At Home with Connor Fields
We pulled up at the gates of a luxury community in the foothills of Henderson, Nevada, and punched in the top-secret code that was given to us. The gates opened up to give us an insider’s view of the Life of 2016 Olympic gold-medalist and 2017 National No.1 Pro Connor Fields.
After parking in front of the impressive two-story house and ringing the doorbell, we were greeted by the barks of what sounded like a vicious killer, attack dog. The reigning champ greeted us at the door and told us that his dog - Zoey, will warm up to us in a little bit. She did. He and his girlfriend Laura rescued her from the pound, and she’s become their protector.
Soon, Connor is giving us a tour of his abode. Starting off with the family room and moving into the open kitchen and living room. Noticeably, there is no BMX to be seen anywhere downstairs. Connor tells us that was part of the plan. He purposely wanted the escape from BMX down here.
About the only thing that is slightly BMX-related downstairs is hung on the wall. It’s a large photo of the city of Tokyo, Japan. This pic is similar to the one of Rio de Janeiro that had hung on Connor‘s wall for four years, leading up to the 2016 Olympic games. It’s a minor mode of motivation that seemed to have worked last time. Hopefully, it’ll have the same magic two years from now.
Upstairs is where all of the BMX is, with a loft packed with BMX memorabilia. Jerseys are hung on every wall, encircling the ping-pong table that sits in the middle of the room. His Team USA jersey from London 2012, shows the rips and tears from his main event crash, in a framed and matted display that his parents made for him. Enclosed with it, is a letter from President Obama, congratulating him on making the U.S. Olympic team.
In another corner hangs Connor’s gold-medal winning machine, a white Chase bicycle with red and blue highlights, still with its Rio Olympic No.11 plate strapped to the bars.
The tires could use some air.
On the far end of the room is lined up an array of BMX awards, ranging from last year‘s number one silver No.1 Pro cup, two Golden Crank awards (2011 Rookie and 2012 Pro of the Year), along with one of his favorites - the Bob Haro-designed MMA-style winner’s belt from the Red Bull R.Evolution in Berlin, Germany.
He’d won that one back in 2013.
Right in the middle of the display sits the one item that every BMX kid these days can only dream of, the Rio Gold medal! It rests inside a custom-made wooden case, that came with it, for ease of transporting it around. Connor points out a shinier replica medal that he bought on E-Bay, which is the one that he usually travels with to schools and lets the fans hold and pose with. The real deal always sits right here, rather than in a safe. “People razz me for just leaving it laying out, instead of in a safe. But people want to see it. Like, who’s going to break in and steal it? You can’t sell it. There’s only one.”
Laying next to the Gold medal is a chunk of drywall, that doesn’t look like it should belong in this collection.
But it does.
It’s a piece of wall, cut out from his parent’s garage when they moved out of their house. Years earlier, a pre-teen Connor wrote down his goals in Sharpie - it reads “AND 1 day BE OLYMPIC CHAMPION.” To say the least, he had ambitious dreams. “It’s funny. Above that, I wrote ‘I will be NAG-1’ and above that was ‘I will be World-1.’ So, they didn’t cut out the entire wall.”
Hidden on the shelf sits a tiny little trophy with a fourth-place finish from Nellis BMX. This was Connor‘s very first trophy, won in 1999. It signifies the beginning of the illustrious BMX career of a young, hyper kid from Las Vegas. “I was on a 30 pound dirt-jumper. It had pegs, a Gyro, the whole thing. I got 4th and couldn’t believe you won a trophy. Most sports I’d played in, you had to finish up the whole season to win a trophy. From that moment, I was hooked. Instantly fell in love with BMX. I was seven years old.”
Prior to the Grands, Connor and his coach Sean Dwight were joking one night, about all of the work he puts in just to win “a stupid white hat” - which now proudly sits aside the big silver Cup. Connor tells us how he accidentally said that in his Grands speech, and how afterward, Coach Dwight told him “I can’t believe you said ‘stupid white hat.’ That was supposed to be just between you and me.”
Connor continues to attend college and is close to wrapping up his Junior year, working toward getting a business degree. “My major is business management. Originally, I was thinking Marketing, but I felt like I had so much real-world experience, that I should go after something different. It’s almost like a double-major. My dad told me that business management is like a swiss army knife - you can do a lot with it. You’re not locked into just one aspect of it.” Juggling school and the life of a BMX Pro is a lot like juggling chainsaws.“There was a lot of travel this fall, and the only classes offered were at 8 am. Monday morning right after a national is no fun, so I took this semester off. School’s not going anywhere. I probably won’t finish until after Tokyo.”
Pointing at everything in the loft, Connor sums it up: “All of this opportunity eventually goes away. School will always be there.”
