When I was six years old, I sat with my classmates in a circle as we talked about what we wanted to be when we grew up. My friends wanted to be teachers, nurses, ballerinas. I wanted to be a Power Ranger. I wanted the tight suit and slick helmet, the super powers, the lightning-fast karate moves. I wanted to use my giant, ultra-cool robot to make intergalactic bad guys beg for mercy. Yep, that would be pretty awesome.
Now fast-forward about fifteen years: being a cyclist seems to be the closest one could possibly get to being a superhero. I wear a Lycra red, white, and blue skinsuit stamped with “USA” on the chest and legs. By the power of fast-twitch muscle fibers, I zip around a banked track at crazy-high speeds – just because I can.
The 2011 Elite Track Nationals were held in Los Angeles not quite two weeks ago, and it was then that it occurred to me how super track cyclists can be.
The stadium was packed fuller than I had ever seen it. It was Saturday night of Nationals and I was prepping for the second gold medal ride of the sprint tournament. I had won the women’s keirin the night before and was hoping for a repeat in the sprints as well. The evening’s events had been tailored towards the audience’s entertainment as well as the racers’ performance; some kids racing had been mixed into the program between the elite races, so there were more young faces in the stands and on the infield than usual.
The kids racing were some that I had worked with on and off during my time in L.A. I realized as I sat on the infield that most of them had never actually seen me kitted up and in race mode. Naturally, that wasn’t exactly the biggest concern of mine at the moment, but it was there.
As I sat on the line for the second ride of the round, I went through my mental plan, reviewing my strategy. It went as most sprints go for the first two laps: the riders maneuver around and goad each other into position for the final sprint. I had my opponent, training partner Cristin Walker, on my hip and exactly where I wanted her into one lap to go.
That’s when I heard it. Coming out of turn four into the final lap, I heard the kids on the infield chanting my name. In any other race situation, any noises from the stands just sounds like white noise; this was quite clear.
Crap. I better not mess this up.
Cristin began to initiate the sprint and it was on. I shot to the pole lane and barreled along the black line as fast as my legs would churn. The video later would show me bursting across the line first to win the title in two rides. I wasn’t thinking of that at the time, but rather that now I could finally use the rest room.
Jodi is ten years old, has long golden hair and almond-shaped brown eyes set in a perfectly round face. She’s so small that she has her own tiny track bike that she brings to each kiddie training session; the bike has “JoJo Monkey” emblazoned along the top tube. Her jersey bunches around her shoulders and her shorts hang loosely at her knees. She says she wants to be a professional cyclist when she grows up.
I saw Jodi running at me as I walked down from the podium – she had raced earlier that evening as well, and had her own medal to show for it. She wrapped her arms around me in the tightest ten-year-old’s bear hug I’ve ever received.
“You were so awesome!” she yelled up at me.
“You were, too! You looked great out there,” I said.
“Really. Anyone ever tell you that you look good with a medal on? Because it’s true.”
“Thanks!” She gave me one last squeeze and scurried off, locks flying and medal swinging.
I’m not exactly Wonder Woman. I don’t have a cool cape, I can’t actually fly, and I have no hope of filling her Wonder Bra. But if I can inspire kids to start riding bikes – and keep riding them – my mission has been accomplished.