‘Dream big, work hard, believe you can do it.’ Mariana Pajón – Olympic athletes interviewed Episode 10
Double Olympic Champion Mariana Pajón shares the story how she experienced an injury early in her career and was told never to be able to ride a bike again. Despite all odds, she found a way to come back from that injury and ultimately claim the Olympic titles and world champion titles.
Having won everything she could possibly win in her sport, Mariana also outlines how she stays motivated, and why she stays motivated.
In this interview Mariana shares
- Her darkest moment
- Her best moment
- What advice would she give her younger self
- What are the habits that make Mariana Pajón a successful athlete and successful person
- Her morning routine
- How she prepares for important moments
- How does she overcome setbacks
- Who her role model is
- The best advice she has received, and who gave it to her
- How does a typical training day look for her
- Who Mariana nominates to be interviewed
- Where can you find more about Mariana Pajón
Christian: Today I am joined by Mariana Pajón. Mariana is double Olympic champion BMX Supercross at the Olympic Games 2012 in London, and the Olympic Games 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. And not only did she win the Olympics, both of the times it was a clean sweep where she won all the races, including the time trial in 2016.
Amongst Mariana most notable achievements, she was Junior World Champion 2008 and 2009, and from 2011 she showed the whole world who is number one in BMX Supercross is, winning 6 World Championship titles, multiple World Cups and as previously mentioned 2 Olympic titles, earning the nickname of “Queen of BMX”.
Mariana: Thank you, I’m really happy to be here.
Christian: Mariana, I am curious, what’s your other nickname about, ‘Tata’?
Mariana: Tata comes from my older brother. When I was born he was three years old and it was really difficult for him to say, Mariana, so he just called me ‘Tata’, because it was easier for him. From that point, everybody started calling me ‘Tata’, at the BMX track and in my family, and actually, that’s what they call me in Colombia as well.
Mariana’s darkest moment
Christian: Mariana, in your life is an athlete what was your darkest moment?
Mariana: I think we go through a lot of dark moments. When we do BMX we know there are risks, and I think the darkest moment was when I broke my wrist. My wrist exploded, it was severe, I broke it in nine parts.
I had a lot of surgeries and I saw five doctors and all five of them told me it was the end of my career because in the future I won’t be able to open a door, and even worse, ride a bike. But six months later I was riding again and competing.
I had a lot of surgeries, I saw five doctors and all of them told me it was the end of my career, but six months later I was riding again and competing.
We know there are risks and we go through so many dark moments, not just professionally, not just injuries, but personally as well, and you have to just move on from them and be positive.
We know there are risks and we go through so many dark moments, not just professionally, but personally as well, you have to move on and be positive.
Christian: Two questions come to my mind when was that injury with the wrist?
Mariana: It was 2008.
Christian: So, just at the beginning of your career.
Mariana: Yes. The first year of Junior.
Christian: And how do you overcome these dark moments?
Mariana: I think they are not dark moments for me, I just transform them into challenges. There are a lot of challenges; they just make you stronger, so I just go above them and see that life is showing me that I can be stronger and that I can just beat them.
I transform dark moments into challenges. Challenges make you stronger, so I just go above and beyond them. Life is showing me that I can be stronger and that I can just beat these challenges.
And if you really want it you know you have to work hard for it, and you are going to have those dark moments, but you have to beat them, so you win when you want to win.
And if you really want something, you know you have to work hard for it, and you know you are going to have these dark moments, but you have to beat them. So you win when you want to win.
Mariana’s best moment
Christian: What was your best moment?
Mariana: I think it was the Olympic Games 2012 in London. I didn’t even win a World Cup before that, I won the World Championships the year before, but I was injured and I was injured the whole year. The year before I was crashing, I was confused. I also had a heart disease, so it wasn’t my moment, I was feeling bad. But I really wanted it.
I did a tattoo on my wrist and it was a contract with myself for me because I really wanted to go there, not just to go there but to win it.
It was really special for my country. My life changed drastically when I went back to my country with that gold medal. I think it was really special.
I did a tattoo on my wrist, as a contract with myself. Because I really wanted to go to the London Olympics, and not just to go there but to win it.
Christian: You were also selected as a flag bearer in 2012.
Mariana: Yes. When I came to London, maybe in the BMX World they didn’t expect me to win, because I was young and I hadn’t even won a World Cup before, but my country they wanted me to win gold.
