Daniel Dhers: The child who hated bikes but ended up flying on one

Daniel Dhers of Venezuela competes in the Cycling BMX Men's Freestyle at the Lima 2019 Pan American Games (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
Daniel Dhers of Venezuela competes in the Cycling BMX Men's Freestyle at the Lima 2019 Pan American Games (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

Daniel Dhers, Venezuela's international BMX freestyle star, is all set to take flight in the sport's Olympic debut next year.

Giving four-year-old Daniel Dhers a bicycle for a present was a bad idea. He didn't like it. It was the typical hit or miss gift for a child of that age.

However, now aged 35, he can't imagine a life without two wheels. After all, it has given him the opportunity to reach for the sky.

And next year, the Venezuelan will be among an elite group of athletes competing for a gold medal in BMX freestyle as the sport makes its Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020.

When you see what we do, it seems like we're all crazy.

But the way that we start out is really normal. And you progress, little by little, until one day you are circling in the air.

Before qualifying for Tokyo, his first journey on two wheels saw him pass that fine line that separates love from hate.

"One of my godparents gave me a bike when I was four years old and I didn't like it at all," Dhers explains to Tokyo 2020. "I remember that I had the support wheels on, I rolled down the street. I fell over, and I told my mother I didn't want that.

"I never saw the bicycle again. It was only when I was 12 years old that my friends started riding bikes and I was alone, so I dusted the bicycle off. I hid so that they would not see me learning, and I learned.

"Later, the bad part was that I didn't want to go to school. I just wanted to ride the bicycle. So we had our wars at home. Once my mother chained my bicycle under a car so that I wouldn't ride. But they always supported me, they always believed in me."

Although his first and second experiences with a bicycle were in Venezuela, Dhers moved with his family shortly afterwards to Argentina, when he was 16.

Five years later, Dhers relocated to the United States to develop his professional career in BMX freestyle.

Although many people may be surprised that someone would choose this sport because of its risks, he explains his progress in simplified terms: "When you see what we do, it seems like we're all crazy and you can wonder why we do it. But the way that we start out is very normal: first you just roll, then you get a small obstacle, then another a little higher... and so you progress little by little until one day you are circling in the air."

The risk

Although his parents have supported him since the very beginning, Dhers assumes they have always been afraid of the potential injuries he could suffer. But, he explains, "in the end, in every sport, you can be injured."

He doesn't know how many injuries he has suffered in his career, although one in particular has defined all his subsequent steps.

"In 2003 I fractured my lumbar bones, fingers, ribs... I even spat out blood after the fall and was unconscious," he says. "I fell off a platform, it was a silly accident, it wasn't even that I was reinventing the wheel.

"That was just before the X Games in Brazil, which was going to be my debut. It was a moment of great disappointment. I was in so much pain that I thought about retiring.

"I remember that when we were leaving the hotel in Rio de Janeiro a magazine editor and a professional BMX rider told me that I was doing well and that we would see each other next year. Those words have given me strength until today.

"I came home to get better because I knew I was going to see them next year, and I didn't want to disappoint them."

The human being isn't supposed to be detached from the ground,

but we instead look for a way to do it.

And so he continued. "Injuries," he says, "are the toughest moments."

"This injury was the hardest for me. But in an emotional sense. I was 16 and I didn't understand what was happening. I thought it was the end of the world. That's why this one is the hardest, not only because of the injuries to my body."

But something that is really simple explains why he rises from every fall: "I love to ride bicycles."

But he doesn't just ride. He flies on them. And why he's so attracted to them.

"You feel the adrenaline, and I think that's the reason why you continue in this sport, because you're still looking for that feeling.

"When you start competing, nerves and adrenaline get mixed together, and it's crazy. You always feel a sort of pain before a competition, but when you start to compete, you don't feel it anymore.

"Sometimes you feel a hole in your stomach, others you simply enjoy being in the air. When you're in the air, you can sometimes look over to the side and it's like you are flying, as if you were a bird. I think the human being isn't supposed to be detached from the ground, but we instead look for a way to do it," he says.

The success

Daniel Dhers is one of the trailblazers of the sport and competes at the highest international level. He won a gold medal at the Panams - 2019 was the first edition in which BMX freestyle was in the programme - and five golds and a bronze at the X Games.

To sum up: he has won everything there is currently available to win.

But as BMX freestyle is a relatively new sport (compared to others like road cycling), being among the best in the world is never easy: when you are this successful, you have no examples to follow.

"The most complicated thing when you are in the elite group is to learn to do things that don't exist," he explains. "You need to use your imagination to create new things. Some years ago I created a trick from scratch, and it was half luck, half imagination.

"As it doesn't exist, you don't have any guide to copy. You need to be mentally quick to create it."

Having the opportunity to go to the Olympics has boosted my excitement again.

Daniel Dhers of Venezuela celebrates in the Cycling BMX Men's Freestyle at the Lima 2019 Pan American Games (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
Daniel Dhers of Venezuela celebrates in the Cycling BMX Men's Freestyle at the Lima 2019 Pan American Games (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
2019 Getty Images

The incentive of the Olympic Games

Although Dhers has achieved nearly everything in the sport - creating tricks, flying, winning international titles - there is one competition that he hasn't taken part in: the Olympics.

"I want to be part of the Olympic Games because it is the only thing left for me to do," he says.

"I've been a pro for 15 or 16 years. I've competed in practically every event in the world. I never thought that the Olympics could be part of my career. When there were conversations about adding this discipline in the Olympic program, I thought it would be in 2024, and so I'd be retired. But when they said it would be in 2020, I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

"Back then I was thinking of quitting the sport, but when they announced it, I told myself 'I have enough gasoline in the tank, so let's try'."

In fact, Dhers has found the incentive that he needed to keep flying on his bicycle.

"Qualifying is a success on its own, but obviously I want to try to win a medal. That would be the icing on the cake in my career. So I am already excited, and I like that feeling because after all these years, sometimes sport has been more routine than emotional.

"Having the opportunity to go to the Olympics has boosted my excitement again. I am looking forward to the Games."

Fans are also excited about the new addition to the Olympic program.

"This discipline will give the Games a breath of fresh air. It's crazy because our sport is so different from all the other sports that are in the Olympic world. We will bring something cool to the Olympics, as will surfing and skateboarding.

"We are a young sport and we have that youthful rebellion," he adds.

However it won't just be one way: the Olympics will also offer something to BMX freestyle.

"Our sport has developed a lot in the last 20 years and I think we now have to take the chance to show that we are a professional sport. In the beginning, this sport was considered vandalism. Having the Olympics on our side of the fence proves that this sport has grown."

BMX freestyle has certainly grown, partly because Dhers has taken the sport to the highest levels - despite hating bicycles as a child.

"The problem isn't falling, or even needing some time to lay down. The important thing is to know that, at some point, you will need to rise and defy gravity again."