WHEN YOU WALK THROUGH THE HOME OF AN ELITE athlete like BMX racer Nic Long, you are bound to come across a trophy case. By taking a good look at it you can trace the athlete’s entire career. On the surface each trophy will tell only the end result, but with a little bit of conversation the entire memory of the event can be recalled. Tattoos can have the same effect: A tattoo may appear to be just a swallow at first glance, but when you dig deeper you can find the story of what inspired the art, who performed the work, and much more. While some tattoos simply represent something banal like a night out with friends, there will always be some that
have a far deeper meaning and are almost sacred to the owner. Trophies are the same way, and this summer Long will be going after the mother of all meaningful trophies: an Olympic gold medal.
Ever since taking up BMX racing as a 7-year-old, Long has had the Olympics on his mind—despite the fact that BMX wasn’t an Olympic sport until the 2008 games in Beijing. “My dad would always bring up that BMX would be in the Olympics someday,” Long says. “So when it was announced in 2006, making the Olympics became a goal of mine.”
In the years prior to 2008, Olympic cycling events took place on a street course or in a velodrome (an arena with a banked track). BMX takes place on a dirt track with hills and obstacles, thus providing a great deal more danger for the riders. Unfortunately, those added dangers and a string of bad luck during qualifying rounds prevented Long from reaching his goal in 2008. But instead of becoming discouraged, he was motivated. “That lit a little fire, and I got pretty passionate and have been going pretty hard since 2008.”
Unlike many of the team sports at the Olympics, BMX racing tends to be more of a solitary endeavor in which an athlete’s individuality can shine a bit. The desire to rebel and stand out is what led Long to the sport in the first place. Like most kids, he dabbled in playing Little League but found the structure of the game far too rigid. “I was just hooked on BMX right away,” Long recalls. “I could be out there by myself and it was total freedom.”
On his 18th birthday, Long got his first tattoo— a tribute to his grandmother who had recently passed—and he was hooked just like he was after he first rode BMX. Many of Long’s early tattoos have a great deal of religious symbolism. “At that point in my life I was dating a girl who was really religious, and I was getting into it too. So that was the basis of a lot,” Long says. He would eventually go on to fi ll up his chest and his right arm with more heavenly art. In order to find inspiration for a left sleeve, Long looked to something darker—he was inspired by the undead who have risen from the grave. At first glance the two vastly different artistic concepts would seem to clash with each other, yet Long offers an explanation that almost makes the two ideas seem harmonious. “The way I look at it is that there are two different sides of life. There is a living side with something to look forward to on my chest,” Long states, leaving a reference to the darker side unsaid.
Tattoos have always been a part of the culture of extreme sports like BMX and skateboarding, but not so much at the Olympic Games. “I’m not a typical-looking Olympic athlete,” Long says with a laugh. “I’m not very professional-looking, I guess.” As Subway isn’t backing up the Brink’s truck to his house, he is aware that his look may be a bit off putting to corporate sponsors involved with the Olympics, but he just doesn’t care. “It definitely does seem like tattoos are a little frowned upon at this level, especially having as much ink as I do. If
mine were easy to hide it would be a little different from a professional standpoint. But I don’t want to not have tattoos to please those kinds of people.”
One of the downsides of being on that rarified cloud of an Olympic-caliber athlete is the lack of career longevity. Bodies break down and can’t be in top condition forever. In the future, Long figures that he may be able to trade in his bike for a tattoo machine. “I really appreciate the art. It’s an awesome art form and I would like to get into it someday. I paint and draw—I haven’t had time to do tattooing at the moment but I would like
to,” Long says. While he may not have the typical look of an Olympian, one can’t picture someone who represents the diverse culture of our country better than Long does. Maybe one day in the future he will be working in his own tattoo shop with a couple of gold medals on the wall, a true representation of the American dream.