So, I was a flag bearer that year, there was a voting in Columbia who was supposed to be the flag bearer and I won.
It was a huge responsibility, but at the same time, I think I won two gold medals in London, one by entering the stadium with the flag of my country and the next one by winning the event. It was two gold medals for me.
In my country they wanted me to win gold, it was a huge responsibility. But at the same time, I think I won two gold medals in London, one by entering the stadium with the flag of my country and the next one by winning the event.
Mariana’s advice to her younger self
Christian: What advice would you give your younger self? If you could go back in time 10 years, 15 years with all the knowledge you have now what would you tell yourself?
Mariana: I think I would tell myself to dream big and to think that those dreams can be a reality if you work hard for them. Just dream, work hard and believe you can do it. But the most important thing for me is to enjoy it, enjoy the moment.
Even if I win what I really like the most is what I feel on the gate just before the gate drops. Even before I win or I lose, just that feeling like my heart is coming out of my chest, I like it. So, just enjoy it, just have fun. If you are having fun then it’s not just your work but it’s your passion and everything is going to work. So, dream, work hard, believe you can do it, hold it in your hands before you actually achieve it, and just have fun.
Dream big, work hard, believe you can do it, hold it in your hands before you actually achieve it, and most important for me is to enjoy it, enjoy the moment.
Christian: Very nice. Your philosophy in life is “the future belongs to those who believe in their dreams.” Is that true?
Mariana: I saw that phrase a long time ago, and it was like that’s my life. The future is really for the ones that really believe they can achieve something because a lot of people have dreams but they just stay in bed or they are just at home waiting for that to come. But it’s the ones that believe they can do it and work hard for it that really achieve them.
A lot of people have dreams but are just waiting for that dream to come. But it’s the ones that believe they can do it and work hard for it, that really achieve them.
Mariana’s success habits
Christian: What are the habits that make you a successful athlete and successful person?
Mariana: I think there are a lot of habits. I think dedication, responsibility, knowing that if I want to do it, if I want to win then I have to work hard, and I really work hard. Since I was 9, I have been training every day, and when I was 12, I was training twice a day. I was waking up at 4:00 a.m. to train before going to school and then after school. I think it’s dedication, responsibility and just consistency to just prepare for the important moments.
Since I was 9, I have been training every day, and when I was 12, I trained twice a day. I was waking up at 4:00 a.m. to train before going to school.
I have been winning since I was little, but I was waiting for a big moment to come and for my whole country to know what BMX is about and to be an ambassador. And I knew that moment would come, but I just had to wait and work hard.
And I think the thing that really separates me from the others is that I’m always enjoying what I’m doing, if not I would quit. But I love it, I cannot live without it.
I enjoy what I am doing, I cannot live without it.
Christian: How do you stay motivated? You have achieved everything you can achieve in your sport. What keeps you going?
Mariana: I think it was easier for me to respond to that question before rather than now after winning two Olympic gold medals and everybody is asking me, “What’s next? You have won everything in BMX, what next?”
But the thing is that I don’t just love winning, but the feeling just before it I love it. And what really motivates me is to wake up every day and try to be better than yesterday, and make tomorrow better than today.
What really motivates me is to wake up every day and try to be better than yesterday, and make tomorrow better than today.
So that’s what I love the most, to just go in the gym, not just on the track, but just to lift more and to have better timing in 30 meters and just noting what I do every day so that tomorrow I will do better.
And now I’m doing track cycling and BMX at the same time and just trying to feel like the little girl just coming into the sport for the first time. I love riding, I know some years are better than others. When you know all this you have to wait and feel 100% again and you just trust your coach and it will be all good; that motivates me.
Mariana’s morning routine
Christian: Do you have a morning routine?
Mariana: I do. Before going to bed I think positive, and when I wake up I think positive again and try to be happy and try to motivate myself to just go and train every day and smile every day because we are humans, we are not robots.
Before going to bed I think positive, and when I wake up I think positive again.
Christian: I guess everyone wants to be happy. How do you do it? Do you say you want to be happy? How do you do that?
Mariana: I think I am happy. I think for me it’s easy. I just go back and I am so thankful for everything, for the country I was born in, the family I was born into, the sport I chose and everything that came with that, even the injuries and everything, I am thankful for all that, for all the people I lost already but they are watching me and just giving me the strength to just go on and beat it. I am really thankful, so I am happy.
