Ride of a Lifetime
Hendricks County Students Represent Team USA In BMX World Championships
Photographer / Amy Payne
When most kids think of BMX, they may think of watching the X Games on TV or even making makeshift jumps in their own yards for their bikes. When Nico Pareja, 16, Drew Polk, 16, and Reagan Rice, 10, think of BMX, they think of their most recent participation on the USA team in the BMX World Championships in Belgium in July.
“It was the best thing ever,” Pareja says. “It was amazing.”
Qualifying for the World Championships isn’t easy. All three have been racing since a very young age, and they have actively participated in National races over the years.
Riders accumulate points at National races and local races throughout the year. Top finishers and racers from all over the world gather for Grand Nationals, which takes place every year over Thanksgiving in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This race ultimately allows riders the opportunity to earn top spots in how they finish for the year in the Nation or National Age Group (NAG).
In addition, there are two World Championship qualifier races in the U.S. each year. Riders must qualify for the main event at one of the qualifier races which then allows them to participate on the USA World Championship team, made up of 16 riders from each age group. The World Championships were in Belgium this year, and next year they’ll take place in Houston, Texas.
Gathering and competing with the BMX family from around the world is something that can’t be expressed in words, according to Rice’s mother Jenny.
“Riders from all over the world compete against the best of the best,” she says. “There were kids from Europe, South Africa, even Japan. It’s like a huge family across the entire world.”
Between competitions, the Pareja and Rice families enjoyed Europe and even celebrated Pareja’s 16th birthday in Paris, touring France on a train, having breakfast near the Eiffel Tower, and taking scooters all over Paris.
Polk agreed that participating in the World Championships was life-changing. He has big plans for BMX, hoping to compete at the pro level. He’d like to attend college at Marian University to ride on their BMX team, and he even has his eye on the 2024 and 2028 Olympics.
“Participating in Worlds was a huge accomplishment,” Polk says. “It was the highlight of my career being able to qualify for it.”
Rice, also already talking about college at Marian at the tender age of 10, jumped in to describe something most 10-year-olds don’t even come close to experiencing.
“It was the very best day of my entire life,” Rice says.
For these Hendricks County students, participating in the World Championships was thrilling, but it was also simply another stepping stone into a lifelong love and participation in the sport.
They all started young. Pareja, whose parents are from Columbia, began riding when he was eight years old. His dad happened across a Facebook post about an indoor BMX track downtown and decided to take his son to try it out.
“I instantly loved it,” Pareja says. “I love that it’s more physical than other sports. I rely more on my body to go where I want to go.”
Two years ago, Pareja met Polk. Polk got his first motorcycle when he was three years old and began racing motocross at the age of four. He switched to racing BMX full-time once he was eight years old and has been extremely active in the sport ever since. He moved to Indianapolis in 2017, where he met Pareja.
The boys bonded immediately over their shared BMX passion, eventually competing in National competitions together in 2018. That was a big year for Polk, who swept up four National wins, receiving second place in the nation and fifth at the Grand Nationals. He currently sits in second place in the nation for his age group.
“And now we’re here,” Polk says, basking in the glow of participating in Worlds but also with his gaze fixed permanently on growing his career. “It’s all about you. It’s not a team sport. You’ll get out what you put into it. If you work hard, the results will show. It’s your body doing the work, there’s no engine.”
Rice, the youngest of the three, found her love for riding when she began on striders at the age of three. Her older brother was already racing BMX.
“I got tired of watching him race,” Rice says. “I started racing when I was four years old, and I’ve been going to Nationals with my brother ever since.”
She’s competed in many National races and achieved NAG 6 when she was six years old, which means her national point listing for all of her Nationals races earned her a NAG plate. She currently sits 24th in the nation for her age group.
She loves the friendships she’s made and how her world has expanded far past the walls of her school.
“You just meet a lot of amazing people,” she says, then looked in admiration at Polk and Pareja. “Like these guys.”
There are only seven BMX tracks in Indiana, including Marian University, where there is a BMX team that also offers scholarships. All three students have their eyes on the team as well as the scholarship. Other tracks are in Evansville, Columbus, Warsaw, Hobart, Portage and Fort Wayne. The Portage track is indoor, and many riders travel there in the winter to train.
Pareja, Polk and Rice train almost daily. All three take advantage of the Marian University track, and if they aren’t training on their bikes, they’re training by doing sprints, gate starts or strength training, and each of them works with a BMX trainer.
With the amount of training involved, school might seem to take a back burner with students sometimes missing classes to participate in competitions. It turns out, however, that most kids who race BMX are excellent students.
“Kids in this sport are outstanding,” Jenny says. “They get good grades, they are very respectful, they go out of their way to help one another, and you just won’t find better kids in a sport. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Polk agrees, emphasizing that something about the sports drives him to excel in all areas of life.
“It’s not like typical sports like baseball, basketball and football,” Polk says. “When you come out, it’s like a passion thing.”
Polk gets school done in his free time and still maintains the honor roll as well as AP classes.
That passion is also clear when the students are practicing at the track. It’s extremely common for experienced riders to reach out and help a newer rider through a jump of their own volition, not because a coach told them to, not because they were asked, but because they want to help other riders be better, be safe and do well.
This leads to close friendships, and these three are no different. Even though the three compete against each other, they are a close-knit group.
“These guys are the same age and compete against each other,” Jenny says. “But they root for each other and are each other’s biggest fans.”
Pareja’s parents appreciate the friendships as well as the time together as a family. His father, Jaime, says that the several days his family spends together as they travel for Pareja’s races is always a special time of bonding.
“It’s not like football, where you’re together for an hour and a half and go home,” Jaime says. “We spend three days in a row together. Some camp, some get a hotel, some sleep at a friend’s house. We’re creating memories, something for them to have in the future that hopefully they’ll repeat with the next generation.”
When the families found themselves together at the World Championships, the experience of a lifetime was also nerve-wracking for parents to watch. In fact, Carolina attended Worlds with Pareja while Jaime stayed home. Yet Carolina could hardly stand to watch her son during the race so Jaime watched from home in the United States and texted her updates.
“I can’t stand to watch him,” she says laughing. “I never watch in real-time.”
Even though these three students have reached the pinnacle by participating in the World Championships, all three will be in Tulsa, Oklahoma participating in Grand Nationals this Thanksgiving. Jenny agrees that sometimes it’s tough to watch the kids race, but it also makes her proud as a parent.
“I hold my breath during some races,” Jenny says. “But I have such a sense of pride watching them. Seeing them, their camaraderie, the bond they’ve created, wearing the colors. I won’t lie, I cried. It’s so emotional. It’s scary and exhilarating and fun and exciting, all packed into 45 seconds or less.”