An interview with Katie Compton, January 21, 2005
With eyes firmly fixed on Mary McConneloug, Ann Knapp and Gina Hall at the US 'Cross Nationals, no-one expected anyone else to take out the stars and stripes jersey - except Katie Compton. Steve Medcroft caught up with her to learn more about this Paralympic gold medallist and world record holder, and her outing in Oregon that earned her the enviable title of national champion.
In Portland, Oregon in December 2004, cyclocross racers from all across the U.S. came together to challenge for the right to wear the stars and stripes jersey in 2005. In the women's race, three front-runners took to the line. Mary McConneloug, Ann Knapp and Gina Hall had been wowing crowds and battling head to head from Gloucester, MA, to Tacoma, Washington and everyone watching the race expected the three to break off the front and settle the championship amongst themselves.
Quietly lined up next to them was a Colorado 'crosser who had spent the season competing in men's 'C' races around her home town of Colorado Springs, Colorado, far from the attention of most of the cycling media. Katie Compton was fit, strong, and had a bike she said was 'running great'. The sighted pilot to a blind tandem Paralympic cycling team, Compton's win of the women's national race that day was a stunning upset and unexpected by everyone including Compton herself.
"You don't want somebody who is a spinner matched up with someone who's a masher." - Katie Compton speaks about the dynamic between herself and her blind Paralympic tandem partner Karissa Whitsell
Cyclingnews: I know that it's not technically true to say that you came from nowhere to take the national championship because I know you've been riding and racing for a while, so take us to nationals -- how prepared did you feel going into that race and why were you there?
Katie Compton: I actually felt really prepared going into it. All the training I've done for the Paralympics, training on the tandem (Compton is the sighted pilot paired with a blind stoker) the last couple of years really helped me. I've been driving a bike for two people and that has made me stronger. This year, I kept up with my training after Paralympics ended, my cyclocross bike was running great and I got a little bit of sponsorship so I planned to go to nationals all season. I have friends in Portland that I could stay with, so I made a whole vacation trip out of it. To get ready, I raced with the men in the Colorado, in the Boulder and Denver area, was actually riding well with them. Alison Dunlap gave me some help too. Pointers. It was basically her plan I was following; race with the men, hit it late season, come on strong for nationals. It seemed to work because I felt good come December.
CN: You avoided any race with UCI points or national significance. This was tied to your Paralympic qualification right?
KC: Exactly. To be a pilot for the Paralympics, you can't compete internationally within three years of a Paralympic event. You can't have any UCI points; you can't ride for a UCI trade team. They want to keep people who have been racing professionally from just jumping on a tandem and racing with a blind person at Paralympic time. The chances are that if you've been out of elite competition for three years, you're not racing professionally. You're probably racing more amateur level. You have other things going on. You may be working full time. And that's my life. I'm working. I have other things to do. I love riding my bike, love racing and Paralympics allows me to continue racing, but it's more a low-key competition. Not low key competitively because international competition is still hard, but there are only a couple of races a year. I get to focus on those and I don't have to worry about traveling and racing every weekend.
CN: Did you race in cycling before Paralympics?
KC: I was on the junior national team and raced a little bit at the elite level, in college and right after. I raced mountain bikes for an east coast team (Trek/VW Regional) but mostly I did track and road and tried to hit the biggest races on the east coast I could get to. I did some 'cross too.
CN: Just recreationally? Not looking to make a career out of it?
KC: I knew I wasn't going to make a career out of it. Very few cyclists, I think, actually make a career out of it. And if they do, it's short term; contract to contract. You're making ends meet but not necessarily making any money at it. I found a path that works for me. I'm a coach with Carmichael Training Systems. I get to stay around cycling, I get to work with athletes all the time and I get to ride my bike too. It's such a cool job. Thanks to the Internet software, I can work anywhere.
CN: How did you come across your tandem partner?
KC: The coach of the Paralympic cycling team is a Carmichael coach too and he was looking for a pilot for Karissa Whitsell. I was working in the office and he was like 'wait a second, you've got track and road experience, you haven't raced at the elite level for a few years. You want to give it a try?' I said yeah and I loved it.
CN: What was the circumstance of your first meeting with Karissa?
KC: She came to Colorado Springs for a Paralympic training camp. They hold their camps at the Olympic Training Center. Since I live in the Springs, I met her for a ride one day. We did a couple of road rides together.
CN: She had been racing for several years already, were you replacing an existing partner?
KC: She had a male pilot back when they had mixed tandem pairs. Paralympics did away with mixed teams and now just have men's tandems and women's tandems.
CN: Had you done much tandem riding before that point?
KC: None; it was my first time on a tandem. I got a little bit of advice from my Dad and other people who had ridden tandem and tried to keep that all in mind but part of it is just feeling what it's like to ride the bike so we just had to ride together to figure out if it was going to work. I'm lucky, Karissa is great on the back; she's real steady, real smooth. It wasn't hard riding with her.
