Latvia's Strombergs defends BMX Olympic gold medal
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By DAVE SKRETTA,
Updated August 10, 2012
LONDON (AP) Maris Strombergs is content being the only men's BMX champion in Olympic history.
The rider from Latvia defended his title Friday, taking the lead out of the starting gate and never relinquishing it. He cruised across the finish line in 37.576 seconds to add to the gold medal he won four years ago in Beijing, when the white-knuckle sport made its Olympic debut.
Strombergs was chased the entire way by Australian rider Sam Willoughby, the world champion, who held on for the silver medal. Carlos Mario Oquendo Zabala made it a banner afternoon for Colombia with his bronze, adding to teammate Mariana Pajon's gold in the women's race.
Strombergs wasn't considered among the favorites coming into the Olympics, despite a resume that includes two world championships.
He's struggled with injuries the past couple years, and a particularly hard crash in November 2010 left him with a broken hand, dislocated wrist and damaged shoulder. Strombergs had two rounds of surgery and couldn't compete for about six months.
He won a World Cup race in the Netherlands this year to give him confidence, but he wasn't dominant in London. Strombergs only managed a second and a fifth before winning his final quarterfinal heat, then squeezed through his semifinal as the third of four qualifiers.
Perhaps he was saving his energy for when it mattered.
Strombergs was first down the starting ramp in the final, carrying his speed through the first two jumps and getting ahead of traffic entering the harrowing first corner.
Willoughby slid in behind Strombergs and Liam Phillips of Britain was third as they headed for the crossover jump. Strombergs and Willoughby cleared it with ease, but Phillips wiped out as he was being passed by Oquendo, knocking him out of contention.
The three leaders navigated the rhythm section heading into the final corner, and the bump at the start of the final straight that felled several riders throughout the competition caused no problem.
Strombergs raised his arms in triumph as he crossed the finish line first.
Willoughby and Oquendo were followed across the line by Dutch teammates Raymon van der Biezen and Twan van Gendt, who had looked strong all week. Colombian rider Andres Eduardo Jimenez Caicedo was sixth, American rider Connor Fields was seventh, and Phillips rolled slowly across in eighth.
Joris Daudet, the reigning world silver medalist and former world champion, missed the final when he crashed just before the crossover jump in his last semifinal race. Daudet lay for a moment on the asphalt before getting back on his bike and pedaling across the finish.
It was Daudet who called crashes part of the "beauty" of BMX after the quarterfinals.
Also missing the finals was New Zealand's Marc Willers, the former world bronze medalist, who has had one of his best years. He won two of three heat races to reach the semifinals but crashed on the penultimate rhythm section of his first run Friday and never factored in the race.