Mariana Pajon of Colombia celebrates after crossing the finish line and winning her
country’s second-ever gold in Olympic competition. Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
They’ll be celebrating in the streets of Colombia thanks to a sport that only made its Olympic debut four years ago, and has only been truly embraced by a select few countries.
The South American nation is one of them.
Mariana Pajon gave Colombia its first gold medal of the London Olympics on Friday when she rolled to an impressive victory in the women’s BMX final, and Carlos Mario Oquendo Zabala made it a day to remember when he added a bronze medal in the men’s race.
“I can’t believe it,” Pajon said. “It’s like a dream come true. My whole life I’m trying to win this. I want to win it again. I want to go out the gate and win it again. It’s unbelievable.”
The flag-bear for Colombia at the opening ceremony, Pajon dominated her semifinal runs Friday to reach the eight-woman final. Pajon took the lead out of the starting gate, perched high above the challenging course, and never let anybody close during a flawless run.
With David Beckham watching from the stands, Pajon crossed the line in 37.706 seconds, blowing kisses to the capacity crowd as members of the Colombian team started to celebrate.
Sarah Walker of New Zealand claimed the silver medal and Laura Smulders of the Netherlands took bronze, while home favorite Shanaze Reade of Britain — who crashed out of the final in Beijing four years ago — was never in contention and ended sixth.
World champion Magalie Pottier of France spent the race in the pack and finished seventh, just ahead of Brooke Crain of the United States. The 19-year-old was a late substitute for Arielle Martin, who crashed in practice July 30, and rode with the initials of her injured teammate on her glove.
Pajon credited her victory on the dangerous and technical Olympic course to quick starts, which allowed her to get through the first corner ahead of the traffic. She posted three consecutive wins in the semifinals to advance to the medal race.
“After the time trials, I felt I was going really fast,” she said. “I felt really strong, I had really good gates and that’s it. I really had fun on it. I can’t believe it. It’s like a dream. I have to wake up tomorrow and realize what I have just won.”
Oquendo seemed just as happy with his bronze medal.
Maris Strombergs of Latvia took the lead early in the men’s final and never relinquished it, winning his second straight title. World champion Sam Willoughby of Australia claimed the silver, but Oquendo celebrated just as hard as either of them after crossing the finish in third.
“I still have to realize it’s true,” he said. “I just want to enjoy this moment that I still I don’t believe is reality. Of course, one always wants to win an Olympic medal.”
Colombia’s Carlos Mario Oquendo Zabala celebrates winning the bronze medal on the podium after the men’s BMX cycling event during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Friday, Aug. 10, 2012. Carlos Mario Oquendo Zabala made it a banner afternoon for Colombia with his bronze. His teammate Mariana Pajon
Just like Pajon, Strombergs went straight to the lead and forced the other riders to jockey for position behind him. Willoughby was second, but Oquendo was trapped behind Britain’s Liam Phillips.
Oquendo’s opening came when the riders were jumping over a gravel moat. Phillips wiped out and Oquendo managed to avoid him, allowing the Colombian to move up to third place.
“This is a sport where you fall down and get up again,” said Oquendo, who survived two crashes in Thursday’s quarterfinals to advance to Friday. “I never lost faith that I could do it.”
Oquendo dedicated his bronze medal to his family and “everybody in Colombia.”
“This is something that everybody has contributed to,” he said, making a point to congratulate Pajon on her win. “This is a shining moment in my sports career.”
Strombergs won only the third Olympic gold medal for Latvia, a tiny Baltic nation that from 1952-88 competed as part of the Soviet Union. The only other was won by Igor Vihrovs in the floor exercise at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, eight years after Latvia began competing independently again.
“It’s just amazing,” Strombergs said. “I think everyone at home, they watched the race, and deep inside they were hoping I could repeat, and I think my country believed in me.”
Strombergs wasn’t considered among the favorites coming into the Olympics, despite a resume that includes two world championships. He’d struggled with injuries the past couple years, a particulary hard crash in November 2010 keeping him out for about sixth months.
On Friday, he proved that he’s just as good as ever.
“Latvia is a small country — it’s not big,” Strombergs said. “When I go home, they recognize me, but you know, I don’t really focus on it. My main focus is BMX, and just doing my thing.”