Heart defect won't stop 47-year-old BMX racer from competing

By Masaki Sugimoto


By Peter Larsen
Tribune news service

With each mile Billy Griggs pedaled he put more distance between himself and the physical ailments that dogged him for years, eventually going so far that this weekend, Griggs zipped up his racing suit, fastened his crash helmet and rode out to jump the moguls and sprint the straights at the national BMX championships in Tulsa, Okla.

Griggs had figured it was all just part of getting older. The weight he’d put on. The drop in energy he felt when he’d take his dirt bike out for weekends in the desert.

After all, how could he compete with what he’d been in his teens and 20s? Back then, the kid from Anaheim was known as Mr. Bill, and for more than a decade he was one of the top BMX bicycle racers in the world.

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    Still, Griggs was a young man when a random visit to his doctor offered an answer _ and hope. One of the valves in his heart had a leak, a genetic defect he’d unknowingly lived with all his life. If he fixed it, the doctor told him, he could live a full and energetic life.

    There were a few complications getting his ticker back on track, but eventually Griggs went back to what he knew best to find the health he so desired.

    “My fitness quest started with riding my BMX bike for one hour after work every night,” Griggs says of the path on which he embarked in 2012, “just riding a lot of my old training routes I’d mapped out back when I was racing.”

    Now, three years later, at age 47, another national title loomed just a few laps away.


    Griggs can’t remember a time he didn’t want to be on two wheels going as fast as possible. He got his first motorcycle when he was 2, and once he learned to ride a bike he was out and about in his Anaheim neighborhood as much as possible.

    “I was the kid in the neighborhood building jumps out of boards and bricks and jumping trash cans,” he says. “My mom was the poor mother who had to get the calls from the neighbors: ‘Do you know what your son is doing out here on his BMX bike?'”

    In January 1981, Griggs discovered the BMX track by the YMCA in Orange, convinced his mom to take him there one weekend and came home from his first-ever race with a third-place trophy.

    “We were here the next Wednesday for the first race,” he says. “I was just hooked.”

    A year later he was on a team sponsored by the CW bike manufacturing company in Brea, competing in national tournaments. The year after that _ in 1983 _ he finished second in the national rankings overall.

    “It was really just about a year and a half from my first beginner race right here to where I was an established national-level competitor,” Griggs says from the bleachers at the Orange Y BMX track.

    He started to realized that he was actually a little bit famous when BMX Action magazine asked him to do a photo shoot for its Hot Shots full-page photo feature in 1983.

    “I had just two years earlier had their Hot Shots all over my bedroom wall,” Griggs says. “I remember that day being able to absorb what I was doing: ‘I can’t believe I’m in a Hot Shots photo shoot!'”

    Every year he moved up in status. He joined the Mongoose BMX Bike national team when he was 15 and started getting fan letters forwarded to him by that company, all of which he dutifully answered by hand.

    When he graduated from high school in 1987, he turned pro and raced all around the United States and as far off as Australia and South Africa until 1995.

    “I used to set a goal of (earning) $3,000 to $5,000 a weekend,” Griggs says.

    The constant travel to 30 or so race weekends a year became a grind, though, so he quit the circuit and went to work for GT Bicycles in Santa Ana as a product designer, eventually going back on the road for seven or eight races a year to test out new GT bikes in competition.

    By 2000, though, he was done with all that, and still a few years from the start of what ended up nearly a decade of fine-tuning his heart and his health.


    Even as Griggs got fit and found the right heart medicines, he expected the folks at the National BMX Hall of Fame in Chula Vista would eventually call. They’d more or less told him he was in; it was just a matter of when.

    “A few months after I went back to the track on my BMX for the first time (in July 2013) I got the call that this is your year, you’re going in,” Griggs says. “And I had in the back of my mind for years that if I ever got in I’d race in the Hall of Fame event.”

    Part of that was just to prove to himself that he was physically fit enough to race again. Part of it was also to show his wife, Jennifer, whom he’d met just after his racing days ended, what he’d once done.

    “I got down there, did the Hall of Fame, did the speech, and my first round of qualifying since 2000 I won the lap,” Griggs says.

    In the Saturday sessions he finished out of the podium positions, but on Sunday he placed third in the expert class for racers 41 and older.

    “I was as excited about my racing that weekend as I was about getting into the Hall of Fame,” he says.

    Driving home from the weekend he was still happy, but as he and Jennifer talked, the old competitive juices started to bubble up from where he’d buried them years earlier.

    “If I was good enough for third, I was good enough to win,” Griggs says he told his wife.

    “She said, ‘Well, you can do it again next year.’ I’d had this one-and-done attitude.”

    Then he thought about all he’d gone through with his heart and his health, and that while he felt as good as he had in years, at that moment there were no guarantees for the future.

    “I thought, ‘Do it while you can,'” Griggs says. “‘Don’t take your health for granted.’ I think that’s really the driving force to do this at a national level again.”

    Since 2003, Griggs has worked in product design for scooter manufacturer Razor, which agreed to sponsor him on the national circuit after seeing his performance at the Hall of Fame race.

    Other equipment manufacturers also signed him to represent their brands.

    This year Griggs raced seven times around the country and took first place four times and second place twice. This weekend he traveled to Tulsa to compete for a national title in the 46-and-older expert class.

    In the quarter-finals, after contact with another rider, he was eliminated, but even sitting astride his bike at the Orange Y BMX track a few days before he left for the races, Griggs said he’s learned that the finish isn’t as important as the race – on the track, as in life – itself.

    In the end, Griggs says, the biggest lesson he learned is quite simple: “Appreciate it and do things you love while you can.”