Samantha Cools, Canada
Samantha Cools, Canada, BMX Racing
When BMX racing makes its Olympic debut on Aug. 20, Samantha Cools, the top-ranked female rider in North America, will tap the angel lapel pin on the front of her bicycle three times, per tradition, and settle into the starting gate. From there, it's three stories down the starting hill for a grueling and possibly dangerous 30- to 40-second race against seven other competitors.
Cools, a 22-year-old from Airdrie, Alberta, just north of Calgary, grew up in a family devoted to BMX, short for bicycle motocross. Her father built a track with help from neighbors, and Samantha -- Sammy to her fans -- followed two older brothers into the sport, winning her first race at age 3 and her first international race at 10.
A five-time junior world champion and 13-time Canadian champion, she placed fifth in the women's elite division at May's world BMX cycling championships in Taiyuan, China.
In a sign of her family's dominance in the sport, her older brother Ken Cools, nicknamed "Big Rig," now coaches New Zealand's Sarah Walker, one of Samantha's major rivals.
-- Christian Hettinger