"Changed the Game" is a Yahoo Sports series dedicated to the women who are often overlooked, under-appreciated or simply deserve more flowers for their contributions to women's sports history.
There are athletic prodigies, and then there is Mariana Pajón.
Born in Medellin, Colombia, Pajón first sat on a BMX bike at 4 years old. Just a year later she won her first national championship, and she claimed her first world championship at only 9.
She's done pretty much nothing but win since and became an icon in her country in the process.
Accomplishments could fill a book
Now 30 years old, Pajón's list of honors, championships and titles is so long that on her personal website there are about 35 listed and then an "among others" addendum. One imagines listing every one would become more of a book than some bullet points.
But there are some significant ones indeed. Pajón is a two-time Olympic gold medalist, the second and third of her country's history. She received the Cruz de Boyacá, Colombia's highest civilian honor, after winning the gold in the 2012 London Games. She's won 18 world championships in total and has been national champion in her division every year she's competed since that first at 5 years old.
No wonder she's called the "Queen of BMX."
While she enjoyed success on her bike, as a child Pajón thought that her path to the Olympics would be as a gymnast. It made sense, especially since BMX didn't become an Olympic sport until the 2008 Beijing Games. But as she kept riding, her star kept rising, winning world championships on the 24-inch wheel bike and the 20-inch wheel bike used in the Olympics.
She was invited to Beijing in 2008 for an Olympic Youth Camp as preparation for the next Games, and four years later, at 20 years old and making her Olympics debut, she was chosen as the flag-bearer for Colombia in the Opening Ceremony, which she called a "profound experience."
Her first gold was a dream come true, but her second, which came at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, was even more special because there were Colombians in the crowd cheering her on.
“The first medal was incredible, but the second medal was more emotional,” she said at the time. "Because it was in Brazil. This feel like a medal for all South Americans. I’m so proud."
Pride of Colombia
Pajón is so beloved in Colombia that the country's supercross track in Medellin is named for her. In 2016 she was able to win one of her many world titles on the course.
BMX racing comes with significant risks, and Pajón has endured numerous injuries, including nearly 20 broken bones, nine screws and two plates in her wrist, and multiple concussions.
She found herself rehabbing again for much of 2018 and into 2019, with her sights set on the 2020 Tokyo Games, which were postponed due to COVID-19. At a UCI Supercross World Cup event in the Netherlands on May 8, 2018, Pajón went down in her semifinal heat, before the first jump of the course. She suffered a full ACL tear and partial MCL tear.
Rehab was a difficult process physically and mentally, and it was nearly 10 months before Pajón was able to practice on her bike again.
Pajón's Instagram feed is filled with pictures of her smiling, even when she's on her bike and wearing a helmet, and her captions are exceedingly positive — a recent one celebrated "International Happiness Day," with Pajón noting, "It's a matter of attitude."
So it's no surprise that she told the website of UCI, the sport's governing body, that while being away from her sport wasn't easy she found some good in it: time with family and friends she wouldn't normally get, working on the home she was building with her husband, and expanding her personal brand, including designing a line of bags and accessories for Colombian company Totto.
Pajón is now back in incredibly familiar territory: At the end of January, she won the women's open at the Citrus Classic Nationals in Sarasota, Florida, and this month she won two elite women's races at the Copa Nacional in Bogota, Colombia.
After the wins, Pajón told a local radio station that she's feeling good and will be training with the Colombian national team as the postponed Tokyo Games draw closer.
If she wins a third gold medal this summer, naming a BMX track in Medellin after Pajón may not be enough.