Photo: Juegos Olímpicos

Daniel Dhers: from a Chacao Square to a Podium in Tokyo

This is the story of how the Olympic silver medalist became a BMX rider, looking for parks and opportunities from one country to another until he became a global reference representing Venezuela

When the silver medal for Daniel Dhers was confirmed, the rider took his phone, opened Instagram and started a live broadcast. After unnecessarily apologizing for not getting the gold medal, the 36-year-old athlete from Caracas said: “I’m the oldest rider here and I ended up on the podium.” As if he himself did not believe the 92.05 ride that gave him the Olympic medal in Tokyo 2020 that would later adorn his chest. 

It was the third medal Venezuela had received during these Olympics. However, this one was the first silver medal awarded in BMX history. Daniel’s opponents must have seen him compete in the X-Games, a tournament in which he’s a historical reference. In fact, some of them included in their repertoires a trick Daniel himself invented, the frontflip.

Daniel defines his maneuvers as “tricks.” The ease while performing complex actions and accurate drops, the explosiveness of his maneuvers and the harmony with which he handles his legs and hands, create the surprise that one can only attribute to magicians. During the qualifying round on July 30, 2021, the English broadcast described Daniel as a legend. Legend, legend, legend. Almost every competitor seemed to have some kind of relationship with him. Perhaps the commentators also grew up watching him, and most likely Americans know him better than Venezuelans or Latin Americans, who usually gravitate towards other types of sports. It was his international achievements that gave him a place in the media, particularly on television. His legend was born far from home, in a sport that was not even seen as such in his own country, and that Daniel Dhers is now revealing to most Venezuelans.

Daniel Dhers in Caracas, 2020.

Photo: Simón Bardinet Tatá

From this perspective, the current Olympic BMX runner-up is a countercultural figure who did what none of the other BMX Freestyle old-time legends ever accomplished: winning an Olympic medal at home after representing his country in the sport’s most important tournament.

The Boy Who Didn’t Want to Be Alone

But at the beginning of this story, as he explained in a video, Daniel hated bicycles.

32 years ago, when he was only four, he tried to learn how to handle one for the first time. His mom pushed him until he picked up a little speed. And when she left him by himself, he would immediately fall. Even with training wheels. He fell over and over again until he stopped trying.

He didn’t touch his bicycle again until he was twelve years old and he saw that his friends, neighbors of the Chacao municipality, in Caracas, were cycling around the block while hesat at home bored. He decided to dust off an old bike and took it to a place where his classmates did not see him. He began learning by himself, without wheels or assistance. He finally did it, and Daniel would never get bored again.

The bicycle brought him closer to other people and other landscapes. With his friends he would ride to Plaza Altamira and Plaza Bolívar de Chacao. There he saw how one of his companions turned sewer plates into ramps and jumped over them. The two wheels completely off the ground. Over, and over again. It was not only about maintaining balance but about contradicting gravity, seeing possibilities where others only see architecture, iron, and concrete.

In the 90s, in a country with no BMX tradition, the chances were that those guys didn’t even know that this was a sport.

Today it’s easy to find a video about any elite athlete online, but back then BMX could only be seen on some VHS tapes or in specialized magazines about extreme sports. There weren’t too many people guiding boys like Daniel on how to grow in that practice. Daniel began to be interested in the ones that did, until he reached another group of kids, with whom he also began to ride to Bello Campo, Las Mercedes, Los Próceres in the south of the city, and Propatria, in the west of Caracas.

Daniel Dhers and the Bad Boys

They called themselves: the Bad Boys. Daniel began to have conflicts at home because he spent more time on the wheels than studying at his desk. He soon discovered that even with the Bad Boys he still had certain limitations. Beyond overcoming a wall, a ladder and sliding down a rail, the possibilities seemed finite: vert parks were not abundant in the city. That limit was broken by someone whose name was forgotten, but not his legend. They say that a German who came to the country almost by accident, like someone who puts a random finger on a globe to choose a destination, arrived at the Caracas Grand Prix, one of the few parks in Caracas where you could BMX, asked for a bike, and started doing things that none of the teens in the park had ever seen before. Daniel was one of the boys watching. 

What Daniel had only seen on VHS tapes was happening before his eyes. Jumps, twists, leg swings. It was no longer necessary for him to look at the photographs in the magazines and try to understand and imagine how an athlete could manage to stay in that position or how he placed his feet to get back on the bike. When the German madman left Venezuela, Daniel had changed. He was still the same skinny guy, but his mentality and range of abilities were beginning to expand. As his mind opened, his context shrunk. Soon after, the Caracas Grand Prix closed and it was necessary to return to the squares and the front steps of buildings, until Pedro Hurtado appeared, who had a ramp at home. That place became his new training spot. It was no longer about staying on the bike but about preparing, improving that improvisational technique, working on the fundamentals. The hobby became a way of life.

Daniel and his colleagues improved so much that they began to do different exhibitions in Caracas and Barquisimeto, where the Metro Ride SkatePark was located, one of the most important in the country. Daniel was sixteen years old and had one certainty: he wanted to dedicate his life to BMX. That passion and his skills earned him recognition. Then, his parents were offered a job in Argentina, more than 5,000 kilometers away from everything he was achieving. In his suitcase fit neither the prestige achieved nor the friends. But the bicycle did.

Argentina: Closed Parks and the First Competitions

In the early 2000s, Daniel’s family settled in Caballito, a neighborhood in downtown Buenos Aires. From there, Daniel had to ride more than fifty blocks to reach a park near the Vélez Sarsfield stadium. Not only was the mountain-less landscape different; but Daniel also arrived during the Buenos Aires winter, with temperatures below 10º and humidity of 30%. At that time, everything was different from what we see today. Now, in 2021, Venezuelan migration has settled in the city, bringing flavors together and easing the integration of other Venezuelan migrants. Daniel did not have that in 2000. To the discomfort that he felt twenty years ago, another factor was added: the political and economic crisis of 2001 in Argentina.

In Buenos Aires there weren’t too many parks for him either, but Daniel kept training as best he could, and in 2002 he applied to the Latin X-Games in Brazil. They replied with a no, but promised to keep an eye on his work. He traveled to Brazil with his mother without knowing if he would compete and managed to get accepted. There he found his true level, far below the Argentine and Brazilian competitors, coming from countries with a greater tradition in the sport.

He returned to Caballito saddened, again in search of space to practice. He made the trip of more than two hours to La Plata to see if there was an open park there. Bus. Train. Pedal. Many times he had to return home unable to train on the streets. He continued to stay in shape, in squares and in parks that he found open until he entered different competitions and won some of them. For the Latin X-Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2003 he didn’t even have to apply: they invited him.

Fear and Anger in Brazil

But when the Latin X-Games began, and it was his turn to go, Daniel knew he was not going to make it.

“I can’t, I can’t, I can’t! Why is this happening to me now?” he said to himself, frustrated. His abdomen hurt a lot, and then he understood the extent of the accident that he had had shortly before, training in the facilities of the Flamengo football club. He had fallen from a ramp over six feet high, breaking a finger and several teeth. Days later, back in Argentina, a medical examination revealed that he had several broken ribs and lumbar vertebrae. So he could not participate in the most important competition for him until that moment. But two international runners who had seen him train promised that they would meet again. Daniel understood that even though he hadn’t competed, at least someone within the BMX Freestyle elite had noticed him.

The Definitive Jump

At another exhibition, in Curaçao, Daniel met another rider, Tom Stober. He asked Stober for his email when they said goodbye, and he took a piece of paper and wrote it down. “Daniel, you’ve been riding very well. Do you want to come to Woodward? If you want, let me know and I’ll get you there without paying,” he told him.

Woodward Camp in Pennsylvania offered ramps with foam rubber to land, not concrete, at the beginning of the millennium.

That place was what Daniel had been looking for in Venezuela, Argentina, and in any other country he traveled to with his father, but it had a prohibitive cost: one thousand dollars a week. Daniel, obviously, agreed to write.

It didn’t take long for him to start planning his jump to the United States. In 2004 he was sixth in the Latin X-Games. He was the best Latino in the competition, surpassed only by American riders, and he met the manager of Vans, an iconic firm that promoted extreme sports. That person offered to support him if he went to the United States, covering competition costs and lodging. This served as an excuse for eventually reaching out to Woodward. But when he did, there was only room for him for two weeks. Stober promised to give him space in his house for a couple of months. At the end of that period, a vacancy was reopened at Camp Woodward. He took it and kept going up and down ramps, observing other competitors, even those idols that he once saw on VHS tapes, understanding the different relationships that occur between body, bike, and space. He did so for ten hours a day.

But he still had a pending issue to resolve: sooner or later he had to return to Argentina. A friend edited the videos that Daniel had sent him and the material came into the hands of Haro, the firm that sponsored Daniel’s idol, Dave Mirra, perhaps the most important athlete in the history of BMX Freestyle; there’s even a video game with his name on it. The company offered the possibility of sponsoring him.

That gave Daniel a handy argument when his parents demanded that he should have a title and a traditional profession, and the possibility of living and training together with Dave Mirra, who became a mentor and a friend. Much of that happened between 2004 and 2006. Since then, in addition to inventing tricks such as the Corked 720—which in Venezuela is often called “el sacacorchos”—and the Frontflip, he has been sponsored by companies such as Red Bull, DC Shoes, KHE Bikes, POC Helmets, Albe’s, Team Blowin ‘It, and Woodward Camp.

Daniel has won five gold medals at the X-Games, six Dew Tour championships, and a gold medal at the Lima 2019 Pan American Games representing Venezuela.

Between those tournaments, he found time to build the “Daniel Dhers Action Sports Complex” in the United States, a park where different professional athletes train and receive help from him, as Mirra did with him. Daniel now lives in Holly Springs, North Carolina.

When Daniel spoke with his family after winning the silver medal at the Olympics, he reminded his uncle of the times he chained his bicycle so that he would not use it and gave another meaning to that story that began 32 years ago with his mother pushing him on that bike with training wheels. The future that his parents asked of him ended up being the present that Daniel wanted for himself: he is embraced by the society he left to grow up, he is a pop icon that does not stop producing fun and memes, and he became a legend of a sport that has only just gone Olympic, and one of the best athletes in the history of Venezuela.