I know we have some challenges in life, but I just enjoy what I am doing. And why not just be happy to have a beautiful family, a beautiful home and everybody is secured? You are doing what you love, it’s your passion but that the same time it’s your work; it is easy to be happy if you want to.
It is easy to be happy if you want to.
Christian: That’s the best thing if you can make your passion into your job, right?
Christian: Same for me. If I’m with my athletes I think I don’t work a single minute just because I like it.
Mariana: It’s fun, every day is fun, even if you have to just go and pedal and do some road cycling that I don’t like, it’s my passion so I’m having fun every time.
How to prepare for important moments
Christian: How do you prepare yourself for important moments?
Mariana: I love pressure. I think I am even better when I have a little pressure when everyone is expecting me to do well. I think that when I am confident is when I go back and see if I did well if I did even more than my 100% when I’m on the gate. I’m there, I’m confident, that’s how I prepare for that moment, to just be confident and knowing that I did all I could.
I’m there, I’m confident, and know that I did all I could.
Christian: I am really interested in that. If you are in London or in Rio in the final just at the gate, what goes through your head?
Mariana: Those were two different experiences. At the London 2012 Olympics, I didn’t know what to expect, it was the first time. When I was on the gate I was really strong mentally. I saw everyone on the gate that they were all moving their feet or they were nervous and I was okay, I was like, “This is a dream come true, I’m at the Olympics, I’m representing my country and I’m in the finals, it’s really cool so I’m just going to do my best.” And I was thinking like, “One more lap.” I had been doing good, “Just one more lap like you did before and it’s good.” It was a little bit shocking to me to have gate four because I’m in the middle and I knew that the last lap was faster for the other girls, but I was like, “No, I can do it, just one more lap.”
When I was on the gate I was really strong mentally, and I saw everyone around me was nervous.
But then at the Rio Olympics, it was the second time, you know what to expect, you know what it feels like to be in the finals. There were a lot of Colombians there, a lot of Colombians on the track just waiting for me to win and to medal again. It was different, I was on the gate just thinking, “Just go and do your best.”
I was really confident because I worked really hard for Rio. If I worked hard for London I worked even harder for Rio, two times more. And I was just there not expecting anything, just expecting to do my best. I was really happy because I was healthy, and I was prepared, so just one more lap.
If I worked hard for London, I worked even harder for Rio.
How to overcome setbacks
Christian: You kind of touched on this before, how do you overcome setbacks if things don’t go your way?
Mariana: I am really strict on myself. I always want to win because I am used to it and I really want to win. But sometimes you have to realize when it’s your moment and you have to realize that winning isn’t just placing first, you have to really get over that and see where your preparation is at, what you want, what you want to feel, and if you’re doing better.
For me winning is not just doing a good lap, because when I go back and see London’s main event, that lap was clean but it could have been better. So, that’s when I thought, winning is not just getting first. If I get second or eighth, even if I don’t make the main but I feel good and I did all my best, that’s winning.
So, you have to go back and see if you trained if you did everything and you were ready. That’s how it’s supposed to be, and that will make you stronger.
I am really strict on myself, I always want to win. But you have to realize that winning isn’t just placing first, if you did all you could, and did your best, that’s winning.
Christian: Does your quote, “the future belongs to those who believe in their dreams” also help you to overcome setbacks?
Mariana: Yes, for sure. I think so many things come before getting a big achievement. And I feel when I have a gold medal and I’m singing my national anthem everything goes through my mind about what I’ve been through before just so I could have that medal, and that moment passes really quick.
But when you see all the crashes, all the disappointments or some days when you just don’t want to train, that’s where dedication and determination wins and beats motivation. That’s when you see that if you have a dream and you believe in it then everything comes and you just have to wait for it.
So many things come before getting a big achievement, all the crashes, all the disappointments, that’s where dedication and determination wins and beats motivation.
Christian: You said dedication and determination beat motivation?
Mariana: Of course.
Christian: Please elaborate. I agree with you, but some people just believe it’s all about motivation, so I’m interested to hear your views.
Mariana: I would be a robot if I tell you I wake up every day wanting to train or if I wake up every day just wanting to go to the gym and have bloody hands again and to be sore, I would be a robot and I would be lying.
