Queen of the Hill

Katie Forss has ridden to the top of the state standings with Walla Walla Valley BMX, and now teaches newcomers how to ride.

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Katie Forss shows off some of the 'Number 1” plates she's won during BMX competitions.

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BMX racing champ Katie Forss zips around the Walla Walla Valley BMX Track, showing a young racer some tips during a recent training session.

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Forss (at far left) is now sharing her BMX expertise with newcomers to the sport, teaching young riders tricks of the trade at Walla Walla Valley BMX Track.

WALLA WALLA - Katie Forss was running around with a snake.

She didn't find the snake, but when its original holder was called away, Forss took over, letting the little creature creep across her fingers.

Not exactly the image of sugar, spice and 14-year-old girls, but that's not exactly a big deal to her.

Forss isn't exactly your regular 14-year-old girl.

She's been riding BMX since she was about 6 years old, and has been sitting at the top of the state standings for girls in her age group for the last five years.

"It's a lot of fun," Forss said. "I've met a lot of new people and it's good to see people who might not be in the best situation come out and have fun."

Forss was helping out at a clinic for BMX riders on one cold, sunny March day at the Walla Walla Valley BMX track. About 20 local kids - some with racing experience, like Forss, and others who'd never done BMX before - were participating.

"It's fun to help," she said. "I've been doing it since I started BMX. I can help them learn while I'm learning."

It's teaching like that - a state champion riding beside beginners - that makes the BMX track a special feature in town, said Katie's father, Rod Forss. Rod is also the president of the Walla Walla Valley BMX Association and runs the track with Bruce Merson.

Merson's son, Jacob, was leading the BMX clinic.

"We're aiming for a family atmosphere out here," Rod Forss said. "We have potlucks and barbecues. We want it to be a friendly, safe place for kids and families."

Any parent on the sidelines might turn into any children's parent at any time - reminding them to strap on helmets, supplying a tire pump or bandage, telling them to put the snake down.

"They've got a lot of moms," Rod Forss said.

And the kids can join in the effort too, he said.

"A kid showed up a while back who'd never done BMX before," he said. "Our kids got together and decided to let the new kid win the race. You see that all the time - if someone falls, the other kids are the first to his side to see if he's OK.

"That's the way this community pulls together," he said. "That's what we like about the track."

It's served Katie Forss well.

In the eight years she's been riding, Forss - who goes by "Lightening Bug" on the circuit - has fought past older siblings and West Side riders to claim the top spots in the state in 20-inch and 24-inch tire sizes. She travels to races across the Northwest nearly every weekend, including a recent, very muddy excursion to Oregon - where she won her age group - and doesn't let much slow her down.

One year, she insisted on trying to race with a broken wrist. It was splinted, though not casted, at the race site. She got back on her bike, but couldn't ride fast.

She still crossed the finish line.

Days later, a fresh plaster cast in place, she was off again. She won that race.

"Racing is my favorite part," she said. "I like the competition. It's a lot of fun, even when it hurts."

Forss starts high school next year. She plans to play basketball, but for now, BMX and karate - she's a brown belt - keep her busy.

That's OK with her dad.

"I think this has made her a strong young lady," he said. "She's so confident.

"She's also an honor role student. Not that I'm proud of her or anything."

Although Katie is the highest-ranked of Forss' children, she's not the only one who rides. Twins Derik and Dane, both 13, placed ninth and 10th, respectively, in their age group in 2009. And Alex, 9, placed eighth. The Forss's 5-year-old will be in his first races this year.

Rod Forss believes that other local kids can get the same benefits his kids have from the track.

"We want kids to have a place to come and something to do that's safe," he said. "Everyone takes care of everybody else's kids here."

That care continues on the road, where groups often camp out together during races.

"It's a big, fun family party," Forss said. "It's a good place for kids to hang around at."

Aside from obvious perks like being outside and getting physical activity, the BMX riders learn sportsmanship and make friends from across the country, he said.

Children - and adults - who don't behave are asked to leave.

"We don't want people cussing here," Rod Forss said. "We want good, clean play. There are going to be those parents who get too involved, but we don't want the ‘bad' parents who scream from the side lines and cuss and get angry. This is a friendly place. We want sportsmanship and top-quality behavior."

Local businesses and the City of Walla Walla have noticed.

The city allows the organization to use a building on the property for no charge, and businesses, including the Bicycle Barn, Key Tech, Les Schwab, Bender Signs, Walla Walla Fire Department, several local grocery stores and Domino's Pizza, have contributed through the years.

As sports go, BMX isn't the cheapest. A good bike can run more than $1,000, and travel to races and qualifiers, like the upcoming Redline in Walla Walla, can be expensive. Entry fees range from $8-$30 and the right gear - helmets and padding - can run upwards of $100.

So when businesses and community members help, whether with events or track maintenance, it's a perk for the group.

"We can't do this without their help," Rod Forss said.

And bringing more community support in is part of the group's goals.

"We want to get the community involved, period," Forss said. "We want to bring more kids out, we want to bring on more sponsors and we want people to know what we're doing over here. This is a good thing for our community."

More businesses are getting involved May 14-16, when the relatively quiet Walla Walla BMX track becomes home to one of three Redline qualifying race events in the state - and the only one this side of the Cascades - and more than 300 riders from across the region.

About 14 businesses are helping sponsor concession stands at the Redline event in Walla Walla, many of them related to building and electric companies.

Redline is a big name in BMX. The company builds bikes and hosts competitions, including the Redline Cup, the biggest BMX race in the country.

Winners in each age and skill level receive a Redline jacket and plates.

Forss already has one, and is looking to collect another.

Someday, she'd like to be Olympic-bound.

Until then, the Walla Walla BMX track is home.

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