men’s race while wearing a black right wrist bracelet with pink letters that read, “TEAM CHERYL NEVER, EVER GIVE UP!”
In 2015, Willoughby and Post were the subject of a documentary, “Every Pedal with You.”
The title may make one think of Willoughby and Post’s relationship, but it was actually taken from a line about Cheryl in Post’s five-minute victory speech after the USA BMX Grand Nationals in November 2014.
“I thanked her for basically being with me every pedal that I rode the whole year,” Post said.
Then last July, Willoughby and Post took early leads in rain-soaked World Championships finals, but both crashed coming around the same turn and finished out of the medals.
They capped the year on a high, with Willoughby proposing to Post in December.
Post and Willoughby are now ranked Nos. 3 and 4, in their respective genders, by the International Cycling Union with May’s World Championships the biggest event ahead of the Rio Games.
Both are medal favorites, along with riders from Colombia, Venezuela and Great Britain, plus other Americans. They’re both training for the Worlds and the Olympics in Southern California, where they moved from Minnesota.
“Alise, there’s probably three or four girls at the top with her,” said her coach, Australian Sean Dwight, who also coached Willoughby until this year, when Willoughby started working more with the Australian national program with the Olympics nearing. “The men’s game is a lot more competitive. He’s in the top four or five on any given day.”
NBC Olympics researcher Rachel Thompson contributed to this report.
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After all of these years, Sam still continues to surprise me! Yesterday he lured me out to Coronado Island for a "casual photo shoot for PULL Magazine" with @dbetcher44. After a few awkward poses, I was shocked to turn around and find him down on one knee… He's officially made me both the happiest and luckiest girl alive, and I cannot wait to spend the rest of my life with my best friend! ❤️💍 // thanks for capturing this special moment DB 📷