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Durango mountain biker Christopher Blevins selected for Tokyo Olympics

A two-time under-23 silver medalist at the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships, Durango’s Christopher Blevins has already shown he can compete at the top end of races in the elite men’s category in his first year. Now, he’s going to the Olympics. (Courtesy of USA Cycling file)
23-year-old gains bid from USA Cycling, continues Durango’s Olympic mountain bike legacy

It’s official, Christopher Blevins is an Olympian.

USA Cycling made the selection of the 23-year-old from Durango official Thursday morning when the nation’s governing body for cycling sports named him for the team’s one spot in the men’s cross-country mountain bike race July 26 at the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Blevins had learned the news a week earlier while celebrating his graduation with honors from California Polytechnic State University with a Bachelor of Science in business before he returned to Europe for more racing.

“This is the dream of dreams,” Blevins said in a phone interview with The Durango Herald. “When I got to my freshman dorm in 2016, I had a sticky note that said ‘Tokyo’ on it. As most Olympic dreams are, this has been a four-year-plus process. Now, this is just the continuation of that dream.”

Blevins, a 2016 graduate of Durango High School, was one of two athletes named to the long team for potential Olympic selection in 2020 ahead of the scheduled Tokyo Olympics. But the Games were postponed for a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, giving Blevins and Utah’s Keegan Swenson an extra year to compete with each other for selection.

USA Cycling announced its 28 selections from all the long teams Thursday. The disciplines including BMX, mountain biking and road and track cycling. Durango’s Sepp Kuss would have been a likely selection for the road cycling team, but he withdrew his name from consideration in May, citing his goals of the Tour de France and Spanish Vuelta this season and the time conflict of those events and the Olympics.

As an organization, USA Cycling said the extra year of preparation because of the Olympic rescheduling will benefit the team, and that is especially true for Blevins after aging another year and moving up from the under-23 ranks to get some competition against the elite men under his belt.

“Announcing this team is a testament to everyone’s immense dedication and hard work over many years, especially during one of the most challenging periods of our life time,” Jim Miller, USA Cycling’s Chief of Sport Performance, said in a news release. “We have used the extra year with the goal to come to the Games even stronger and more prepared, and I believe we have done just that. We are bringing a medal capable team in all disciplines and it will show this summer in Tokyo.”

Christopher Blevins, pictured in Durango, graduated this year from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, Calif. Blevins is also a 2016 graduate of Durango High School. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Home in Durango, news of Blevins’ selection had the community buzzing Thursday. That included his parents Field and Priscilla Blevins. And from California, his sister, Kaylee, also paid tribute to his hard work on and off the bike.

“I think as an older sister, the expectation is that you’re paving the way and role modeling for your younger siblings. And I hope was able to at least do that in part for Christopher,” Kaylee said. “But, I also was lucky in that my brother has been a tremendous role model for me for my entire life. He approaches every aspect of his life with fire, passion and vibrancy. Whether it’s his schoolwork, social justice advocacy or cycling, Christopher shows up with his best self. And I believe that’s why he will be such an extraordinary representative for the U.S. in Tokyo – his desire not only to be a good bike racer, but firstly a good human is infectious.

“That’s the kind of energy you want from Olympians: to strive for excellence but also simultaneously encourage those watching to do the same.”

Chasing points

Because the U.S. is ranked 10th in the International Cycling Union nation rankings for men’s cross-country mountain biking, the U.S. earned only one spot in the Olympics. In previous years, a top-10 ranking would have seen the U.S. earn two riders at the Olympics. But after the 2016 Games in Brazil, the standard was elevated to the top seven. The top two countries send three riders.

The U.S. women, ranked second, will get to send three in California’s Kate Courtney, Utah’s Haley Batten and Chloe Woodruff of Denver. Courtney and Batten earned automatic selection from World Cup and World Championship performances. Woodruff was an at-large selection. Also in the women’s race representing Argentina will be Fort Lewis College alumna Sofia Gomez-Villafañe.