The one thing Connor does know is the importance of school and having a degree. “It’s hard when you’re 20 years old, and you’re thinking - ‘What do you want to do forever?’ I don’t even know what I want for dinner tonight. Especially when you think about how much you change, from 21 to 25, or even 25 to 30. I’m jealous of these people who can say - ‘I want to be a fireman or a teacher.’ And they stick with it and do it the rest of their lives.”
When the day does come for Connor to stop racing, he knows it’s going to be hard to do. “Basically, since I was seven years old, I woke up every morning with the objective to win the next race, or to become faster. And one day I’m going to wake up and that will no longer be the goal. It’s gotta be hard - to wake up the morning after I retire and think, ‘Huh? I don’t have a training program, I don’t have a race schedule. ...and I can now eat donuts?’” But don’t expect to see that happening any time soon. “I’m 26 years old now. I’m not old, but I’m also no longer a kid. For me, I don’t want to put a number on (retirement). I still wake up excited about (BMX). There’s a passion there. So I’ll keep on going until that’s gone. If I wake up in 2021 or 2022, or whenever it is, and I wake up not wanting to go to the track, or not wanting to go to this race, then that will be the time to stop.”
Between school and his BMX career choice, he’s confident about his past, present, and future. “I feel comfortable about the decisions I’ve made during my career, to set me up for my post-BMX career. I won’t feel boxed-in. I’m sure we can all think of the athletes who came to the end of their (racing)career and didn’t have an exit strategy. They were forced to keep racing longer than they should, just because they don’t have an out. I think that if I had to retire tomorrow, I’d be okay. My coach, Sean, and my parents encouraged me after London. There were very adamant for me to have something other than BMX as an interest or a hobby - to provide balance. Something to give you purpose, other than just thinking about winning the next race. So for me, that’s when I started going to school. It’s different, and it breaks the monotony of wake up, sprints, gym, eat, sleep, race, eat, stretch, Instagram, sleep. I like going to school because I’m just a normal guy, talking about normal stuff.”
School has also become his weekly reality check.“Funny story - so, the Monday after Grands last year, I had a test. And I’m sitting in class that morning, thinking, how nobody knew I had just won the USA BMX title. Nobody knew what I’d just done that weekend. It was like the ultimate slap in the face of reality. Nobody knew about the big checks, me being up on stage, me winning the silver cup. Instead, it’s like ‘Bring out your No.2 pencils.’ I was straight back to reality.”
Since 2013, Connor has been dating Laura Gruninger. “We met in high school and were friendly - but really didn’t start dating until we were like 21. She wanted to date when I was younger, but I didn’t want a girlfriend at the time.” Part of his reasoning was the rigorous travel schedule of a BMX pro. “It’s not easy to be in a relationship with an athlete. I have a lot of respect for anybody - girls or guys, who are in a relationship with any professional athlete. You have to be selfish so often. Every decision I make has to be lookin’ out for No.1. Like, I come back from a race and she might want to go do something, but I can’t. I’ve got practice time, I need to do sprints, or go to the gym. It takes a lot of understanding on her part.”
So what’s a normal day in the Life of Connor Fields start off like? “As I’ve grown older, I’ve become a morning person. I get up and make breakfast. Oatmeal is my go-to, and then I put a bunch of different toppings on it. Nuts, fruit, seeds, peanut butter, whatever. But lately, I’ve been on a pancake kick. You put one banana, an egg, half a cup of oats, some almond milk and just a pinch of vanilla, and blend it, you get these really healthy pancakes. They’re not like fluffy buttermilk pancakes, but it’s all the stuff I’d be eating anyway. After breakfast, I take Zoey for a walk.” Yes, even a Gold medalist still has to pick up the poo. Next, comes some gym work, if the schedule he gets from Coach Dwight calls for it. “I usually go to the gym in the morning, because I like to get my training in early - that way it leaves the rest of your day to do whatever you want, or go to class.” You’ll be impressed to find out what gym Connor goes to. “I train at the UFC headquarters - at their Performance Institute. I’ve got a couple of friends who work there, who used to work for the Olympic team, so they got me access. It’s crazy to be working out with guys I just watched on TV the night before.” Other times, his training schedule may include track-time. “I’m lucky being living here in Las Vegas, because all four tracks here are within a half an hour from my house, and they all work with me. I‘ve got keys to them all, so I can mix it up - ride somewhere different.”
About two years ago, New Zealander Trent Jones (Box Racing) moved to ‘Vegas, to be Connor’s training partner. “It’s been great to have a buddy who just lives down the road. We train together, do sprints together, ride together - along with a revolving door of others, like Max Cairns. Some days I’ll go straight from the track to school, but I try not to. I smell.”
