The Cheri elliott interview
The Legacy of Cheri Elliott should never be forgotten. She inspired me as a little girl, with her bike skills, in both BMX and MTB, and even though I never actually met her in person, she impacted my life. Ahead of her time.....
Where you are from?
Citrus Heights, CA (Northern California)
El Dorado Hills, CA (Northern California)
Senior Executive Broker-Associate/Realtor
Tell us a brief history of your career as a bike rider/ racer??
I’ve been very lucky to have had two different cycling careers. BMX and Mountain Biking. My BMX racing lasted from age 9 years old to 15 years old. My Mountain Biking career lasted from 23 years old to 31 years old.
Truly, though, my bike riding started when I was a toddler. I was about 5 or 6 years old when my older Brother Kent (he’s 3 years older than me) started building little wooden ramps in our front yard. Since he was jumping off of them, I wanted to as well. So ‘air-time’ we did. We were sprinting up to these little jumps trying to go as far and as high as we could. I recall doing no-footers, one-handers, supermans. If we had a video camera back in the late 70’s, we’d have the first “toddler freestyle BMX documentary.” It really was something.
So, when I was 9 years old at my first BMX race, the bike handling came naturally. My family was truly the reason for my successes in BMX: Mom, Dad, and my bro Kent. I was the baby. So, I owe them and thank them for everything. Heck, my family loved BMX so much, we built a BMX track in our backyard. I was able to practice with my brother every day on our own track. My brother and Dad even hand-built me a 7 foot quarter-pipe ramp for my 14th birthday in the backyard as well. My family totally supported my wants to race with the boys and helped me push for that vision. That’s the kind of support I had from my family; therefore, it would have been impossible for my BMX career to be anything but extraordinary. My family is the reason, and I thank them for it.
In BMX, I was a 5 time national champion, 4 time World Champion, and two-time Hall of Famer: BMX Hall of Fame & United States Bicycling Hall of Fame. In MTB, I was a 4 time Norba National Champion and two time X-Games champion. Two fun cycling experiences, and I’m so lucky to have had them.
What year did you turn "pro"??
There was no pro class in BMX for the girls during my time. My first pro race as a cyclist was my very first MTB race in Vail, Co 1993 at a NORBA National at age 23.
Any idea what was the first women's pro BMX race was like ??
I do not know from personal experience, but there was a first attempt for a women’s pro class driven by a few older girls in the NBL on the East Coast for 2 to 3 years in the mid to late 80’s. Pioneering women like Kathy Schachel, Jennifer Zeuner and Gaby Bayhi were really the movers and the shakers to try and get it off the ground. Unfortunately, without sanctioned backing and lack of participation, it was discontinued after its 3rd year. Women’s pro BMX wouldn’t show up again for about another 10 years. However, these powerful pioneers that pushed the envelope for the first pro girls in the 80’s deserve a standing ovation for their accomplishments as the first BMX pro women in History. Kudos, ladies!
Did you have any rivalries??
My main rivalries in BMX were with boys like Mark Perez, Danny Steplight, Sam Arelano, Jason Griggs. Racing the guys was truly my passion. So, that’s where my emotions were. It was fun stuff!
Was BMX always about racing for you??
The racing was fabulous. However, BMX was a lot more than just racing for me. I really wanted girls to be recognized and respected in the sport the moment I entered it. When I first came on the BMX scene, girls were called ‘powder puffs’ and they weren’t really given a lot of attention. Something innately inside of me wanted everyone to know, especially the BMX organizers, what girls truly were capable of doing if given the chance. I always felt a sense of responsibility to ‘represent’ for the girls since I was given the gift of natural talent on a BMX bike. So, I starting racing the guys and won a lot. I also practiced jumping and getting really ‘rad’ in the air as well. I received a lot of fan mail from little girls that got into the sport and loved it because of seeing Cheri Elliott in the mags back then. So, it definitely wasn’t just about the racing, it was about making change.
What made you a stand out? Style? Whips? Flatties?? Speed??
Definitely the big air, jumping style, flatties (we called them ‘table tops’ in our day) and capability to beat and out-power the boys on the national level. Those, I’m told, are the true Cheri Elliott legacies.
What did you think of the movie rad?? Was that kinda how it was minus the actors riding all stiff:)??
…giggle… I liked the movie RAD since it was a BMX movie. However, it wasn’t anything like the BMX we were racing. It was a wee bit silly. I loved seeing my Skyway teammate Richie Anderson in the movie though. That was more fun than anything. I actually have a vintage RAD flyer from the movie with Richie’s autograph. If I’m able to find it, I’ll send it.
That would be amazing!!!
Could you bike dance??
Ha ha! I’m assuming you mean the move RAD ‘bike dancing.’ No, never had the pleasure. I could do 360’s, wheelies, endo’s, bunny hop… fun stuff like that. No dancing, though.
How big was the biggest number plate you had?
That’s funny! We did have big number plates back then, didn’t we? My biggest was probably as big as my large computer screen I’m looking at right now. Big.