Howard Grotts of Durango and Blevins planned to work together from 2017 until the 2020 Olympics to try to improve the U.S. ranking in an effort to get two Olympic spots. When Grotts, the 2016 Olympian for the U.S., stepped back from full-time racing early in 2019, Swenson took on the challenge along with Blevins and North Carolina’s Luke Vrouwenvelder.

“It’s been really exciting to see them both duke it out,” Grotts said. “Honestly, it seems like it was a bit of a tossup pre-COVID. Maybe that extra year of Chris being able to get a little more maturity and consistency helped. He’s always been very mature as a person, but I think the consistency he’s had this year tilted the odds in his favor a bit. Keegan is an incredible competitor, and I respect him incredibly and what he’s been able to do on the bike. But I am also, of course, excited to see a hometown rider be able to go to the Olympics.”

Durango’s Christopher Blevins ended his time as an under-23 mountain bike racer as the most decorated U.S. men’s athlete ever with two individual silver medals and a team relay silver medal. As a first-year elite men’s racer, Blevins is now on his way to the Olympics. (Courtesy of USA Cycling)

Swenson is the reigning cross-country national champion from 2019 nationals and has put together strong results while chasing his own Olympic dream. But the young Blevins came away with a silver medal at the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in the under-23 race last fall and has performed better than Swenson head-to-head this year.

Blevins has now raced two elite men’s World Cup races this season. He finished 13th in his debut in Albstadt, Germany, and then finished 20th in Nové Město na Moravě, Czech Republic. After those two performances and sprint finish victory ahead of Swenson at the first U.S. Cup race of the year in Arkansas, Blevins liked his chances to make the Olympics.

Durango's Christopher Blevins made his elite men's UCI World Cup debut last month in Albstadt, Germany. He worked his way to a 13th-place finish to boost his 2021 Olympic chances. (Courtesy of USA Cycling)

“How I read everything after Nové Město, I felt really good about it,” he said. “But the weight of hearing it officially and seeing it is, obviously, unique.”

Swenson placed 81st in Germany and 58th in the Czech Republic at the first two World Cups. Without a top-eight finish to gain automatic selection in Nové Město na Moravě, he knew his chances were slipping away.

“Honestly, I knew this was going to be the case my last lap in Nové Město,” Swenson told the Herald. “I didn’t have a good race there. After Chris’ result in Albstadt, I knew I really had to do something at Nové Město. But I had some mechanicals and didn’t have my best day. That’s bike racing.”

While the two have had to compete realizing over the last year that only one would get to go to Tokyo, Blevins said the competition always remained friendly.

“I’ve got a lot of respect and love for Keegan,” Blevins said. “I wish we had two spots. We’ve been wanting each other to get better this whole time. We went and did the Swiss Epic as teammates to try to get points for that second spot, and we’ve raised each other up this whole time. We talk about training, we pre-ride courses together and talk about the best lines. We’ve really been together in this, and I think we learned a lot from the women and how they have shown they can work together to get three Olympic spots.

“Keegan is talented as hell. He has done a lot and has a lot more in his future career, too.”

Durango’s Christopher Blevins, right, and Utah’s Keegan Swenson worked together as a team at the Swiss Epic, as both chased UCI points and their own Olympic selection. In the end, the U.S. earned only enough UCI points to send one man to the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, and Blevins was the one selected. (Courtesy of Field Blevins)

Swenson came away with a similar feeling for Blevins.

“Chris and I have known each other forever and are pretty good friends,” Swenson said. “Going into this, we knew whoever had the best results and whoever wins the races was going to take it. We both had a pretty good mindset, and there are no hard feelings. We both worked our butts off to get where we are.

“It’s been a pretty crazy few years, and we were on the cusp of earning two spots for awhile and chased it pretty hard all over the world. We were sitting pretty good, but Luke Vrouwenvelder hurt himself, and we lost a lot of points when he got injured. Russell Finsterwald really stepped up to help pick up that spot, and we went to Israel to go get some points. But it was a little too late. We didn’t get the results to quite get there, but it was a cool few years chasing those points. I think Chris and I both really helped with each other’s level the last few years as well as the level in the U.S. as a whole. It’s cool to see.”

Durango’s torch passed

Blevins will continue Durango’s legacy of mountain bike Olympians. Since the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, a Durango man has been at every race. It started with Travis Brown in Australia before Todd Wells went to three consecutive Olympics, earning a 10th-place finish in his last games in 2012 in London.

“This is really awesome for Chris,” Wells said. “He’s such a good guy, and it’s been obvious he is the strongest rider this year. He has really developed and been awesome at the first couple of World Cups. He’s in position to have a better shot to have a good result there this year. I am sure he’s going to go over there and have a great race, but I hope he just soaks in that whole experience. Especially the first time you go, it’s overwhelming and just really cool. I hope he soaks it all in.”

In 2016, it was Durango’s Grotts who represented USA Cycling in Rio de Janeiro, and he recognized then that Blevins could be next. When he decided to step away from international racing, Grotts knew Blevins was in for a tough fight with Swenson for that Olympic spot, but he knew Blevins would be ready to carry the torch, too.

Christopher Blevins, front, has been handed the U.S. Olympic mountain bike torch from fellow Durangoan Howard Grotts, rear. (Courtesy of USA Cycling file)

“He’s building on that legacy of Durango,” Grotts said. “We have such an incredible cycling community, and I certainly owe a lot of my success to this town and know Chris does, as well. It keeps building on itself. No rider really does it alone here in Durango. We all help each other raise the bar. Chris going to the Olympics, it’s another thing to add to Durango’s trophy case, so to speak.”

Blevins said he is honored to further the Durango tradition.

“To continue that legacy is really special,” Blevins said, before foreshadowing what is to come in the Olympics to follow. “You can see how incredible Durango is from that, and I think we will have the next few Olympics with guys like Riley Amos coming up. And watch out for Cooper Wells in 15 years, too.”

‘Fun along the way’

Blevins rode his first bike at the age of 2. He got his start in bike racing when he was only 5 at Durango BMX. He then came up through the Durango Devo mountain bike program, earning multiple junior national championships before hitting the under-23 ranks, where he became the most decorated American mountain biker of all time with two world championships silver medals along with a team relay silver medal.

“I owe my family everything up to this point, and the family in Durango as a whole,” Blevins said. “Durango BMX from the time I was 5 and growing up in their dirt and just loving that place, that planted the seed. Durango Devo and that whole community helped me grow, and my parents were there every step of the way. This is all of our dreams fulfilled. My family and everyone in Durango has been part of it.

“If someone told 5-year BMXer me that bike racing would take him all the way to the Olympics, he probably would’ve only thought of how much fun it’d be along the way.”

And for the Blevins family, watching that journey has already been plenty of a reward in itself.

“Christopher is a role model for so many, including his parents,” his mother, Priscilla, said. “He lives his life with passion and is a good human. As a parent, that’s what you hope your children will strive to be. We’ve seen him put in the work, we’ve seen his struggles and how this journey has transpired over the years. To reach the ultimate goal of the Olympics, it is a great honor, and we are beyond proud of him on all levels.”

Blevins will race another World Cup this weekend in Austria. He will remain in Europe to train and race leading up to the Olympics and will skip the 2021 USA Cycling National Championships in Winter Park because of timing with the Olympics.

“It’s hard to miss those, but I will be staying over here until Tokyo,” Blevins said. “It is going to be a long time on the road, but I am as fired up as ever for racing and training. I am going to soak it up and appreciate every moment over here and try to make some noise each time I mix it up with the best in the world. Every week is a chance to do that right now, and I am set for July 26.”

jlivingston@durangoherald.com

From national champion to Olympian, Durango’s Christopher Blevins was picked for the 2021 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo on Thursday after five years of working toward that goal. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)
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