In Rio at the BMX Cycling event, all eyes will be on the defending gold medalist, Columbian Mariana Pajón. The 24-year-old is known as the “Queen of BMX,” the “BMX Bandit” and “Dirt Queen,” and for very good reason.

One of the most high-octane, high-adrenaline and dangerous sports at the Olympics, BMX Cycling sees eight riders launch themselves from a 24-foot ramp and pedal furiously around an obstacle course that demands technical expertise and bravery, with multiple pile-ups a possibility at each turn.

Each race is finished within a furious 40 seconds. The races will be held from August 17 to 19 at a new course at Deodoro in the western outskirts of the city.

“I am a very calm, quiet and feminine woman,” Pajón recently told Rio 16, “but when I get on a bicycle I change completely.”

It is this change that secured Columbia’s second ever gold medal at the London Olympics, and led to her to be regarded as a national icon in her home country.

Since 2012 she has further dominated BMX, and even in a sport known for its unpredictable nature and frequent crashes, she is the clear favorite at Rio.

The BMX track was the first venue completed for Rio. Photo by Rio 16

The BMX track was the first venue completed for Rio. Photo: Courtesy of Rio 16

Born in Medellín, perhaps better known as the home of the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar, she initially clambered onto a bike at the age of four.

Five years later she competed in her first BMX race at the suggestion of her father and brother, who both raced competitively. However despite early success, it was gymnastics (not BMX) that Pajón initially dreamed of competing at the Olympics in.

Even in a predominantly male sport, where Pajón was often the only girl in the field, she easily out-raced and out-jumped her rivals and it became clear where her destiny lay. She claimed multiple world junior titles before winning her the Olympic Gold at her debut in London.

Last May she also reclaimed her world title in her home city and the number one ranking of the sports governing body the Union Cycliste Internationale.

Being one of the most brutal of Olympic sports she has endured multiple broken bones, but remains undeterred to again make history.

“Being a woman in this sport is beautiful,” she told Rio 16. “We can show people what women can achieve if they try. We are emotional and strong at the same time, with great mental strength.”

She also claims that the she doesn’t feel the pressure of being favorite, and that she is both mentally and physically prepared to defend her Olympic title.

“I love getting on the bike, just before the start of the race, I love knowing that what I am doing is my passion and that I fought hard and trained hard to be here,” she says on her website.

“I love that moment even more than winning: the adrenalin, the nerves. It’s a feeling that inspires me to get up every day to try to be the best,” she says.

It looks like the “Queen of BMX” reign may be set to continue for a while yet.

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