A triumvirate of BMX racers, who are familiar faces at Charlotte BMX in Punta Gorda, have qualified for this year’s Worlds in Heusden-Zolder, Belgium.
One is no stranger to the international stage, being an Olympian, and having competed at her first Worlds two decades ago. The other made his debut in the prestigious competition last year. However, the youngest of the three is only 8-years-old, and will make his initial start against the world’s best in the Union Cycliste Internationale BMX World Championships in Heusden-Zolder, Belgium, July 23-28.
SJ Lehew, Sean Lehew, Jr. started coming to Charlotte BMX when he was 2-years-old, and it’s been a routine part of his life ever since. His older brother was involved with the sport, and although initially he may have been at the Punta-Gorda-based facility by default, he embraced BMX racing as if it was his own.
It’s become a way of life for the racer who is currently number one in the state of Florida for his age and proficiency, said Sean Lehew, his father, who’s also Charlotte BMX’s vice president and assistant track director.
SJ is poised to earn the state title, where he leads his nearest rival by a 19-point margin, and will have an opportunity to gain that distinction on May 18 in Orlando. Lehew is coming off back-to-back wins at the Gator Nationals, Feb. 22-24 at Oldsmar BMX.
“He’ll be racing for the Nine Challenge Class in Zolder because they race the age you’re going to be on Dec. 31,” said Sean Lehew. “He doesn’t want to do anything else. He just wants to be on his bike constantly.”
SJ has worked with Olympian Amanda Carr, who is also Charlotte BMX’s president and track operator, two-time UCI BMX World Champion Domingos Lommoglia, and Berm Academy’s Jason Carnes to help improve his skill set as he advances up the level.
“Amanda has raced on the track at Zolder, and her experiences throughout as a youth and growing up all through this too, has helped him, because she’s been able to give him pointers that he’s needed to progress,” said Lehew.
SJ’s passion for the sport is palpable, and he’s constantly surprising his parents with his strong performances and his ability, said Sean.
But it’s SJ’s calm demeanor and mental steadiness that belies his age. The opportunity to compete at the World Championship doesn’t seem to faze him.
“He’s excited,” said Sean. “He wants to have Belgian waffles and French fries. We’re very proud.”
North Port’s Chad Romans began racing a little over five years ago, and his introduction to the sport, was a bit unorthodox. But his recent rise has been mercurial, and like Lehew, he will be headed to Worlds, and for the 15-year-old it will be the second time, with his first experience on the international stage taking place at last year’s UCI BMX World Championship at Baku, Azerbaijan.
Romans relocated to the area from Tennessee, and although he knew people who were involved with BMX racing in the Volunteer State, he was interested in other sports.
However, that would change when he moved to North Port. He was 10 at the time when he first stepped on the track at Charlotte BMX.
“I had a lot of friends who did it,” said Romans. “They brought me to the track one night, and I was on some heavy, old bike, and I ended up getting third and I was hooked. It was fun. It was kind of funny, looking back at it. I had blue jeans on that were duct taped, so they wouldn’t get stuck in the gears. I was just having fun.”
He didn’t have any idea about the sojourn he was about to undertake, not realizing it was an Olympic sport and was of greater magnitude than he could have ever imagined.
“I didn’t know there was a level this high (qualifying for the World Championships),” said Romans. “I just thought it was a local thing. I didn’t even know there was a national series until about two years ago. When I got picked up by J&R Bicycles (as a sponsor), they go to all the races, and started taking me to them, that’s when I learned about Nationals and Worlds.”
It was those early experiences that began paying dividends for Romans, riding in the State Series during the nascent stages of his development, helping to prepare him for the future, eventually qualifying for the World’s in Baku, and that’s when he began to take the sport more seriously, he said.
“I started training with Amanda, Domingos and I got picked up by other sponsors, and that’s when it started to take off,” said Romans. “I started training, eating right and doing everything by the book. I’m definitely getting anxious for it. I’m wanting to get there. Last year, when I went to Worlds, I was kind of new to the whole scene, so I didn’t do as well as I wanted to, but now I’m feeling strong and fast. I have some of the best equipment with me, where last year, I didn’t have that. I’m definitely looking for some great results this year, I’m looking to come back with a plate.”
Amanda Carr, like SJ, went to her first Worlds when she was 8-years-old, and in 2016, the Punta Gorda resident realized a dream when she competed in the Olympic games.
Carr, who has dual citizenship, U.S. and Thailand, represented Thailand in the Olympic games.
“The World Championships is the pinnacle event of our sport,” said Carr. “It’s nice to be back in that world, in that realm and at that caliber. It kind of hits me more as I’ve gotten older in the sport, just how magnificent the whole life experience has been with the sport of BMX.”
The UCI BMX World Championships will be in Houston, Texas in 2020, and will be the last chance to qualify for the Olympics, said Carr.
Several racers from Charlotte BMX qualified for the Worlds in 2018, and they were among the first group of racers, when Carr was still an amateur working her way to consistently compete at the highest level of international competition, to qualify for an event at the highest level, reaching for something much larger than Nationals or States.
“That really filled my heart up to see a lot of them going,” said Carr, who took time off from racing last year to complete her Bachelors degree. “I remember being 14 and doing that. And this year, I realized how special it was. Charlotte BMX is coming full circle, from when my cousin started going to Worlds and when I started going to Worlds and that was in 1998, and to see the young ones going...I don’t know how old SJ is, he’s tiny. Who knows where he’s going to be 20 years from now.”
Carr has coached both Lehew and Romans, and has seen them progress and develop as athletes. Carr, who earned 17 varsity letters when she was a student at Charlotte High School, and is now the girls soccer coach, understands the value of sport, how it teaches you life lessons, how to win and how to lose, to be nice to people and how to help someone who’s new.
“Chad has really excelled in this past year,” said Carr. “He’s really dedicated his time to the sport, got serious and it definitely shows. I know I had helped Chad when he was getting started, and then Chad has helped SJ at some point too. It’s very full circle. It’s enjoyable to watch them mature as people and also as athletes.”
Charlotte BMX is 100 percent volunteer operated, said Carr. All of the parents are involved as volunteers, and play a significant role in the operation. Sherry Romans is the track’s treasurer.
“It takes a village to make this place as beautiful as it is,” said Carr. “I’m really thankful that their kids qualified for Worlds, but more importantly that they’re as involved with the track as they are.”