An interview with Heather Irmiger, September 16, 2006
What makes a successful mountain biker? Is it an all-star training partner, support of a world-class team, the inspiration of a mother's love for the sport? Cyclingnews MTB Editor Steve Medcroft has chatted with Subaru/Gary Fisher rider Heather Irmiger several times through the 2006 season and thinks it may be all of the above. (See also Part II)
Heather Irmiger had a prolific 2006 mountain-bike season; she won the NORBA National Series cross country race in Brian Head, Utah and the Teva Mountain Games in her home state of Colorado, managed second in NORBA cross-country an impressive three times in seven overall NORBA podium appearances. She traveled to all six World Cup cross country races for the first time in her career to help her country gain UCI points in its quest to boost the number of riders it gets to send to Beijing for the 2008 summer Olympics, competed at the world championships in Roturoa, New Zealand in September and even finished second in the U.S. cross-country national championship race in Sonoma, California in July.
By looking at the season, you might say that the charismatic former scientist (Subaru/Gary Fisher) had a breakout year. You might be surprised to know that you're wrong.; you can't call a rider that made it onto one of the world's elite mountain-bike teams just now breaking out. You can't say that an athlete who has won at the elite-level (first NORBA win came at Brian Head, Utah in 2005), or is a former collegiate champion, or who has stood on a national championship podium before (2004) just breaking out.
"...everyone is so physically strong - the top women are really closely matched - it comes down to who can enjoy that kind of hurt on that day the most.'" -Irmiger on her mindset the morning of her first-ever NORBA win; at Brian Head, Utah in 2005.
Instead, you could say that Heather Irmiger has finally started to evolve to her potential. And you can chalk this 2006 season up to a number of elements, not the least of which are a handful of key relationships in Irmiger's life.
A most-convenient marriage
Irmiger's first key relationship is her marriage to America's premiere cross-country racer; Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski.
Irmiger met Horgan-Kobelski when they were both members of the Colorado University cycling team. "When I met him," she says, "he was the master of the collegiate scene. He was winning everything collegiate (actually, she's being modest; Irmiger also won a collegiate championships while at CU - Ed.). He was also getting top thirties and top twenties at NORBA's. I remember when he first made the top ten. When he made his first podium, I was there."
Watching her partner evolve as a racer had an impact on Irmiger's own athletic aspiration. "I'm sure some people out there can't imagine being a cyclist with a cyclist spouse because there are a lot of things that can be really hard about it. But it's amazing for us because you can always sympathize with what other person is going through. If you're grumpy because you had a bad training ride, you get it right away. We both know what it feels like to work our way to the top. We know what it feels like to have a bad race. One person is always there to pick the other person up. It's awesome."
In fact, Irmiger says she owes a lot of her success to Horgan-Kobelski, who she married following the 2005 mountain-bike season. "When I was younger, I said I wanted to be the next Alison Dunlap. So the desire to do what I'm doing now has always been there. But I don't think I would be here right now if it weren't for Jeremy. I don't feel like I would have had the focus at the beginning that would have led me here. At the collegiate level, racing was fun but Jeremy was so immersed in it that it ended up being more fun to be with him all the time. It's not like he made me race - I love racing and I want to reach big goals - but I feel like I get an almost developmental push."
Like mother like daughter
Another key relationship along the way to Irmiger's career in the sport is closer than even the one with her husband.
Irmiger wasn't new to mountain biking when she started at CU and first joined the cycling team. "My childhood was pretty awesome," she said. "My Mom is a wicked mountain biker and was super into it. When I was twelve, we were going on spring break mountain-bike trips, like to Winter Park. My little brother would ride his five-speed on Slickrock and Porcupine Rim. That's just what we did as a family."
And diametric to most family structures, Irmiger says "You'd expect the husband to try to drag his wife out but in our family it was always my Mom saying 'come on, let's go out for a four hour ride on some sweet downhill.' And my Mom would ride the gnarliest stuff. When I was seventeen, I went on a trip with her and two of her buddies who she used to work in a bike shop with (before she became a nurse) and she was riding stuff that they wouldn't touch. I always thought she rode so smooth so I always tried to follow her lines."
That family love for the sport led Irmiger almost naturally into competition. "I was always competitive," she says. "I played sports, I ski raced, I played softball. The combination of being competitive and having a family that was into mountain biking led me to the sport."
Irmiger says she entered her first race as an older junior. "I did my first race when I was seventeen. I upgraded to Sport races the next year; probably did five or six races."
She kept working her way through the classes but says she best came to understand the possibilities that mountain biking could offer her when she joined the CU cycling team. "We had coaches. We had a National Championship to work towards. It was a natural path for me to start doing the NORBA's in the collegiate off-season" After three years of taking the sport seriously, Irmiger applied for her professional license. "I was still a collegiate racer," she says.
This was in 2000. It wasn't until 2005 that she had the kind of success that would mark her as a serious contender in U.S. mountain biking. "My thought process has been pretty short with all of this," she says. "I got fourth in 2004 at the National Championships and that's what gave me the confidence to get on the podium in 2005. And that's all I wanted to do - get on the podium at least one more time. The true surprise for me actually came at Park City that season. We hadn't raced since March at Sea Otter, where I hadn't been in the best in the best form - I got like sixteenth or something and felt bad. Then, two or three months later, at Park City, I was like 'Oh, my god, I'm in second place right now.' That was one of the first times when I thought 'How am I doing this?' I was totally shocked."
But Irmiger, a research scientist by training, says she approached the revelation analytically. "I'm like 'Hmmm, I got second. That's got to mean I can win.' It just seemed like it made sense - if you can get second, you can win. Even if you can get third, you can win. Any of those girls who are in the top five all the time, the only difference is how they do that one day. I think that once you start getting up there, winning is a pretty reasonable thing to believe you can do. Within the next couple of weeks, I was gunning for Idaho. I kept saying it; 'I'm going to win Idaho."
Click here for Part II two of our profile of Heather Irmiger, where we follow her through her first big win, her transition to the lifestyle of a full-time pro and her ambitions for the future.