RIO DE JANEIRO -- Connor Fields saw this day coming. His 14-year-old self did, anyway. That's when, seven years into a blossoming BMX racing career, he took a black Sharpie into his parents' garage and predicted the future. "I wrote, 'One day I will become an Olympic champion,' on one of the walls," Fields recounted Friday afternoon, moments after becoming the first American to win Olympic gold in BMX racing. "I can't wait to go home to my mom's house and take a picture holding this medal up next to those words."
When Fields, now 23, scribbled that promise, BMX racing was not yet an Olympic sport (it debuted in 2008). But he believed the day wasn't far off, and he knew he wanted to be a part of the team once it was. Of course, there were times when Fields forgot that brazen childhood prediction, when his 19-year-old self was too disappointed in his finish at the London Games to believe he still had gold buried inside or when, after injuring his wrist in May, his 23-year-old self doubted 2016 would be his year.
"I would be lying if I said there weren't dark times or there wasn't doubt in my mind," Fields said. "It was all a blessing in disguise. They say adversity makes you stronger if you let it. I think that's true."
Four months ago, Fields had surgery to repair a break in his left wrist and missed the latter half of the season. He watched as Nic Long, who finished fourth in Rio, secured his spot on the U.S. team with a third-place finish at the world championships. Then Fields gritted his teeth as the remaining field of hopefuls duked it out at the U.S. trials. 2012 alternate Corben Sharrah won that race, but if he hadn't, USA BMX director Jamie Staff would have had a hard time making a case for using his coach's pick on Fields instead of Sharrah, who just missed making the final in Rio.
"Those were the hardest months," Fields said. "Because it was out of my control."
Since being named to the team, Fields has been focused and confident, saying his seventh-place finish in London taught him the importance of gearing up for every race; no matter how well you ride in semis, a medal is not guaranteed and, above all, start strong.
"London taught me that the Olympic race comes down to two races," Fields said. "There's the race to get into the final. And then in the final, everything is wiped off the board. Once I was in the final, my mindset changed. I was going for first, second, third or broke. I was in a good mental place. As I was walking up to the start, my coach said, 'Remember how you felt in London? Remember how bad that sucked? Here's your chance. Go get it.'"
Trailing eventual silver medalist Jelle van Gorkom of the Netherlands out of the gate, Fields said he saw daylight heading into the second turn before instincts he's honed over 16 years of racing took over. "I found the hole and got in front," he said. "When I exited the last corner, I realized I was winning, and 70 meters in front of me was an Olympic gold medal. I was like, 'Get to the line. Get to the line. Get to the line.' Then I just dropped to my knees. I couldn't believe it."
Fields' win is an historic one for an American team that enters each Olympics with the great expectation that comes with representing the country that gave birth to the sport. But until Friday, the U.S. had yet to win an Olympic gold medal, and this same five-rider team failed to medal at all in London. Rio marks the USA's most successful showing yet. Returning Olympian Alise Post took silver, the best finish for an American woman at the Games, and Long and Brooke Crain finished fourth.
"We had great results as a team," Post said. "This was 100 percent different than in London. We were all first-time Olympians the last time around. We're more experienced now and it showed. I'm so proud of our team."
When asked by a reporter if there were times this season when Fields believed this moment wouldn't be possible, that his hand would never heal in time, he said his hand wasn't healed. "It's still broken," he said "I knew if I crashed again, I could damage it permanently. But I had confidence in myself. If I'm not going to bet on myself, who is?"
Fields grew up in Las Vegas. When he isn't training with the U.S. team in Chula Vista, California, he lives in Vegas in the house he bought shortly after the London Olympics and is a part-time student at UNLV. But listen to him talk, and it's clear the city influenced more than his college selection:
"Once I got into the final, I smiled to myself and said, 'Here we go.' I put all my cards on the table and had the best start of my life.
"They say adversity makes you stronger if you let it. I didn't even know I'd be here until two months ago, I changed coaches four months ago. I was injured. But at the end of the day, you have to bet big to win big. I bet on myself today. When they said Olympic champion and my name, it was surreal. If only my 14-year-old self could see me now."