CN: How do you communicate with her when riding?
KC: She actually feels the bike pretty well. She knows the power stroke. She knows my rhythm. A lot of times I'll tell her what's going on but she sort of senses what's happening from the feel of the bike without me having to tell her. She knows how much to lean, how little to lean. She can feel the braking. She can feel the acceleration. She's been blind since she was two and has been riding tandem at least since '96 and maybe before that, so she has such a good idea of how to ride the back of the bike that she helped me a lot.
CN: Sounds like maybe she's the real pilot of the bike?
KC: In many ways, she is. We're teaching each other though. She tells me things I wouldn't think about because I haven't ridden on the back and I can see. I tell her things that she may not have observed.
CN: About the bikes -- you race both road and track?
KC: Right. That track tandem obviously is a fixed gear; no brakes. To tell you the truth, the track tandem rides a lot like a single track bike would - except of course, riding a tandem is kind of like driving a bus over driving a sports car. Everything is slower; longer radius turns, slower brakes, slower accelerations.
CN: How quickly did you adjust to each other?
KC: It was trial and error at first. We had to know that our riding styles were going to match. You don't want somebody who is a spinner matched up with someone who's a masher. We matched pretty well right away. I generally push bigger gears and Karissa has always pushed bigger gears. We got together and our pedal strokes and riding styles are so similar that we've worked out well together. When we get out of the saddle, the way we move the bike underneath us, matched. That alone makes a big difference.
CN: Do you train often together?
KC: Not as much as I'd like to. She lives in Eugene and has another pilot she trains with through the year. We get together at training camps and usually anywhere from two weeks to a month before a competition. A little less right now because the Paralympics are over and we have some down-time.
CN: You said one of the great things about being a Paralympic athlete was that there were only a couple major events a year to focus on. What are they?
KC: When we first started, our first year together, we did the Paralympic World Championships. The following year we did the Blind World Championships. Last year we had the European Games and this year we had Paralympics. They try to set it up so there's one major event per year.
CN: What's the venue of a Paralympics? Does it compare to other professional sporting events? Is it as big? Are there crowds?
KC: The Paralympics was two weeks after the regular Olympics. They use everything the Olympics used - all the venues, the housing, the food. Because with all the media coverage for the Olympics, and the worry about terrorist attacks, attendance for the Olympics was low. The Greeks were so upset that they bought up all the tickets for Paralympics. We had full stadiums everywhere; sold-out venues. At the track, there were heaps of people all around, in every chair. I though that was pretty cool.
CN: What disciplines did you compete in?
KC: We did all of it. On the track we did kilo, sprint and pursuit. We also did the road race and time trial.
CN: You won a gold medal?
KC: In the Pursuit. And we set a world record (3:36 for three kilometers, beating an Australian-held 3:39). That was a really good ride for us. It was what we had been training for; something we've wanted for a while.
CN: Could you feel the record happening at the time or do you just not know until you get a chance to stare at the scoreboard?
KC: Our coaches yell lap times at us during the race. In the last five laps, he'll say 'up 20' or 'down 20' (meters off the pace of the second team on the track). With thee or four laps to go, he said, 'Up 20', and I was like, 'Really?' We'd raced the same team last year in the European Games and in that race we had been down 20, down 30. When the coach said we were up 20 at the end, I was amazed because I knew we could keep it going, knew we had a lot of energy still.
CN: 3:36. So you're doing a lap in twenty seconds?
KC: I think they're like seventeen or eighteen seconds, something like that. I think our starting lap is supposed to be 23 or so and then we settle in at about 17. I'm trying to remember.
CN: I know that in cycling, even out on the road, nothing feels better than getting into that big gear and being able to hold it; that feeling of speed. What does it feel like on a track to go that fast?
KC: It's so much fun. It's a lot more fun riding fast on a track than riding fast on the road because you get to go around in circles. The corners are banked, the surface is wooden and the transitions are super-smooth. It feels like a rollercoaster going through the turns; you just lean the bike over and fly through the turn, sit up a little bit and go through the straight then into the next turn. The faster you go, the more fun it is. It's hard to hold back. Obviously, you have this fitness thing where you start getting tired and you can't go as fast but for 12 laps, you can stay on it pretty good.
CN: Due to the training for track and tandem riding, I would imagine you developed more upper body strength and leg power than you normally would for cycling?
KC: Without lifting weights, my upper body, shoulders and arms, definitely got stronger. And yes, riding tandem track does develop power.
CN: With that kind of fitness, I can see why cyclocross would be attractive?
KC: Well, I've always loved cyclocross. I first did it in 1998 and enjoyed it; my first race on my singlespeed. I don't know if you want to write this down but I agreed to do it one night in a bar. My friends were like, 'you should do it,' and I'm like, 'yeah, whatever, I'll do it.' So they picked me up the next morning, hangover and all. I raced and I loved it.
