I didn’t start out an athlete.
I’m not sure anyone really does.
But I didn’t play sports in high school or college. I was on the debate team. I was interested in politics and studied constitutional law in my free time.
Sure, I rode and trained horses, and had ridden bicycles with my family as a child, but that was far in my past. I even played a bit of volleyball and Ultimate Frisbee with friends, but competitive sports were far from my mind.
So what changed?
In 2010, I was starting my master’s degree at Liberty University. I was living and studying from home, taking advantage of Liberty’s acclaimed online program to save money, and accumulating part-time jobs like spilled Skittles on the floor. I was painting dorm rooms, teaching horseback riding lessons, tutoring middle school students, and lifeguarding.
Somehow, amidst juggling my many part-time jobs, I started playing volleyball in the evening with friends. Recreational volleyball turned into a passion. I found ways to work with a coach and a high school boys’ team to develop my skills as a player. I joined more and more competitive teams, eventually getting an offer to play at nationals.
I still wouldn’t have considered myself an athlete, but I had discovered the value of a little bit of passion, hard work, and discipline combined. In just over a year, I had gone from a complete beginner on the volleyball court to holding my own with post-college athletes at the regional level.
During that same period of time, I discovered triathlons. While lifeguarding, I often interacted with the uber-disciplined triathletes who showed up just as the pool opened at 5 a.m. to swim lap upon lap. I had started riding my bike to the pool to get a bit of exercise (and save money on gas), and soon my interest was piqued. I knew how to ride a bike. I knew how to swim. Surely I could manage a 5k.
The summer of 2011 (or maybe 2012?), I tried my hand at two or three local sprint triathlons. To prepare, I started swimming more laps during my breaks at the pool. I also found a book at the local library: The Time-Crunched Cyclist: Fit, Fast, and Powerful in 6 Hours a Week by Chris Carmichael.
Up to that point, I had never even heard of Lance Armstrong, the Tour de France, or bike racing. But I figured if I was going to do a triathlon, I should learn how to go faster on my bike. I started going out for solo rides, aiming to incorporate the training plans from Carmichael’s book at a rudimentary level.
Eventually, I upgraded the (way too big for me) Schwinn road bike I had been riding to a Craigslist special: a Trek aluminum road bike frame outfitted with flat bars, mountain-bike shifters, and aero bars. I got clipless pedals and shoes, and maybe even a water bottle.
Soon, I was playing volleyball, lifting weights at the local YMCA (a benefit of yet another part-time job manning the climbing wall), riding my bike, swimming, and running occasionally. But I still never even dreamed of considering myself an athlete.
In early 2013, I applied for a job at the local bike shop. I had spent enough money fixing my Craigslist dinosaur bike in the last year to think that perhaps a job at the bike shop would be a good addition to my money-making ventures. I knew next to nothing about bicycles, but I was willing to learn.
That spring, I bought my first “real” road bike, a 2013 Specialized Tarmac Comp. I learned about padded riding shorts, chamois cream, bike fits, and cycling computers. The upgrade to a road bike made me feel fast, and with a bit of prompting from my co-workers, I entered the local criterium that summer.
I was surprised to realize that I was able to lead for most of the race. Looking back, I realize that at 5’11”, I made a perfect lead-out. I wouldn’t have passed me either. As an obvious newbie to racing (I had cycling shorts, but no jersey, just a t-shirt) with zero sense of race tactics, I was a perfect choice to haul the rest of the field around until the final few laps, when I was easily passed and left to roll through the finish tape on my own. But I didn’t realize any of that then, or for several years to come. At that moment, I was caught up in the excitement of it all, and thrilled that I could “hold my own” in a bike race.
Fast forward four years. I had moved to Tanzania to teach at an international school in 2013, during which time, I used an old mountain bike to commute to and from school, continued playing volleyball and Ultimate Frisbee, and dabbled in other sports like sailing, diving, rugby, football (soccer), and ball hockey. Each summer, when school was out, I flew back to Indiana and worked at the bike shop to earn enough money to pay for my flights. While home, I joined the Saturday morning shop rides, did the occasional century ride, and played volleyball with friends. I even bought a full-suspension mountain bike and explored the local off-road trails.
Then, in 2017, I returned to the U.S. and picked up my job at the bike shop, this time full-time. My dad was planning to fulfill his lifetime dream of riding a bicycle across the country, and I was going to go with him. The trip was planned for the spring of 2018.
In the months leading up to the cross-country bike trip, I became more and more entrenched in the cycling community. They welcomed me back with open arms, and soon I was joining friends at local mountain bike and cyclocross races, as well as trips to ride at Brown County State Park, Indiana’s “gold standard” mountain bike trails.
To the outside eye, I was probably well on my way to being considered an athlete at this point. Nearly every non-work waking moment of my life was consumed with riding bikes, racing bikes, or playing volleyball. But I still hadn’t come to that conclusion myself.
It wasn’t until after the cross-country trip the following spring, and after winning every Cat 2 mountain bike race I entered during the ensuing summer, that I even started to have an inkling of an idea that this is something I was good at. At that point, it had been years since my exposure to Carmichael’s time-crunched cyclist and I wasn’t doing any kind of structured training. I was just riding my bike during the week and racing my bike on the weekends–and winning.
That fall, after the final local mountain bike series race had finished, I was considering registering for Iceman Cometh: the premier Midwest mountain bike race each year. My inaugural experience at Iceman had been the previous year, and I had ended the race borderline hypothermic and swearing I would never do it again. But there’s something addicting about that race, and so I was preparing to register for the 2018 edition of Iceman. In the process, one of my mentors suggested I register for the Pro/Open category and begin pursuing a more challenging level of racing.
That decision was the inciting event for everything that followed. I started working with a coach. I began searching for bigger, more challenging races for the following season. I asked for a category upgrade on my USA Cycling license. I began to see myself as an athlete.
When I did, my priorities shifted. My life soon revolved around my training plan. I started reading books on diet, nutrition, training, and recovery.
By the next fall, I had competed in 22 races during the 2019 mountain bike season. It was a season full of learning. I learned what it felt like to DNF. I took a skills clinic and learned confidence on technical features. I learned what FTP was and how expensive power meters could be. I learned the consequences of underfueling during a race. And I learned that I was an athlete.
Was I any different as a self-realized athlete than as a semi-athletic person?
To the outside eye, maybe not.
But the process of becoming an athlete has given me confidence, a feeling of belonging, and the quality of life and discipline that comes with training to compete at an elite level.