Final hill

Two-time Maryland State champion Myke Munoz of Mount Airy takes the final hill during a heat in the 31-35 year old competition at the Chesapeake BMX track in Severn during the Maryland State BMX Championships. (Baltimore Sun photo by Don Markus / September 18, 2011)

Logan Pringle and Abby MacLeod are typical kids when it comes to playing sports, trying to figure out which suit their talents and temperament. But when it comes to the sport they are best at — bicycle motocross, or BMX — Logan and Abby are among a select group of youngsters who can call themselves national champions.

And, perhaps, Olympic champions someday.

Just as kids their age — Logan is 9 and Abby is 12 — have long dreamed of taking home an Olympic gold medal in basketball or figure skating, a new generation of BMX racers can have the same aspirations now tha the sport was added to the Olympic ledger for Beijing in 2008.

Myke Munoz of Mount Airy is amazed at how far the sport has come since he was racing in the 1980s. Back then, his competition was limited to local races in Carroll and Baltimore counties. Now, largely because of the Internet and the fact that it is an Olympic sport, BMX has become more national and, to some degree, international in scope.

"Some of the guys who are now in the junior development program, they are faster than the pros were back in the late '80s," said Munoz, who has won two Maryland State championships since returning to the sport at age 33 after a 15-year hiatus.

Luke Roarty, a 15-year-old from Clarksville, is one of them. One of several BMX racers from Maryland to win national championships and one of two who competed for the United States in this summer's BMX World Championships in Copenhagen, Denmark, Roarty said going to the Olympics "has become a huge goal of mine."

That BMX racing is now a part of the Olympics has helped spur interest in a sport that began in California in the early 1970s as kids too young to ride motorcycles started emulating their motocross heroes. In turn, manufacturers began to make bicycles that were light enough to race and sturdy enough to handle the rigors of the hills, banks and bumps of the typical 1,000-1,200-foot BMX racetrack.

The National Bicycle League and the American Bicycle Association claim more than 100,000 participants racing competitively nationwide. The ABA will soon take over the NBL in an attempt to streamline how BMX is governed in the United States.

With only four tracks — in Cumberland, Hagerstown, La Plata and Severn — Maryland is not as big a hotbed as other Southern and Western states, where races are held year-round. But it is growing, said Doug O'Connor, who along with partner Tom Sinchak bought the Chesapeake BMX facility at Severn/Danza Park from its original owner in 2009.

"There hasn't been a lot done to promote the sport [locally]," said O'Connor, whose own interest was the result of his son Rory's participation. "It's mostly word-of-mouth, kids telling other kids."

Or adults watching kids race and thinking about doing it themselves.

After playing more traditional sports like basketball growing up in Lutherville, Mike Schwartz opened a bike shop 30 years ago in Lexington Park in St. Mary's County in Southern Maryland. When a track was built nearby at Budds Creek, Schwartz started attending races to increase his business

"I would be sitting on the hill saying, 'I can do this,' " said Schwartz, who started racing in 1997 and now at 55 is the oldest regular BMX competitor in the state. "When I started doing it, it was so much fun. It was like doing drugs without doing drugs."

Schwartz, too, has seen a change in the sport.

"It's gotten way, way faster," Schwartz said. "The equipment hasn't changed that much since clipless pedals and aluminum [race] forks were just starting to be used back then. The ability of the riders has changed. Everyone is much better. People train more; it's just amazing how that's changed. I'm about 11th in my age group in the nation. If I was this fast 12 years ago, I would have been No. 1 and killing everybody."

Steve Pringle said his son, who started racing when he was 4, now spends time training at the gym as well as on a stationary race bike — replete with its own starting gate — in the family's Severn home. Logan Pringle has been hooked since finishing third out of eight riders at a local race in Michigan, where the family lived. He soon began winning local races and then started competing nationally.

When he narrowly edged out another 9-year-old at the national championships this summer in Louisville, Ky., Logan said: "My heart was pumping as fast as it could. When I crossed the finish line, I couldn't believe that I won."

In her third full season of racing, Abby MacLeod won two national championships in the 12-year-old age group in Louisville. A seventh-grader from Winchester, Va., Abby also plays volleyball and runs track, but says BMX "is so much better, you can get in so much better shape when I do it.

"I don't like team sports that much, and in BMX I get all the credit when I win and get no credit when I lose."