Nina Buitrago has spent nearly two decades putting women’s freestyle BMX on the map. Will the X Games finally listen?
As the women around her steered their BMX bikes into the concrete bowl, performing tricks on its features, Nina Buitrago glowed with pride. She stood atop her hunter green bike (her own custom “Nina” color), waiting for an opening to drop in and show off her own skills. But at that moment, she was content to hang back.
This past July, Buitrago and nine other top women’s BMX riders from around the world showed off their stuff in the X Games Minneapolis women’s BMX park demo. The seats around them at U.S. Bank Stadium began to fill as spectators arrived for the evening’s featured events: the men’s BMX street final and BMX best trick final, featuring the best male riders in the world.
The women had no final on that day. The park demo was their time to shine because women’s BMX is not yet an X Games medal event. In fact, there’s a possibility that, as freestyle BMX makes its Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020, these female BMXers will be earning Olympic medals before they have the opportunity to do so at the X Games, action sports’ premier competition. At this weekend’s X Games in Sydney, Australia, all the BMXers ascending the medal stand are men, once again.
“‘If it’s not at X Games, it doesn’t exist’ is the weird standard for action sports,” Buitrago says. “I’ve been trying to hand them the best contest without a contest that I can every year with the demo. But now it’s getting harder because the girls have other obligations with the Olympics coming.”
Thanks to Buitrago’s dedication as the sport organizer for women’s BMX, the X Games has been putting on a demo every year since 2015 — and this year’s included some of the world’s top riders, like Germany’s Lara Lessmann, Japan’s Oike Minato, Switzerland’s Nikita Ducarroz and New Zealand’s Ellie Chew.
But it’s Buitrago, 37, who has built the sport up and forged the path on which these women now ride. It’s been nearly 18 years since Buitrago, then a senior in high school, met a group of guys who had built a set of dirt jumps in her hometown of Port Washington, New York, where she grew up with her iron worker dad, chef mom and half-sister. It was a “paradise in the woods.” She was surprised to discover a world of trick jumps; she thought the BMXers she knew only raced bikes.
Buitrago began showing up every day, studying their riding style and asking them questions. She asked if any other girls rode. “They just looked at me and got quiet,” she says. Eventually, they helped her put together her own bike setup. When the dirt jumps, which were located on a vacant lot, were plowed, Buitrago trekked down to the local skatepark to ride. There, she’d meet BMXers who traveled the country, including Stacey Mulligan, from Indiana. Together, Buitrago and Mulligan attended Mat Hoffman’s BMX contest at Woodward Camp in Pennsylvania — a BMX mecca then and now — and met Kim Klisiak, who ran a website called Women of Freestyle. Klisiak had been in touch with other female riders through the site, and in 2001, the three women put together the first-ever all-girl jam in New Jersey.
The jams led to a BMX clinic for girls at X Games Los Angeles 2004. After that, “I just showed up in the crowd every year helping girls overcome their fears of crashing and try BMX,” Buitrago says. It took about a decade before it found any momentum, but women’s freestyle started to take off in recent years.
In addition to the X Games demos, Buitrago worked with the shoe company Vans to include women BMX riders in a bowl contest held annually in Huntington Beach, California. The Vans BMX Pro Cup is now a global contest overseen by the world governing body Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), highlighting new talent from Santiago, Chile, to Sydney.
The biggest break came last year when the International Olympic Committee announced it would add freestyle BMX starting in 2020. “With that happening, we’ve seen a freight train–speed level of progress for the women,” says Buitrago — who herself is training to be among the first women to represent Team USA in the sport. “It never crossed my mind that I could compete in BMX freestyle in the Olympics,” she says. “I’m more than twice the age of some of these women, and I can’t believe I’m still hanging with them.”
But the freight train hasn’t arrived at the X Games station yet. When asked when that might be, ESPN issued a written statement saying: “Sports and specific disciplines are reviewed and adjusted regularly based on many factors, including participation levels, competitive levels, relevance, programming needs, overall industry schedules and top-level athlete availability — to name a few. We have enjoyed the women’s BMX park demos at X Games in recent years, and will continue to monitor how the women’s BMX landscape evolves.”
In 2008, X Games became the first action sports competition to give men and women equal prize purses. But equal prize purses demand an equal level of riding — not to mention that the women are just as marketable as the men for sponsors. It’s a level the women in BMX feel they’ve now reached. Mat Hoffman, one of the most decorated BMX athletes of all time and the sport organizer for men’s BMX, says he “would be surprised” if the women’s event wasn’t included for 2019. “They’re so rad,” he says of the female talent out there today.
Jamie Bestwick, an active BMX athlete who took home a silver medal in BMX vert at the 2018 X Games, agrees — emphatically. “The women have shown at the demo events and UCI events that the direction of women’s BMX park is actually growing at a faster rate than the men’s,” he says. “They’ve earned the right to ride.”
Back in Minneapolis, it was finally time for Buitrago to drop in. She progressed through her line, in which she slid along a rail (double peg grind over the launch box) and paused the bike on the edge of the bowl (double peg stall). There was no gleaming medal on the line, but as the nine women around her, who had traveled from all over the world, applauded her run, her face shone almost as bright.