This 38-Year-Old Mom Has Her Eyes on Competing in BMX at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics
Stephanie Nychka is an iconic figure on the local BMX scene, pushing herself to greater heights and bigger airs in her drive to compete on the world stage.
photograph by david dean
Tonight, like most nights, B-Line Indoor Bike Park is packed with regulars airing over box jumps on their BMX bikes. The riders are mostly males in their teens and 20s but for one — Stephanie Nychka — a 38-year-old mother of three with a blond ponytail whipping out behind her.
Nychka has long been a force in slopestyle mountain biking, a discipline that features a downhill course of big jumps and other features, with contestants judged on style, amplitude and choice of line. Now, she’s on a new quest: to compete at the highest level internationally in BMX freestyle, an adrenaline-fuelled mix of tricks and jumps on a course similar to a skateboard park. BMX freestyle has long been part of the X Games, but the event will have its Olympic debut at the Tokyo Summer Games in 2020, and Nychka aims to be there. “I have this opportunity do something amazing. It’s like all the stars have lined up,” she says.
Nychka grew up in northern Alberta, a skinny kid who excelled at sports. In high school, she thought she had found her thing in volleyball and went on to play for the University of Alberta women’s team, a legendary squad that has been memorialized in the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame.
When Nychka’s roommates in Edmonton introduced her to mountain biking, however, volleyball fell to the side. She loved everything about it: being outdoors, the adrenalin rush. Nychka’s crew was into freeriding — piloting bikes with big suspension systems down steep terrain filled with stunts and drop-offs. The bigger the drop, the more gnarly the terrain, the more she relished it.
At the age of 23, tragedy struck when her fiancé died suddenly of an aortic aneurysm. In her grief, she poured her heart and soul into mountain biking full-time, dangerously willing to take risks in a sport where brazenness is often rewarded.
And she was rewarded — with accolades and attention, but at the expense of scars and broken bones. “I made bad decisions, but at that point I didn’t care,” she says. “I wasn’t trying to die, but I didn’t care if I hurt myself. I felt so alone.”
Nychka eventually moved to Whistler and from there to Portland, Oregon, continuing to compete in slopestyle mountain biking while studying to be a chiropractor. After graduating, she moved to Seattle. In 2005, she severely injured her back while attempting a backflip. During her recovery, she launched Slope Sistair — the first women-only slopestyle event.
On a trip home to Alberta in 2010, Nychka met her now husband, Chris Thompson, and made the decision to move to Calgary to be with him. They married and had three kids in five years. Nychka also started a personal concierge service, Lifestylists, which she still runs today.
Throughout, she kept riding at the highest level, but found herself feeling stuck. In her style of mountain biking, riders tend to get little industry support and recognition compared to elite-level cross-country or downhill racers. Being a mother made it even more difficult (Nychka knew of no one else carrying a breast pump to competitions). She sparked a small controversy when a mountain-biking website posted a photo of her competing while seven months pregnant. “I’ve always ridden until around eight months, coaching, dirt jumping and downhill, because I know what I’m capable of and can easily ride within my limits — and most importantly riding my bike makes me gloriously happy,” she said in an Instagram post, in response to the criticism. (She’s @rideslikeamother.)
photograph by david dean
Last fall, a friend suggested Nychka enter a BMX freestyle World Cup event in Edmonton. If there is a way not to break into BMX, this might be it. Nychka bought a used BMX off Kijiji from an 11-year-old boy. She didn’t realize until the event that the bike was too small — her handlebars sat noticeably lower than any other competitor’s though Nychka, at nearly five-feet-10-inches, was among the tallest. While she had plenty of experience riding in mountain-bike parks, she had never ridden on the kind of features used in freestyle BMX. On the start line, she directed a stream of questions to a fellow competitor, including: “Do I go now?’”
“On television it looked like I was having fun, but I was clueless,” she says.
Nychka came seventh out of eight, but the experience left her feeling that she had the potential to do well in BMX. This feeling was amplified when B-Line Indoor Bike Park opened in Calgary last October. Without the park, there would be no Olympic dream, says Nychka.
That said, Nychka has no coach and few resources for learning new skills, relying mostly on other riders at the bike park to show her things. Three or four nights a week, she hits the park to work on new tricks. Earlier this year, she landed her first backflip — the first she has attempted since her back injury 13 years ago.
Though she still takes big risks, Nychka says she rides smarter now. “I’m more calculated. I’m not going to do things that I know there’s a chance I’m not going to be successful at,” she says.
Off the bike, Nychka cross-trains at a local Goodlife gym, lifting weights a few times a week. Her diet, she laughs, leaves much to be desired. She lost weight after giving birth to each of her kids, so to keep up her strength, she turns to high-calorie foods like pastries, pasta and pizza.
Overall, Nychka says she’s most proud to be a role model for women and girls, especially her own six-year-old daughter. She coaches male and female riders of all ages in BMX and mountain biking, but says the average age of her students is 25 to 35 years old. The women in this age group, in turn, go on to attract younger women to a sport that has long been dominated by men.
“I want to show people that this is something that girls can do just as easily as guys,” Nychka says. “I don’t think there are any physical limitations; it’s mostly mental. The way we teach boys allows them to live a little more recklessly.”