Coral Shreve held her breath as her 10-year-old son Ethan lost control of his bike and thudded down onto the track's dirt surface during a practice run in early March at the Chesapeake BMX track in Severn.
Any mom would be concerned, but Ethan is a bit different. He was born 26 weeks premature, spent the first four years of his life on a ventilator and needed to eat through a feeding tube until he was 5. Several years ago doctors weren't sure he'd ever be able to ride a bike, let alone compete in bicycle motocross races.
So Shreve rushed to check on her son, and she noticed he was visibly shaken.
"Oh, he got right up. He was fine," said Shreve, who lives in Glen Burnie. "But he was upset because his jersey was ripped and it was the beginning of the season — before he wore it for competitions."
Not to worry, though, Ethan has a new white jersey with gold and black trim to wear for this weekend's USA BMX East Coast Nationals at the Chesapeake BMX track.
Riders in age groups ranging from 5-and-under to 51 and over will join Ethan at his "home track" Friday through Sunday, hoping to earn points toward qualifying for the USA BMX Grand National in Tulsa, Okla., in November. This weekend's event is one of 20 qualifiers USA BMX will hold, and riders need to compete in at least six to reach the nationals.
Ethan competes in the novice group, the lowest of three classifications in each age range. But he'll still get a chance to race this weekend along with as many as 850 competitors from across the country on the 1,180-foot-long dirt track that, like all BMX tracks, includes unique hills and curves.
"Everybody races," Chesapeake BMX vice president Doug O'Connor said. "The saying goes, 'Nobody rides the bench in BMX.' Anybody that signs up gets a chance to race."
The sport's welcoming atmosphere helped Ethan's whole family become involved with racing.
Ethan's twin brother, Austin, was the first to try BMX when he saw his friends competing three years ago. The Chesapeake BMX track gave Ethan and Austin — who had fewer medical problems stemming from the premature birth than his brother — a chance to ease into competitive racing.
The twins' younger sister, Addison, started tagging along to the track when the boys took up the sport. Now she's the No. 5-ranked girls 7-year-old rider in the country.
"We come to the track every weekend and the kids practice a ton at home. It's really become a big part of our family," said Mike Shreve, the siblings' father. "They've all really worked at it."
Ethan's toughness runs in the family, too.
Two years ago, when Addison was just beginning to ride, she broke her arm in a race. But the next day, she was riding her bike with a cast, itching to return to the track.
"She wanted to practice right away," Mike Shreve said. "She couldn't race — wasn't allowed to race. But she did practice with the cast until she could race again."
But was Addison, then 5 years old, at all apprehensive to return to competition?
"Nope," she said with a toothy grin Sunday.
Addison's persistence has helped her place as high as fourth in the national rankings. And she isn't the only member of Chesapeake BMX who has experienced success in national competition.
Many local riders are ranked in the top 50 of their age group on the state or national level, O'Connor said. One rider, Elkridge native and former police officer Emily Krickler, is the top-ranked rider in the world in the 31-to-35-year-old age group.
"We had probably 15 or 20 national age-group champions from this track. We have a world No. 1," O'Connor said. "For a small state, we have a very competitive national group."
The state's success has broadened the sport's local scope in recent years. O'Connor says he receives more emails each year from people interested in competing in BMX. This year marks the third time the Chesapeake BMX track — which is located in Severn-Danza Park, tucked behind four softball fields — has hosted East Coast Nationals.
The first two East Coast Nationals in Severn, held in 2008 and 2010, went well enough that USA BMX has decided to return for the event this year, O'Connor said.
But for so many local riders, like Ethan, success in events doesn't matter much compared with the experience. The Shreves spend countless hours at the track in Severn or traveling to other competitions simply because they enjoy doing it, Ethan said.
BMX gives the Shreve kids an opportunity to ride their bikes and compete with friends, something Ethan can't take for granted. And Chesapeake BMX, Coral Shreve said, fosters a close-knit environment that will be put on display during this weekend's East Coast Nationals.
"It just has a great family atmosphere," Coral Shreve said. "And our kids love to be [at the track] and be around their friends like they will be this weekend."
USA BMX East Coast Nationals
Friday through Sunday
Phone: 410-969-5177Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun