There are a lot of things that can make for a good BMX rider. Strength, speed, balance, and intelligence all come to mind.
But to be great, it takes a couple of additional traits that can’t necessarily be improved in the gym. To be the best at a sport where crashes are common and injuries can happen, an athlete needs a lot of confidence and very little fear.
Enter Charlotte Heckendorf.
The Monticelloan is one of the best BMX bike riders in the world for her age, something she proved once again this summer with a seventh-place finish at the World Championships held in South Carolina. It adds to a resume that includes wins in races all over the country, a No. 2 ranking in her National Age Group, and a trophy room reserved for only the most prestigious wins.
The course Charlotte raced at the UCI World Championship included a five-meter hill near the start, one of the biggest BMX drops in the country. Charlotte was not intimidated.
“I don’t know how to be scared,” she said. “I just get out there, and I just worry about winning.”
Charlotte is seven years old.
Charlotte first got on a bike at two years old, although while it was a bike, by two-wheel definition, it was one without pedals. It was what’s called a strider, and growing in popularity in recent years, allowing kids to walk or run while seated on their bike and then glide for stretches of time. It teaches balance, without throwing in pedaling at the same time.
By the time she was three, Charlotte had graduated from a strider to a bicycle. There were no training wheels in the transition. It was that year, 2013, that she started doing competitions. The following year, as a four-year-old, she begin to enter national competitions, and really begin to embrace the sport.
“When I started doing nationals, I just decided I liked it and kept going,” she said.
Most of her races were in the area that year, and many brought a top-two finish, with only a St. Cloud girl one year-older consistently besting Charlotte.
Her parents, Jim and Crystal, had an ‘aha’ moment of sorts the next year.
They decided they were ready to see her compete against more girls from around the country, and more importantly, from her own age group. So they took her to Reno, NV, for a big race.
“We knew that all of the fastest girls were going to be there,” said Jim Heckendorf.
Charlotte finished second at that race, providing further proof that she was legitimately one of the best in the country at her young age.
“We came back from there thinking she’s got a shot, like OK, she’s among the fastest,” said Jim.
Charlotte got into the sport like so many kids get into sports, from watching her older sibling do it. Lincoln, who still rides BMX as well, caught the bug from Jim’s bosses’ kid, and passed it right on to his younger sister.
She found a rather immediate attachment to it, that only grew as she had more and more success.
To this day, her reasons for liking the sport remain simple and pure.
“I like to have fun and to win,” said Charlotte.
Charlotte has done a lot of winning.
After finishing the 2015 season as the No. 4 ranked rider in her National Age Group, she followed it up with an even better 2016. As a six-year-old, Charlotte won seven national events, finished on the podium at 12 national events, and earned a No. 2 National Age Group ranking. Her national number for 2016, a combined ranking for all ages of BMX riders, was No. 32.
“Any national number is a pretty big deal,” said her dad.
The Main Event
The biggest race of Charlotte’s career to date came this summer. Charlotte headed to Rock Hill, SC for the 2017 BMX World Championships – her first world event. The seven-year-old qualified via a race at the same track earlier this year, finishing well inside of the cut line. That qualifying race was one of six national races Charlotte entered in during the first half of 2017 to prepare for the world event. Locations she raced in included: Kentucky, Tulsa, Pittsburgh, Minnesota, and Texas.
Early in the 2017 season, Charlotte seemed to be positioning herself for a run at the podium at Worlds. But Jim said that as the season went on, Charlotte went through a bit of a drought, not racing quite to the best of her abilities. They got to Rock Hill in July not knowing what to expect.
“I was pretty nervous,” he said. “She just wasn’t racing the way she was earlier in the year.”
On top of that, Charlotte drew what was widely considered the fastest heat in an already very fast field. She would have to do battle with several riders ranked at the top of the world and national rankings, just to get out of her heat and to the quarterfinal round.
Needing to finish in the top half of the eight racers in her heat, the Monticelloan left no doubt. Charlotte raced sharp and fast, finishing second in both heats to advance with relative easy to the quarterfinal round.
“There was a huge sense of relief, [we thought] ‘she’s dialed in,’” said her dad.
From there, Charlotte cruised through the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds and right into the final, known simply as ‘Mains.’
The feeling of qualifying for the main event, something that had been a goal for more than 14 months, was Charlotte’s favorite feeling in her racing career yet.
“It felt like, I don’t know … I was just happy,” she said. “I was happy that I got a plate.”
A ‘plate’ comes with a top eight finish at the world event. In a finals field that featured girls from New Zealand, Bolivia, and Japan, as well as several from the USA, Charlotte finished seventh at the world championships, wrapping one of the most impressive accomplishments yet in a career already littered with astounding feats.
She received not just a plate and a trophy, but a gorgeous new bike from her sponsors Staats/Elite Camp. It is now one of her prized possessions, to go along with jerseys she’s traded for, trophies she’s earned, and autographs she’s picked up along the way.
More than a biker
A charismatic, entertaining kid, Charlotte is certainly more than just a biker. She has recently joined hockey and soccer, and prior to starting at Little Mountain Elementary this coming fall, she’d attended a Spanish Immersion school.
She’s also your typical sibling. Jim said both Charlotte and Lincoln are at their fastest when they’re on the track against each other. And that competition carries over too, noticeable when Charlotte voted to forgo only one bedroom on a tour of the Heckendorf’s beautiful home in August – that room was her brother’s room, one he was hoping to proudly show off.
The consummate entertainer, Charlotte does find more to like about BMX than just winning, says her dad.
“It’s a really social sport,” he said. “She loves going to the track. Whether she practices as hard as she can depends on the day. Sometimes it’s more fun to just go and eat freezies.”
“She’s seven,” said Crystal, with a laugh. “Sometimes you gotta be a kid too.”
The Heckendorfs are currently taking a little time to get over their “Worlds hangover,” as they phrased it, but Charlotte will soon be back to competing at the national level. The seven-year-old needs to pick up a few more wins on the national circuit between now and Thanksgiving to have a shot at grabbing the top spot at Grands in Tulsa on Thanksgiving weekend.
Looking a little further forward, Charlotte says she plans to keep racing until she’s at least 16. It’s something her parents are more than happy to continue supporting, as long as the commitment comes from both sides.
“As long as she’s willing to continue to practice and put the time in, then we’ll support her until she doesn’t like it anymore,” said Crystal.
Jim said there are a lot of things the family loves about the sport, even if it means holding their breath every once in a while when Charlotte takes a tumble or splits her chin open (something she’s done twice, finishing both races without hardly a blink).
“I love the sport because it is winning and losing and there are a lot of lessons that are learned,” he said. “There’s a toughness factor to it, it’s not for everyone. There’s some crashing, some needing to get back up, some facing your fears.”
Plus, they’re already starting to see Charlotte form connections that can last her a lifetime. At just seven years old, she has friends in California, Georgia, and several other places. They’re connections that will likely only grow and deepen with time.
“They kind of have a network. Older riders, they can go anywhere in the country, make a couple of calls and have a place to stay,” said Jim. “It is definitely a pretty cool experience that I didn’t have as a kid.”
Charlotte maintains her simple reasons for loving the sport. BMX is fun, and so is winning, and for her the two go hand in hand.
But, she has no plans to do this forever.
When asked if she wants to grow up to be just like Alise Post, a wildly successful BMX rider from St. Cloud, and Charlotte’s idol, she demurred.
“I just like her. I don’t want to copy her,” said Charlotte, before setting forth her own life goals. “I’m going to be a doctor.”
Charlotte paused, then added, “and that’s a long time away, I’m only 7.”
Just don’t tell that to the competition.
Contact Clay Sawatzke at [email protected]