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07.25.12

TLD's Nic Long is the New Face of the Olympics

BMX - London, England

Nic Long tried out for the golf team as a freshman at El Capitan High in Lakeside. He played poorly that day. Got cut.

That’s the extent of his high school sports career.

“I wasn’t like a big, popular kid,” says Long, now 22. “I never really hung out with anybody (from school) outside of school. I just kept to myself and tried to do the least amount of homework possible. I didn’t stick out much, besides my long hair.”

He has a nose stud now, dyed black hair with streaks of blue and colorful tattoos covering his right arm. And his left arm. And his chest. And his right leg. And, recently, both feet.

There’s a silhouette of Queen Elizabeth with the five interlocking rings on one foot, a knight’s helmet and the Tower of London on the other.

Nic Long is going to the Olympics.

He is a BMX cyclist, exploding out of a starting gate on a preposterously small bike and pedaling over a twisting, undulating dirt and asphalt course. But he’s more than that, really. Long represents the new face of the Summer Games, a splash of ink on the chaste body of the International Olympic Committee, a calculated effort to connect with younger audiences, an attempt to get hipper, cooler.

It worked with snowboarding in the Winter Games. Now the Summer Games have BMX, or bicycle motocross.

The event made it's Olympic debut four years ago in Beijing, and members of the U.S men’s basketball team talked about wanting to check it out. But the venue was miles away from the main competition sites, and a rainstorm forced the finals to be rescheduled to another day. In the end, it barely got on TV; Kobe and LeBron were no-shows.

“We went from having quite a bit of coverage to about five minutes,” says Mike King, USA Cycling’s program director for BMX and a Montgomery High alum. “It was devastating.”

That should change in London. The 5-acre BMX course is part of the central Olympic park, a short walk from the swimming pool and main track stadium, and a jump shot from one of the basketball arenas. It’s a literal and figurative gesture, giving the new kids a place at the dinner table instead of eating with the help in the kitchen. Treating them like family.

NBC has taken note. The Olympic broadcaster requested that London organizers add a third day to the BMX competition (Aug. 8, 9 and 10) so it could increase coverage.

“I kept telling Nic from 10 or 11 years old on, ‘Some day it will be in the Olympics,’ ” says Donavon Long, his father who also grew up in Lakeside and went to El Cap and didn’t play high school sports. “Nobody ever believed me. Then snowboarding came in. I kept telling him, ‘You’ll be something. You’ll have your shot.’ ”

Long nearly didn’t get it. The U.S. team – based at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista – got three men’s spots, and the first went to David Herman based on results over the entire season and the second to Connor Fields when he won the one-day Trials event last month. The third was a discretionary pick by coaches and administrators, and they chose Long ahead of 2008 silver medalist and Trials runner-up Mike Day.

It was based on specific selection criteria over the past year, but it could have reached back much farther. Donavon Long has been preparing his son for this moment for more than a decade. Some kids have a basketball hoop in the driveway, or a swimming pool or batting cage in the backyard; the Longs have a $5,000 BMX starting gate and timing system, leading into a turn and a jump.

Both of Long's sisters also competed in BMX, and at one point all three were ranked No. 1 nationally in their divisions. One year, Donovan Long estimates, he spent $37,000 on his son’s budding career, flying him across the country and to China for races.

It might have contributed to his divorce, he admits.

“His mom, if you asked her now, would say she was supportive of it,” says Donavon Long, who installs automatic doors and still runs an amateur BMX club in East County. “But she didn’t like the time and money it took to travel around the world for BMX. No one can get to the level that Nic’s at by themselves. You always have to have someone pushing it. That caused us a little bit of a havoc.”

So has Long’s body art. He waited until his 18th birthday – Mom’s orders – before getting his first tattoo, and it took another six months to save enough money to complete it.

That was just the start. His right arm depicts flowing Biblical scenes, representative of a religious phase in his life. His left arm has a graveyard scene with zombies, skulls and a werewolf. An angel with wings is on the right side of his torso, a skeleton of a vulture on the left.

“Opposing themes, opposing ideas,” Long says. “Every person has something to look forward to when they die and going to heaven. Or they don’t.”

There are various quotations sprinkled among the colorful mosaic of ink, but the most striking is across the top of his chest, like a headline: “Count your (expletive) blessings.”

It is a lyric from a particularly graphic song called “Pray for Plague” by British heavy metal band, Bring Me the Horizon. He got it last year during the Olympic test event on the London track, where he finished third.

“I figured, when in Rome, I guess,” Long says. “I got some grief for that one. My mom cried. My dad wasn’t very stoked.”

Neither of his parents has tattoos. His father is convinced they have scared off the most connected sports agents, and ultimately sponsors.

“You want your kids to grow up and be successful,” Donavon Long says. “In order to do that, you have to give them their space and let them make choices good and bad, and let them learn from it. I can look at the some of the tattoos on him and know it has cost him sponsor money, but he has to make those choices.

“I always told him, ‘Don’t get tattoos that people can see. People don’t know you. People prejudge before they know you. If you had a 10-year-old son, would you want him to look up to you?’ That’s prejudging. But everybody does it.”

And here’s the thing. You’d probably want your 10-year-old son to look up to Long the athlete, the competitor. King, the BMX program director, ranks him among the most coachable, most unassuming riders he’s been around.

“He’s got a great work ethic,” says King, who was on the committee that made Long the discretionary pick for London. “If you told him to do 1,000 starts, he’d do 1,000 starts. That kind of character rubs off on everybody else. That’s good for the team, even in an individual sport.”

And the tattoos?

“That’s just Nic,” King says. “Some people will form an opinion of him. It might be hard for corporate America to embrace. You see what you see on the surface, but your perception changes when you get to know him. You take the surface away, and he’s no different than any other athlete in the Olympic village.”

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Related Photos

  • Nic Long, Photo: Earnie Grafton
  • Olympic Rings, Photo: Associated Press