Coming Home with Flying Colors: WeTalk with 2020 Swiss Olympic Bronze-Medalist Nikita Ducarroz

WeTalk. Pop Culture. Swiss-Made is a social media campaign of the Embassy of Switzerland in the United States. WeTalk promotes the diversity of Swiss culture and innovation by featuring prominent Swiss stakeholders from these fields. Sharing perspectives from artists, athletes and entrepreneurs, WeTalk provides its audience with fascinating insights into the diversity of contemporary Swiss culture. Watch Nikita’s 1-min WeTalk interview here!

The realization that she came back from Tokyo with an Olympic medal is slowly starting to sink in for Nikita Ducarroz (pronounced “Du-cah-row”). Just about one month ago, the 25-year-old Swiss freestyle BMX athlete achieved one of her biggest dreams: a spot on an Olympic podium. Born in Nice, France, to an American mother and a Swiss father, Nikita grew up in the United States and spent her summers with her grandparents in Geneva, Switzerland. What exactly is freestyle BMX? This extreme sport — which made its Olympic debut this year in Tokyo — consists of complex turning and jumping stunts performed on a bicycle in a skatepark with obstacles.

After months of uncertainty with both training sessions and competitions postponed or cancelled due to the pandemic, Nikita’s recent races at the Olympics demonstrated how well she does under pressure. The Olympic medalist, whose newfound recognition now frequently brings her in contact with the media, told us she’s never been drawn to the spotlight. On the contrary: in primary school, which she attended in North Carolina, rather than acting in school plays, Nikita preferred to be in charge of the lights, because she didn’t want to be the center of attention.

The young athlete has struggled with anxiety since childhood, sometimes to the point of not being able to leave her home, which led her to stop playing competitive soccer when she was twelve. She wanted to find an activity that would let her go at her own pace but still allow her to experience the thrill of competition. After trying different sports, Nikita discovered freestyle BMX on YouTube. In the months that followed, she started to ride her bike in the driveway, at the skatepark, and pretty much anywhere she could.

Competitions were a way for Nikita to push herself further, and she started riding competitively soon after picking up the sport. Before her Olympic medal, Nikita regularly performed at the highest level, notably in 2019, when she finished 5th at the UCI Urban Cycling World Championships in Chengdu, China, and 4th at the UCI Freestyle BMX World Cup Overall Ranking (Elite Women category). Open about her ongoing struggle with anxiety, Nikita created the account MindTricks on Instagram, which aims to help break the taboo of chronic anxiety.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the Swiss athlete went all in and spent lockdown at a training facility in Holly Springs, North Carolina, to focus fully on her preparation. Though it was important for her to be supported by Swiss cycling and represent Switzerland at the Olympics, Nikita considers Holly Springs her adopted home. What is the best skatepark in Switzerland, according to Nikita Ducarroz? The park in the Plainpalais, in the center of Geneva, the city she returned to after the Olympics to reconnect with the roots of her riding career.

To get to know Nikita a bit better, the Embassy recently sat down with the Swiss rider over video chat to talk about what attracted her to this unusual sport, her recent bronze medal at the Olympics, and the importance of focusing on mental health in sports.

Swiss Embassy: Has it sunk in yet that you just brought back a bronze medal from the Tokyo 2020 Olympics?
Nikita Ducarroz: It has hit me in some ways, but also not. I don’t really feel like I fully understand what just happened over the last few weeks. They flew by so fast. It has hit me a bit more when people in Switzerland thank me for winning a medal for the country. That shows how much bigger it is than just me. How big it is for BMX, my discipline, and for Switzerland.

Swiss Embassy: BMX Freestyle made its Olympic debut this year; did you ever imagine you would be able to compete in the Olympics?
Nikita Ducarroz: I never thought I would be able to compete in the Olympics, especially in a sport like BMX freestyle! I didn’t grow up thinking about it, so when the opportunity presented itself I was game, even if it didn’t seem real…! It was such an incredible experience: I feel extremely lucky to have been part of it.

Swiss Embassy: How do you mentally prepare for big competitions?
Nikita Ducarroz: I work a lot with my sports psychiatrist to create a plan so I feel like I have control (at least as much as possible) over whatever might be coming my way. Breathing techniques, plans to “restart” if things go bad, etc. I also prepare some songs that I like to listen to before a competition (“Legendary” by Welshly Arms, and Metallica during the contest), and go over my routines with my coach.

Swiss Embassy: Do you think Covid-19 impacted the consideration of mental health issues in the sporting world in a positive way?
Nikita Ducarroz: I do think that Covid has brought a lot more awareness to mental health, probably because for the first time, many people who had never experienced mental health struggles were confronted with them, and it brought a lot of people together. I think the conversation around mental health is only going to get bigger and I’m excited to be a part of that. Actually, I created the Instagram page called MindTricks in July 2019 to provide a platform for people to share stories about living with mental health problems. It’s primarily focused on athletes to show people that even their sports heroes suffer from mental illness.

Swiss Embassy: What was the most challenging aspect of training for the Olympics during the pandemic?
Nikita Ducarroz: I would say just having that uncertainty and the absence of a solid timeline were the greatest challenges. It was like an open-ended training process. Trying to adjust to that to make sure we were doing the right thing at the right time was tough. Also, not being able to travel and compete leading up to the Games, which left space to wonder if I still had it in me. But at the end of it all, I think this change in my approach to training was actually a blessing and I’m grateful for every part of it…the good and the bad!

Swiss Embassy: Who makes up your support system and who do you ride with?
Nikita Ducarroz: There are too many people to list who have been part of my team. Leading up to Tokyo, I worked very closely with my coach, Daniel Wedemeijer, sports psychiatrist Dr. Jason Richardson, trainer John Welch, and my parents. I also had a lot of financial support from my amazing sponsors at Red Bull, Mongoose, Team Genève, Schweizer Sporthilfe, Lundin Energy, and Tioga, who continue to enable me to do what I love. As for riding partners, I was lucky to train every day with a group of international riders (Daniel Dhers, Marin Rantes, Justin Dowell, Hannah Roberts, and Perris Benegas) who pushed me to become a better rider.

Swiss Embassy: Why did you pick Holly Springs, North Carolina, as your training base?
Nikita Ducarroz: I moved there to be in a focused environment close to the DDASC (Daniel Dhers Action Sports Complex, founded by 2020 Olympic Medallists Daniel Dhers and Abel Zalcberg in 2013), where I could train everyday with world-class riders. I am so happy with that decision and love living here.

Swiss Embassy: How have your American and Swiss roots contributed to who you are? What is your favorite food from each side?
Nikita Ducarroz: I think my American origins brought me the desire to go after what I want and chase big dreams, which mixes with the Swiss side of me that always wants to stay neutral and be the peacemaker in situations. I’m super grateful to have grown up with strong ties to both sides of my family. Favorite foods from each side? I would say raclette for the Swiss side, and BBQ for the American one!

Swiss Embassy: What would you tell the new generation of girls and women in sports?
Nikita Ducarroz: Whatever you want, you can get it if you keep trying! Just go after it and don’t give up! Things are changing so rapidly, and the space is here for us to do big things and keep fighting for change!

Want to know more about Nikita Ducarroz and freestyle BMX? Visit Nikita’s Instagram page here!

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