Alise Post
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Alise Post, Sam Willoughby take tear-filled road to Rio together

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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.

Alise Post
Post helped up after crashing in the Olympics. (Getty Images)

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.

Sam Willoughby
Sam Willoughby earned silver at the London 2012 Olympics.

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!”

He teared up while pointing to the bracelet in a post-race interview.

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.

MORE: Venezuelan’s sacrifices pay off for BMX World title

Regan Smith swims another historic backstroke time at Pro Series meet

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Regan Smith, who last summer broke both backstroke world records, put up the fastest 100m back in history outside of a major international meet or trials competition on Saturday.

Smith, a 17-year-old Minnesota high school senior, clocked 58.26 seconds to win at a Pro Series meet in Knoxville, Tenn. It tied for the 12th-fastest time in history. None of the other fastest dozen came in January, six months out from when swimmers peak for the world’s biggest events like the Olympics.

Making it more impressive: Smith did it 27 minutes after finishing second in the 200m butterfly, which she’s also expected to contest at June’s Olympic trials in Omaha.

“It actually wasn’t as bad, as I was nervous it was going to be,” Smith, whose world record is 57.57, said of the double on NBCSN. Smith entered two events per day at the three-day Knoxville meet, in part to prepare for the trials, where she is slated to race six straight days in a bid to make the Olympic team in enough events to swim eight straight days in Tokyo.

On Saturday, Smith held off fellow 17-year-old Phoebe Bacon by six tenths. Bacon beat Smith at the U.S. Open in December, posting the second-fastest time among Americans in the event for 2019.

The teen emergence puts pressure on Kathleen Baker, the Rio Olympic silver medalist who had the world record before Smith took it at worlds.

Full Knoxville results are here. USASwimming.org live streams the last night of finals Sunday at 6:30 ET.

In other events Saturday, world silver medalist Hali Flickinger overcame Smith in the 200m fly, winning in 2:08.34. Smith, third-fastest among Americans last season, was .39 behind. The second-fastest American last year, Katie Drabot, was not in the field. The top two at trials make the Olympic team.

Erika Brown beat world champion Simone Manuel in a freestyle sprint for a second straight meet, taking the 50m free in 24.57 seconds.

Brown, a University of Tennessee senior, edged Manuel by .06 and took .01 off her personal best. Brown ranked third among Americans last year behind Manuel (24.05) and Abbey Weitzeil (24.47).

Brown also defeated Manuel in the 100m free at the U.S. Open in December, moving to fourth-fastest in the U.S. last year in that event. The top six in the 100m free at trials are in line to make the Olympic team, given relay spots.

MORE: Australian swim star issues plea after hometown hit by fires

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Mikaela Shiffrin nearly makes it three-way tie for World Cup win

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Mikaela Shiffrin came .01 shy of making it a three-way tie for a World Cup giant slalom win on Saturday, confirming GS has been the most up-for-grabs discipline for either gender in recent years.

Shiffrin, beaten in her last two slaloms, had the fastest second run to place third behind co-winners Italian Federica Brignone and Slovakian Petra Vlhova in Sestriere, Italy. The reigning Olympic and World Cup champion in the GS rallied from fourth place and .42 behind after the first run.

Shiffrin still leads the World Cup overall standings by 233 points over Vlhova. The American last won Dec. 29. Though she made the podium in three of her four races since, Shiffrin expressed a lack of confidence heading into this weekend’s races at the 2006 Olympic venue.

“The most exciting thing for me is that people have stopped asking me, like, are you unbeatable?” said Shiffrin, who won a record 17 World Cup races last season and has four victories nearly halfway through this season, tied with Vlhova for most on tour. “I feel really good in GS. It’s just been a long time since [the last GS on Dec. 28].”

Vlhova earned her third victory this month after beating Shiffrin those last two slaloms. Brignone leads the GS season standings by 61 points over Shiffrin, seeking to become the sixth different woman to win that discipline title in the last six years. There are four more GS races left this season.

It’s the second straight season with a World Cup GS tie. Last Feb. 1, Shiffrin and Vlhova tied in Maribor, Slovenia.

It’s the first time the top three finishers were separated by such a small margin since the last three-way tie for a win in 2006, when Lindsey VonnMichaela Dorfmeister and Nadia Styger had the same super-G time, and fourth-place Kelly VanderBeek was .01 behind.

“Last season, I had the lucky side of the hundredths many times, so sometimes I’m not going to be on the lucky side, too,” said Shiffrin, who had three victories by .16 or tighter last season.

World Cup racing continues with a parallel giant slalom on Sunday at 5:45 a.m. ET on Olympic Channel: Home of Team USA and streaming on NBC Sports Gold.

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