BEIJING -- For the better part of two days, as world champion Maris Strombergs watched Mike Day repeatedly blow away some of the best riders in BMX history, one thought kept coming back to him.
"Second," he said, "is still good."
He didn't have to settle for that, though, saving his best race of the competition for the winner-take-all final today to claim the first gold medal in Olympic men's BMX history.
Day finished second, ahead of teammate Donny Robinson, while Jill Kintner took bronze in the women's event, giving the U.S. three of the six medals awarded in BMX's Olympic debut.
"Obviously an Olympic medal is a larger stage," said Kintner of Seattle, a three-time world champion in bicycle mountain cross. "This means more than any of my [other] medals combined."
BMX's addition to the Summer Games schedule was meant to do what halfpipe and snowboarding have done for the Winter Olympics -- make it younger, hipper and more appealing to a youthful demographic. And in its first try, it played to an loud, enthusiastic and nearly full house at the Laoshan Cycling Complex.
"Ours is extreme. It's an action sport," said Robinson, of Napa, Calif. "And that's why they brought it to the Olympics. [But] all the hype they put on it just put more pressure on us because we had to perform."
Through the first two rounds of qualifying Wednesday and the first two semifinal races today no one performed better than Day, a 23-year-old from Santa Clarita with only one major international win on his resume. Day posted the quickest lap in the time trials and never saw the back of another rider through three qualifying heat races and two semifinals.
He was third in the final semifinal, though, while Strombergs turned in the fastest time of the round and that proved important because it gave the Latvian the pole, Day's favored position, for the final. And by the start of the second straight, Strombergs had run away to a comfortable lead; by the end of the second turn, Day said, "he was pretty much checked out."
Not that Day had regrets.
"Second place, I'm super excited about," he said. "To just be in the final, to be second, I'm excited."
Kyle Bennett of Conroe, Texas, USA Cycling's top-ranked BMX rider in 2008 and the most decorated rider in the men's field, wasn't so lucky. The three-time world champion turned in a gutsy performance just by climbing to the top of the 3 1/2 -story starting gate with a shoulder dislocated in a crash in Turn 2 in his final qualifying heat Wednesday.
Bennett, who didn't use the injury as an excuse, acknowledged it kept him from pushing hard at the start, usually his strongest part of the race. But it didn't keep him from steering.
He avoided a nasty three-bike spill in the same spot in his first semifinal and rode around a wreck in his last race. But just four riders from each eight-man heat advanced to the final and because all three U.S. riders were grouped together, Bennett had trouble catching Day and Robinson. So when the points from the semifinals were tallied he was a non-qualifying sixth.
Crashes, which even the riders acknowledge is one of BMX racing's main appeals, affected virtually every race but it probably decided the women's final.
World champion Shanaze Reade of Britain, who also crashed in her first semifinal, was challenging France's Anne-Caroline Chausson for the lead heading into the final turn when her front wheel clipped the back of Chausson's bike, sending her to the asphalt and enabling France's Laetitia le Corguille and Kintner to sweep by and claim the silver and bronze.
*--* Medal winners G: Maris Stromsbergs (Latvia) Time: 36.190 S: Mike Day (United States) Time: 36.606 B: Donny Robinson (United States) Time: 36.972 *--*
*--* Medal winners G: Anne-Caroline Chausson (France) Time: 35.976 S: Laetitia le Corguille (France) Time: 38.042 B: Jill Kintner (United States) Time: 38.674 *--*