Halstead BMX star Freia Challis didn’t have to look far for inspiration to chase her Olympic dream.
The 15-year-old started racing at Braintree BMX Club, the home of Olympic and world champion Beth Shriever.
The pair share a sunny demeanour, thick Essex accents and incredible talent on a bike with Challis emulating Shriever and scooping age-group world and European titles.
Challis has now been shortlisted in the top 10 for SportsAid’s prestigious One-to-Watch Award – an achievement Shriever also experienced back in 2017 where she was eventually crowned runner-up.
The annual Award, launched in 2006, recognises Britain’s brightest young sporting prospects and has previously been won by Olympic champions Tom Daley and Alex Yee and Paralympic gold medallist Hollie Arnold.
The top 10 athletes have been selected from around 1,000 rising stars, supported by SportsAid, across more than 60 different sports in 2023.
“I trained with Beth from quite a young age,” said Challis. “She took the time to talk to me, to teach me things and help me with certain skills on the track.
“Seeing her process leading up to the Olympics, she had injuries and setbacks and even when things go wrong, she always comes out stronger from the situation.
“She had an injury right before the Olympics and she went there not expecting anything, and she came out as Olympic champion, that was just special to see.
“It’s amazing to have her to look up to as a young GB rider.”
SportsAid is delighted to reveal the top 10 athletes on the shortlist for this year’s One-to-Watch Award!
Challis’ idol has already become her rival with the pair racing side-by-side for the first time at this year’s BMX National Series.
SportsAid is delighted to reveal the top 10 athletes on the shortlist for this year’s One-to-Watch Award!— SportsAid (@TeamSportsAid) November 22, 2023
The annual award, supported by Royal Bank of Canada, was launched in 2006 and looks to shine a spotlight on the stories behind Britain’s brightest young sporting prospects.… pic.twitter.com/KlfMhpsYcs
“It’s crazy to look beside you at the start gate and know the Olympic champion is right next to you,” says Challis.
“It obviously makes me nervous, but I’ve got to look forward to that in the future and chasing Beth around the track, having battles with Emily Hutt, is really fun.”
Challis’ dad and grandad used to race motocross trials but were determined for Freia and her brother to have a different future on two wheels.
“They took us to watch a race at Braintree and my brother got into BMX,” she said. “I was that sister on the sidelines wanting to join in – I was only four-years-old!
“I’d get a bike out of the clubhouse and start riding around. The coach said, ‘she’s got a bit about her’, they eventually got me into training, and I loved it from the first month onwards.”
Challis is now part of British Cycling’s junior Academy programme, working under the tutelage of Rio Olympian and 2018 European champion Kyle Evans, as well as continuing with coaches back home.
“It’s been amazing working with a group of coaches, putting together all of the key parts going into the season,” said Challis.
“I didn’t expect the best going into the season and didn’t want to put the pressure on myself. I just wanted to make the finals when I was coming up against the senior girls in Europe.
“It all kind of clicked in the training centre. I have a bad session now and then but it’s all about the process.
“I went into the Europeans and Worlds hitting personal bests on track and working on what I needed to. I went there and produced my best, which is all you can ask for and I was happy with the results.”
Challis’ main goal for 2024 is retaining her rainbow jersey at May’s World Championships in Rock Hill, USA, as she balances next year’s campaign with crucial GCSE exams.
Next year’s Olympics in Paris will come too soon for Challis but making the LA 2028 Games is top of her sporting bucket list.
“I can’t wait to watch the GB riders at the Olympics next year, but after that I’ll be old enough to qualify for LA and that’s my motivation,” she said.
“I want to keep pushing on and make it to the next Olympics. BMX was only added to the Olympics in 2008 but I’ve always watched it since then and it was amazing to see what the British team did in Tokyo.”
Challis’ progress has been rewarded with nomination for SportsAid’s prestigious One to Watch award.
“To be nominated is amazing,” said Challis, who received her SportsAid support from the Thompson Trust this year.
“It’s great to be recognised for the training that I’ve done and the hard work I’ve put in since I was five-years-old.
“When I saw the list, I didn’t believe it was true, seeing names like Tom Daley on there. It’s amazing to be recognised and put up there with names like that.”
SportsAid’s annual One-to-Watch Award is powered by Royal Bank of Canada – a long-standing supporter of the charity celebrating 10 years of partnership in 2023. The winner of this year’s Award will be revealed in December with each of the top 10 receiving cash boosts and special in-person visits at their training environments to celebrate their achievements.
Image credit: British Cycling