From BMX, the Skyway TA. From Mountain biking, the Intense M1.
What was going to the BMX races like??
I started racing in 1980, so the format for BMX was just getting established. It was pretty similar to today but with a few noticeable differences: tracks were pretty rutty, bumpy, and we were lucky if the starting gate made it through the day. Lane choice was so critical. If you were in lane 8 off the start gate for the main event, the track ahead was not pretty. The efficiency of today’s BMX racing is so amazing. Motos are whipped out so fast, my head spins.
How many bikes do you think you broke through the evolution of the sport??Welding a hobby??
I fortunately did not have to go through those ‘welding’ phases. I got into the sport just after those experimental welding BMX stages took hold with frames that were developed correctly… thank goodness. As crazy as my brother and I were, we would have broken plenty.
When did you notice the sport really evolved? Turning point??
I’d say 1983 we really started seeing factory sponsorships come out to the sport. The pros were getting more money. Top amateur riders were getting paid to ride. The National races were getting inside stadiums. The tracks were getting built better, and the races were getting more efficient. The uniforms were getting more professional looking. I really felt the sport was taking on a ‘professional’ presence around that time.
What was your greatest memory??
Probably the trophy dash win against Jason Griggs in Louisiana when I was 12 years old. Jason was the hottest 12 year old in the Nation at the time. He swept the 12 expert class and the 12 open class that weekend, and I was just starting to make waves on the national circuit because Factory Skyway just picked me up. Jason was the odds-on favorite to win the trophy dash and everyone assumed he would walk away with another triple crown. He was an amazing athlete, and I wanted to beat him. I remember getting a great gate start and was in second place behind Jason going into the first big straight, stayed with him through all the jumps and power straights, then out of nowhere I cleanly swooped underneath him in the second-to-last big berm... the stadium WENT WILD. It was awesome. Right after I passed him, I took these big doubles with huge air, and went on in to the finish. I can still remember that feeling today. That was a lot of fun. After I crossed the finish line, I remember all the magazine photographers running over and bulbs were flashing everywhere. I think that was one of the biggest turning points in my BMX career because that was a true history-making moment: first time for a female to ever win a trophy dash. I’m blessed to have experienced it.
Why the switch to mountain bikes??
Well, it wasn’t really a switch because I had long retired from BMX in 1985. I literally stumbled upon Mountain Bike racing in 1993. I had never been on a Mountain Bike before in my life. I had not been riding bikes at all since I retired (except for two races for the BMX Hall of Fame in 1989). I happened to walk into a bike shop one day Summer of 1993, for no particular reason, and I picked up a VeloNews. I came across a page, in very small print, I saw an article with my friend Leigh Donavan in it along with Eric Carter as well. The little article was talking about a pro dual slalom MTB race that they both won. I said, “pro??? Money for racing a bikes?? I’ve gotta go try this!” So, I called up my friend Dave from Bicycle Center and asked him what the heck this dual slalom stuff was all about. He was getting ready to drive to Vail, Colorado with Eric Carter and Kim Dow for a NORBA National event. He asked if I wanted to come and give it a try. I said, ‘sure, why not?’ Again, remind you, I had NEVER been on a MTB bike before in my life and had not been riding. I assure you, my first actual MTB racing experience wasn’t too pretty …:)...
How were you received in that world??
Wonderfully. Everyone was so awesome. Heck, everyone heard I was coming, and people were pretty excited. Which was unfair, really. ..giggle… I had to carry that darn “Cheri Elliott legacy” on my back before I ever even got on a mountain bike. The industry was so friendly and very willing to allow me to race pro even though I had never raced MTB before. People who knew me were very welcoming and excited to see me back on two wheels.
Was the transition difficult??
Yes!! I’m definitely more naturally talented as a BMX rider. Downhill MTB was nothing like the BMX I had ridden 9 years earlier. The speeds were so fast, the terrain was so rough, and the courses were so skinny compared to an 8 man wide track. Not to mention I was very ‘rusty.’ I was thrown for a loop, and really just about scared myself silly out of every trying MTB again. …giggle… It terrified me. Those two first races I drove to with Dave, Eric and Kim to Vail, Colorado, then to Mammoth CA Summer of 1993. Then left the sport thinking I’d never go back. However, 6 months later I just told myself to conquer the fear, and to not worry about other people’s expectations of me. If I didn’t go out and win or take any titles in MTB, that would have been okay with me. I wanted to at least give it a good college try. I’m glad I did. I took the Dual Slalom NORBA National Title that very next year. = )
Did you prefer one to the other??
If I had to choose, I’d say BMX. However, they were both such totally different experiences for me. I was a kid when I raced BMX. I was an adult when I raced MTB. So, to compare the two is so difficult. I enjoyed and loved both of them for different reasons. I enjoyed the domination of BMX and making a difference for the girls, but yet the pressures of such domination and pioneering made that journey tough with all that extra pressure. In mountain biking, (once everyone got over the whole ‘Cheri Elliott bmx legacy stuff) I was more of just someone that could ‘win on any day.’ So, in that sense, MTB was much less pressure and a pleasant way to compete. My main issue with MTB was dealing with the extreme ‘danger factor’ of Downhill MTB. That ‘fear factor’ was a challenge throughout my MTB career. So, both sports had their wonderful pros and cons in totally different ways. Truly hard to choose my favorite.