Sometimes I just don’t want to train, but then something inside you tells you, “Just go. Just go because you want to win.” So, that will make the difference. Just go for it, and if you don’t want it just stand up and go train. You’re not always motivated, but when responsibility comes and dedication comes and discipline comes, then that will be it.
I would be a robot if I tell you I wake up every day wanting to train. I am not always motivated, but that’s when responsibility, dedication, and discipline comes in.
Christian: Everyone has dreams more or less, but at some point you also see your dream fading away.
Mariana: Yes, sometimes. It’s like a little kid saying, “I want to go to the moon.” You have a dream, but how are you going to achieve it? And sometimes you say, “I’m not feeling good.” I think that happens when you’re thinking about others too much when you’re comparing yourself with others. Because you do a lap and you do a time and it’s worse than yesterday, and you think, “I’m working and the time is not a good time.” But then you have to just believe, believe in your coach, believe in the process and just wait for it.
Sometimes when it comes and it transforms into an obsession, that is not good. Before having the 100 number that I ride with I had 111 because I was just winning, winning or winning; that was an obsession. And then I started to crash and I didn’t win anymore.
But then I found out that it’s not just winning, it’s giving all you can. So it’s just to separate an obsession to just a dream that you can work for and just wait for it.
You just have to believe, believe in your coach, believe in the process and just wait for it.
Mariana’s role model
Christian: Who is your role model, and why?
Mariana: I have a lot. When I started riding I was also doing gymnastics, so Nadia Comaneci was my role model, I wanted to be like her, I wanted to go to the Olympics in gymnastics because BMX was not in the Olympics. Then Ayrton Senna, also I really liked how he spoke and the way he was racing in competitions.
And there is also a Paralympic athlete from Colombia that is called Moises Fuentes, he has been through a lot and he achieved so much, so I love him and just the way he talks, he just motivates you and gets you to just dream for a gold medal.
Christian: Nadia Comaneci is someone I would love to interview.
Mariana: She’s amazing.
Christian: So, Nadia, if you see this, get in touch with me.
Mariana: And me.
The best advice she has received
Christian: What is the best advice you have received, and who gave it to you?
Mariana: I think it was my mom. My mom and my dad once took me to the BMX track when I wanted to start BMX.
They were so scared for their little girl to do BMX. In Colombia there were no girls that were racing, it was just boys and my parents actually didn’t want me to do it. But at the same time they just wanted to be with me and if I wanted to do it they would just do it for me.
They took me to the podium and they told me what it was because I didn’t know. “If you win, you just stand there. But we don’t necessarily want you to win, we want you to be the best in whatever you want to do in life, so just be the best you can be. Just think about you and if you want to be there in BMX, in studies or in gymnastics, or car racing, I also used to race cars, just be the best. Don’t try to beat everybody, beat yourself.” And that’s what I did in my studies and in my career and everything in life.
My parents told me not to try to beat everyone, but much rather beat myself. And that’s what I did in my studies, in my career and everything in life.
A typical training day
Christian: How does a typical training day look for you?
Mariana: It depends on the calendar but I think it’s mostly what BMX-ers do. I wake up, I go to the gym, then in the afternoons I go to the track, I do some technical stuff or sprints, it depends on the day. I also do track cycling. I go to the gym three times a week and then every day I am at the track. I love sprints, so I do a lot of them.
Christian: You mentioned that you did gymnastics, do you feel that has helped you in BMX?
Mariana: I think so. I think gymnastics has helped me for so many things in my life. For BMX it’s just to know how to control your body and to be flexible and just to jump, even crashing, knowing how to crash and roll, that really helps.
Gymnastics has helped me with so many things in my life. Specifically for BMX, it helped me to know how to control my body, just be flexible and how to jump. And even with crashing in BMX, it helps knowing how to crash and roll.
Mariana’s interview nomination
Christian: Do you want to nominate someone to be interviewed?
Mariana: I really want to have Sam, why not? I really admire Sam Willoughby for a long time, an interview with Sam would be cool. And maybe Maris Strombergs, who I really admire too.
Christian: I’ll try to get in touch with them.
Where can you find Mariana Pajón
Christian: Where can people find you? Where can people find out more about you?
Mariana: I think I’m really private, but I’m on social media, so I think it’s easier to just go and see my private life a little. So, just search my name, Mariana Pajón, and you will find me.
Christian: Thanks Mariana, it was a really great interview.
Mariana: Thank you.