It's been quite a year for Willow Koerber Rockwell. A little less than a year ago, she showed up at the opening UCI Mountain Bike World Cup round in South Africa ready to start her season. Yet on the eve of the race, she faced an abrupt change of plans: she was pregnant.
The American, who has twice medalled at the cross country world championships, sat out the season, got married in the fall and then gave birth to her daughter Raven Starr Rockwell on December 31. Now she is trying to make the comeback of a lifetime as she returns to racing and pursues her Olympic dream.
Although she did not plan to interrupt her career to have a baby, Rockwell thinks it may actually help her in the long run, by giving her a renewed love of racing after a much deserved break.
"You can't believe how much you love this little one. It's refreshing," she said. "In bike racing, you can be so obsessed and so selfish without trying. It's great to have that be not number one.
"That huge chunk of time off has made it more fun to me to get out on my bike now. I had a lot of success on my bike, but it wasn't always fun. It was more often not fun than fun," said Rockwell. "I miss Raven when I'm out there, and I can't wait to get back and breastfeed her. It's a lot more fun now. My whole life doesn't revolve around racing."
That doesn't mean it was easy to sit out an entire season while her competition kept racing. After coming home from South Africa last year, Rockwell said she was depressed. "I laid in bed for four days in gray sweatpants. The only thing that got me out of bed was the need to write. I wasn't going to make it if I didn't write."
What she was writing was a book called "My Wheels Gave me Wings" on her experiences, which has just been released by Sunbury Press. She describes it as a journey through fear and despair and into love and healing.
"It's about a lot of different things in my life. Life in general," she said. "My whole life was a battle with myself. I opened my soul up to the struggles I had in life with biking. Specifically my identity and self worth. I replaced racing with love in my life. You have to acknowledge the divine feminine and masculine within - whether you are male or female. The divine feminine was shut down within me. I was all about doing.
"My book is about the struggle to survive. It's about letting yourself experience all aspects of life, not just the suffering and succeeding side of life. I share tips about tapping into different energies in the universe and not doing it all on your own. It's about making it fun again."
Rockwell said, "I believe in personal apocalypses that make you look in the mirror and find a way to be one with yourself." According to her, the book contains everything she needed to say during the last year of her life.
On the sidelines
For elite athletes whose lives revolve around training and racing, having to take a break - whether due to injury or pregnancy - can be one of the toughest mental challenges they will face in their careers.
"It was very hard. Of course, I didn't feel like I had chosen to miss the season. It cracked open all these parts of me. It was hard to see that biking had been my whole identity," said Rockwell. "It was hard to look in the mirror and rebuild my identity."
She said that the best advice she received while pregnant was to forget about being a pro athlete completely. "Don't think that you will keep up your training. Let yourself be pregnant. Eat when you want and let go of the attachment to being a pro athlete. It was a struggle for me. I know I'll have another kid some day, and I'll take that advice for myself again. Enjoy what's happening now. It's a challenge. It's emotionally challenging. It's a miracle, but it messes with your mind, too."
At times her pregnancy seemed to last forever. Rockwell was due - or so she thought - on December 10. Later, her caregivers revised her due date to December 22, but the baby wasn't born until New Year's Eve.
Rockwell commented on her birth experience relative to her toughest races. "Giving birth was far more difficult. I don't want to be the person who scares people. Everyone has something to go through. I had fear to go through and it was like a near death experience to have a baby. It was empowering. I'm not a 24-hour racer. I like to go hard for 1.5 hours and that was not my labor and delivery experience. Hills have an endpoint, for example, but with labor, you don't know. There is no formula. But the next day after giving birth, I knew I could have more babies."
Birthing Raven was a rebirth of sorts for Rockwell, too. "I think a lot of people with kids will say the same thing. If you're open to it, it can change everything. How you see everything and yourself. It was healing and expanding but also difficult. I was pushed way past my comfort zone. Everything has changed. It is good.
"It's how we all got here. It happens to you, and then you have your own baby. I'm aware that's what's happening. I'm not so young that I don't know what a big deal it is."
She said that she had no expectations of what it would like to be a mom because she has no friends around who have babies and she personally doesn't know any pro athletes who have had babies. "I only knew that everything would be different, but at what level, I had no idea."
Juggling baby and training
Although male pro athletes are regularly stepping on to podiums with their young children, not many female pros chose to have babies mid-career.
"I wish more women racers could have babies. It's a huge part of being a woman. In a way, I lucked out because when would I have had a baby? There were too many questions. I'm lucky that I get to do both."
She credits her team Trek World Racing for supporting her throughout her pregnancy. "I had extremely great support .I'm very thankful to [team owner] Martin Whiteley for sticking by me. It's an unusual situation. There's no handbook for how to go about it. It's a scary thing. you don't think you'll take a year off and have a baby and get my job back.
"It's not a huge sport and there's not tons of financial support. Once you've made it, the last thing you want to do is take time off. It's not like men take a year off and have a family either. There is an expiration date on all this stuff. It's almost a trap - once you get to the top, you think you have to stay there and there is no breathing. You feel like you have to say there. When you're trying to make a living and provide for yourself a decent future for after mountain bike racing, it's not a lot of money even for the best people in the sport. I think it's a twofold thing. Women that are finally making money are probably at the peak of their racing career are about at the age you feel like having a family, too."
In the first two and a half months after having her baby, Rockwell did about six rides, none of them on a mountain bike. "In a way it doesn't feel like I skipped a beat, but I skipped a whole year. I was racing hard since I was 15. That's over half of my life stressing out over racing."
It took her a few weeks to get back on her bike after having her baby, but now she squeezes workouts in between breastfeeding her baby.
"I have an amazing $300 breast pump so that's what I do, so I can be gone for a few hours. I don't train longer for 2.5 hours. For the rest of my career, I won't train longer than that. I pump before and I have someone helping me with the baby. I tell Raven I love her and then I leave and go ride and put my intention into the ride and come back, and then she wants to eat again right away. Usually I have water in one hand and sandwich in the other when I nurse her.
"What I've learned in the last few years in my career is that most of my power and strength is internal. I have a huge base. I put my body through the ringer and that program is there. I know how to do that. I am a bike racer. It's all about balance. I'm doing some intensity. On days someone might do a three-hour ride, I'm breastfeeding and healing my body."
She noticed in recent years that the less training she did, the faster she went. She used to have too much time to train and even to overtrain. "I'm being pushed in the direction that works better for me now anyway," she said of her reduced training. "I feel good. It takes a lot of trust and surrender. This is the new way. It's a blessing that I don't have that internal battle anymore."
Rockwell headed to South Africa last week for the first World Cup. She travelled with her baby and her husband Myles, who is also working for Trek World Racing as a downhill racing liaison. Her first test of her legs was the World Cup test event this weekend. She finished 17th.
Optimistic about her comeback, she said, "It helps to have people to talk to - support as a new mom. Your body changes, your physiology changes, your psychology changes. They can't expect you to jump back up and be the old Willow."
Being on the start line this weekend at the World Cup in South Africa will be the first important milestone of her comeback. "That's where I found out I was pregnant with Raven. Everything was up in the air for me. As soon as I found out, there was no question I was having her. It'll be a huge deal to start that race and to be back. I'll probably be last at the start and have to move up since I'll have no UCI points from last year."
With the first four World Cups serving as the final qualifying for the US Olympic Team, there is some pressure to get back up to speed quickly, but fortunately for Rockwell, there is a month in between the first two World Cups, so she is emphasizing rounds two through four in her quest to make it to London in August. But if the Olympics don't work out, she has other goals. "I'd like to be world champion," she said. The Worlds will take place in Austria in September.