Was retirement weird ??
Not at all. I loved it, both times. I was ready in both cycling careers for retirement. When I retired from BMX in 1985, I was ready to go live a normal teenager life. I had been racing since 9 years old, I was 15 and felt I had missed a lot. I was absolutely exhausted. My career may not have been long, but it was intense and filled to the extreme. I was ready to pass the torch to the other women. I was ready to be home.
In mountain biking, really the ‘same’ feeling. In 2001 I was 31, and I was ready to be home. I crashed one too many times my last couple years of MTB, and I was just physically and mentally done. The last two years of MTB I was already phasing into my new career with studying for the California Real Estate Broker’s Exam. So, I was definitely ready when the time was right.
Did you know what you wanted to do after??
Yes. Real Estate. I earned my B.S. in Business concentrated in Real Estate and Land Use attained in 1994 from CSUS. I graduated the same year I started MTB. So, since the MTB career flourished, the real estate was put ‘on hold.’ It was wonderful knowing it was waiting there for me when needed. This is actually something I always teach to children at schools when I’m doing public speaking. I always tell them that no matter what they want to do in life, no matter their dreams, always keep education a priority along the way.
What do you think of the current format of Supercross BMX racing??
It’s hot!! Holy cow!! I love it !! I’m so glad I don’t personally have to do it …giggle.. but I sure love watching. The talent to have in order to race those courses is amazing. You rock, Jill!
How about how BMX finally made it to the Olympics??
I think it’s AWESOME!! When I heard that, I was so excited. I really felt it was about time. Well deserved. Again, you rock, Jill!
Did you watch??
Did I watch??!!! Heck ya!!! Not only did I watch, I actually was involved with a live chat amongst a small hand full of us who were in touch with an Aussie across the World who had true ‘live video feed’ of the race. He typed in moment-by-moment action for us ‘live’ as it actually happened. It was AWESOME. It was almost more fun than watching the TV coverage. The suspense was amazing. Then, of course, I watched the national TV event during the later hours.
Was it what you expected?
Yes, actually. I had studied up pretty extensively on exactly how things were going to roll. I had to be well versed because I was guest speaking for the MSNBC live national wrap up show. I think we can all agree the TV coverage suffered a little because of the rain delay. However, the coverage that it did get was fabulous and I think the ‘buzz’ around BMX was much more effective for the sport of BMX than the actual racing itself.
Are you sad that you were a generation too early??
I can’t tell you how many e-mails, phone calls and letters I received from people asking me that exact thing once BMX became an official Olympic sport. Sure, there is a ‘darn it’ factor. I even considered coming out of retirement for the Olympics. However, my honest answer is ‘no.’ Because I truly feel that us BMX women who were pioneering the path ‘back-in-the-day’ were a part of this Olympic event. Watching you amazing women of today fly higher than ever dreamed came from us scrappy ol’ ladies from the past that told the World that we can do this. So, I’m just as happy to be a part of the Olympics in that sense than actually being there.
What did you think about the retro uniform??
Hot hot hot!!
There seems to be a huge vintage following, do you still have all that old gear??
I wish I kept more. I was too young to know the nostalgic value all that would have. I do have a lot of vintage magazines, flyers, race kits, stickers, patches, my BMX licenses, etc. However, no old jerseys or number plates.
Ever think about doing hot laps again?
I still do once in a while, but usually in private. I’ll go to a BMX track during off hours, or go to fields somewhere jumping some jumps (little jumps!) I really don’t do it as much anymore this past year because some old injuries have caught up to me. I’m not on my bike as much as I use to be, but I do walk/jog every early morning and stretch- to keep limber. :)
Any words of advice for little girls in the next era??
Geez, that’s a tuffy. Have fun. Follow your dreams and know they can come true if you work hard and have faith. Remember to laugh, smile, and be cordial to others, especially your competition. When you win, win graciously by respecting those you just defeated. When you lose, congratulate your competition for their victory of the day. Everyone is different therefore, never worry about ‘what the competition’ is doing. Just focus on your abilities and improve on yourself and what works best for you.
If you get injured, rest up and heal properly. Injuries have a funny way of repeating themselves if not taken care of properly. Don’t do drugs, and keep education a priority. Whether you are a cyclist or a basket weaver, having an education will make a huge difference in your life when cycling can no longer be an option.
Any shout outs or things to add??
Congratulations, Jill, on an amazing job well done. Your Olympic journey will be an inspiration for all the next generations of little girls to come. You are a true champion and a true warrior. Kudos to you. America is lucky to have you.
One more thing to add: Go to www.TaraLlanesRoadToRecovery.com