TOKYO — Alise Willoughby, the racer from St. Cloud, survived the preliminary round of the Olympic BMX competition on Wednesday at the Ariaka Urban Sports Park. She will race in the semifinals and, presumably, the finals on Thursday night (Central time) in an attempt to win a second Olympic medal.
Willoughby raced in three heats in high heat and humidity, finishing first in her first two heats and ranking first in total time. In her third heat, not needing to do much other than finish to qualify for the semifinals, she immediately cruised into the lead and easily won.
She finished her first heat in 46.703 seconds, her second in 47.741 and her third in 45.410. The fastest heat was turned in by USA's Felicia Stancil, in 44.412.
Willoughby entered the Games as the reigning world champion and 2016 Olympic silver medalist, won when she was known as Alise Post.
Mariana Pajon of Colombia took gold in Rio when Willoughby took silver. They could have something of a showdown Thursday night.
"Everyone sees the Olympic stage but I've raced her a lot more times — since we were 12 years old, probably,'' Willoughby said. "We're both competitors. She's definitely beatable. But she runs great laps and she's consistent and she's been here before, so experience plays into her favor.
"You have to respect the knowledge and experience. At the same time, there are a lot of girls here and it's anybody's game.''
Willoughby, 30, is competing in her third Olympics, and first with her husband, Sam Willoughby, coaching her. Sam, an Olympic silver medalist in BMX racing, suffered a spinal-cord injury in a training crash. He has turned to coaching his wife.
Willoughby herself has dealt with a variety of injuries that are almost predictable in the sport, and is trying to become the third athlete to win multiple Olympic medals in BMX racing. She ranks as one of the favorites going into the final day of competition at the grass-lined course in Tokyo.
"I think that I feel prepared as I've ever been, so I'm OK with whatever comes of it,'' she said. "I think it was good for everyone to get their feet wet, especially for me, after a year and a half off of international racing. It was good. Got a little bit of everything out there and I'm excited for tomorrow.''
Sam will be in the stands. After a day of intense heat and direct sunlight, Alise said, "I hope we can find him an umbrella."