It does seem unusual, especially in BMX, that Connor still lives where he grew up. “I love ‘Vegas but I don’t think I’ll live here forever. There are places I know of where I don’t want to live, and then there are places I would love to move to - like San Diego, once my BMX career is done. I’d also love to live in Oregon, or Seattle is beautiful. Colorado would be nice. It just depends on where I get a job.” Dreaming of his future career, Connor tells us he’d like to stay connected to BMX in some manner, but probably not full time. He can’t imagine himself completely leaving the sport of BMX.
We eventually move back downstairs to check out Connor’s man-cave. His garage is wall-papered in big checks that he’s won throughout the years. Along one wall hangs five Chase race bikes; some alloy, two are carbon. Some are used for sprint training, while others are retired race bikes. The conversation turns to sponsors, past and present. “When people talk about Dream teams, they always seem to forget about Free Agent - with Kyle Bennett, Maris (Strombergs), me and Cristian Becerine. That was a nice lil’ team.” Being teammates with such legendary riders has its advantages, and Connor learned a lot from the Legends. “I was 16 and 17 when I rode for them, so I was sitting in the pits with the guys who were going to win pro. I saw very quickly what they did and basically emulated them. I saw them bringing gallon jugs of water to the track, so I did too. They all brought banana’s, peanut butter, bread, and honey. So I did too. They all had these weird long seat posts to ride on after a moto. I just watched them and tried to copy them, and asked questions. I was probably annoying to them, at times. But I think being around them was definitely a reason why I was successful in pro at such a young age. It was a great team.”
Connor recalls the first time he got to hang out with Maris. “We were in Reno, the first race of the year. Maris had just moved to America. Nobody knew anything about him. He was like this mythical creature, who’d won the Worlds and the Olympics. He was this robot. We went out to dinner, and I was just in awe. ‘What’s he eating?’ Chicken. ‘I’ll have the chicken.’ It’s just crazy that eight years later, I was racing him for Gold at the Olympics.” Remembering what it was like for him as a young, rising star, he ponders.“It makes you think; who’s the kid watching me right now, that is a future Gold medalist in 2028?” He might be reading this interview, right now. Connor admits that he doesn’t watch enough amateur racing to predict who the next Connor Fields is. But he does know, it’s probably not the guy who is out front, winning all the time. “The thing is, and a lot of people don’t realize it, that most of the top pros who rise to the top, were not top amateurs. Not all, but most. They are the guys who got fifth thru eight. But they are there. They don’t give up. They scrap. They keep with it and keep with it. Once they hit 16 or 17, everyone becomes more even, and it comes down to who wants it more, and who knows how to race.” Speaking from personal experience, he continues.“When you turn double-A, you don’t just walk in and win. First, you’ve got to know how to lose. Often, the kids who won everything as an amateur, turn pro and get smoked for a year and then give up. But the guys who can sit there and get beat, get beat and get beat - and never give up, will make it thru.” Connor knows this for a fact. That was him. He was the small mid-pack scrapper until he finally hit a growth spurt at age 15. “I wasn’t very good, from like 11 to 15. And by ‘not very good,’ I mean I was like a NAG-8 thru 10 guy. To some, that might not be bad. I’d been a top NAG kid when I was nine and 10, but then everybody started growing ...except me. Once I was 15 and started growing, the tables finally turned. But I still don’t think I beat Corben for years. He and I, along with Jared Garcia, would always go at it. I just got flogged for years. So many fourth-place finishes! Once I grew, I knew how to scrap. You have to be scrappy when you’re small.”
Parental support, especially from his father Mike, also played a huge role in Connor’s BMX success.“I’d say they also supported me in the right ways. My dad was never out there yelling at me to do my sprints, or never forcing me to train. He just gave me the opportunities to do it. If I wanted to stay at the track and ride for four hours, he’d stay there and let me do it. He gave me the opportunities and allowed me to make the most of them.”
Success didn’t come easy for Fields, but he never gave up and always kept the dream alive. “The first Grands I ever won was when I was 16. ...and I’d been going since I was nine. Since 2001.” Which brings us to one of the big questions we had planned to ask him. Describe the difference between winning the Olympics and winning the USA BMX No.1 Pro title. “Different. Really different. I don’t think there’s anything in BMX that can come close to winning the Olympics. Because the Olympics is sooo big. It is the biggest sporting event in the whole World. It’s for your Country. It’s exclusive. It’s a dream just to be there. But to win the Grands, it’s more about self-satisfaction.” There’s also the obvious difference of a one-main race and an entire year-long series. “The Olympics is a single race, and anything can happen, but you have to be there. Only 24 get to race it. But to win the ABA title, you have to win all year. On big tracks, small tracks, flat tracks, SX tracks, wet tracks, dry tracks, on windy days, hot days, cold days, on paved turn turns and dirt turns. For that perspective, I’d have to say that the No.1 Pro title in USA BMX is the hardest one to win.”