CN: You grew up in Delaware with brothers and sisters?
KC: I have an older brother. He works in Wilmington.
CN: Who introduced you to cycling?
KC: Dad. He's been racing and officiating for a long time. He was president of a local bike club here when I was growing up. He was going to races all the time. I went with him a few times and just loved it.
CN: It's hard for cycling parents to get their children involved sometimes. How did he do it?
KC: We didn't ride all the time, but he'd get me to go because we'd either ride for ice cream, a candy bar or a Slurpee. There had to be a destination. And a reward. Otherwise, when you're a kid, you're like, 'why would I want to go ride my bike for two hours when I can just stay at home?' When you are a kid, you'll ride to the park or ride to the pool or ride to your friends, but not just to ride. His rewards got me into riding.
CN: What was your first race?
KC: I started at Trexeltown (Pennsylvania) at the track. I think I was younger than 13 I think. They have a really good beginners program for track riders. It was free; they had bikes you could rent, bikes you could just use. I don't know the program now but 10 years ago we had coaches there to help with the bikes, help with track skills, tell us the rules and to have people to ride with. It's a great way for kids to start.
CN: 10 years ago? I thought you were a little older than 22?
KC: Well, I guess it was 12 years ago. Maybe 14. I was 12 so it was, God, you're killing me, 15 years ago (laughs).
CN: You said you did some mountain biking as well. You started on the track as a junior. How did you make the transition?
KC: I started mountain biking my senior year in high school. I didn't really race much. I was mostly riding with friends, riding for fun. I started racing in college.
CN: Were you ever close to making the push to try and make a living as a mountain bike pro?
KC: I was on the bubble. Maybe if I had kept going with it. But I realized that there's not a lot of money in cycling. I knew I wanted to coach, so I was going to school for exercise science. I moved into coaching right after college; first as an intern with CTS then as a full coach.
CN: Let's go back to the day of cyclocross nationals. You show up and are racing against women who have been touted as the favorites -- Mary McConneloug, Gina Hall, Ann Knapp -- I don't remember you really being mentioned.
KC: No. But I understand that -- I didn't do any national races, only local men's races.
CN: But you came and took the title anyway?
KC: Alison Dunlap gave me a lot of encouragement to try it. And lent me a bike -- since she wasn't racing 'cross this season, I had her spare bike in the pits during the race. I didn't actually need it though because I saw Ann go in for a bike change during one of the laps and she lost a couple of seconds. My bike was running great -- wheels were great, tires were clearing, shifting was fine -- so I knew I could get away without a bike change and two seconds at the end of a 'cross race will really help you out sometimes. Alison also gave me info on the riders; she's ridden with all those girls.
CN: That probably gave you an advantage. I doubt they knew a lot about how you raced?
KC: I raced maybe Ann and Gina a long time ago, but you're right - I hadn't raced against Mary except maybe in a NORBA where she was way, way ahead of me.
CN: How did you end up in front?
KC: I think I was leading from the third lap. I didn't really attack. I think I was sitting behind Gina, Ann was sitting right behind me and we had gapped Mary a little bit at that point. I just took a different line through the mud and got a bike length so I just tried to keep the power on and stay consistent, keep a good line and see what I could do. I looked back and suddenly I had five seconds, then seven seconds. All I could think was to just going to keep going, keep pushing. Then Ann made contact with me with a lap and a half to go and I was like, 'oh no, she's going to stay,' but she crashed as soon as she made contact. As soon as I heard that, I rode harder.
KC: Yeah. That's 'cross racing though. It's been done to me. Numerous times.
CN: What did it feel like to pull a stars and stripes jersey over your head?
KC: Awesome. It was my first Elite championship. And a big surprise. Going in, I thought I could go in a get a top five. I was pretty sure I had a chance to finish top three. But the win? Maybe on a good day. When I won I was like, 'Holy shit.' It was good. My lucky day.
CN: You won't compete in world's so you don't jeopardize your ability to race Paralympics. Now that you've achieved the 'cross national championship, do you feel that you're making too big a sacrifice by giving up all elite competition but Paralympics?
KC: Not at all. I don't regret any of it. I love Paralympics and I love racing tandem with Karissa. I enjoy it more than even racing 'cross for a season. Besides, Paralympics is something I can keep doing for the next three years. If I go and race 'cross world's, I can't compete in Paralympics for the next three. I think I'd rather continue competing at the Paralympics. Plus, I'm only 26. If I keep racing 'cross, keep racing with the men, keep getting stronger, after I do another four years with Karissa I might think about myself and look at 'cross to see what I can do.
CN: What are your next Paralympic events?
KC: There's talk about a Paralympic World Cup in Manchester England in May.
CN: Good luck with all and congratulations on your national championship.