Willow Koerber stepped into American mountain bike history when she won a bronze medal at the UCI cross country World Championships in Canberra, Australia, in September. It was the first American cross country worlds medal since Alison Dunlap won gold in 2001 in Vail, Colorado. Cyclingnews' Sue George spoke with Koerber after her accomplishment had had a chance to sink in.
It's been a landmark year for Willow Koerber of the Subaru - Gary Fisher team. She moved to Durango, Colorado, figured out how to take care of herself on and off the bike and switched from 26-inch to 29-inch wheels. What resulted was the best season yet for Koerber.
"I'm a different athlete in a way. I have to be in a good emotional, mental and spiritual place to do anything on my bike," said the 31-year-old Koerber, who's learned a lot about herself in the past year and a half. "Every time I ignore the non-physical parts, the effects are pretty immediate. [My coach] Rick [Crawford] likes to say, 'When Willow is happy, Willow is fast.'"
Koerber was both happy and fast in 2009, especially the second half, but getting to that mental and physical state wasn't easy. She had what she called a "disastrous" season in 2008. "When I partnered with Coach Rick Crawford in the middle of last season, we were doing damage control. I had a lot of health stuff going on. I had the emotional burnout of feeling awful all year, and this year we had to start over from scratch. I was in a weird place -didn't know what I wanted to do and what I wanted to race for.
"I took six weeks off in the middle of the season in 2008 and just ran and then was able to get some decent results at the end of last year. I was in the 50s at the World Cups last year. It was awful, but it makes me appreciate this year."
Koerber took it easy last fall, skipping structured training until she was truly ready. "Then I feel like I trained smarter. I made the workouts count. Rick and I have a great relationship - we'd communicate every day. Starting in June, we were working day by day. My training was what was decided that morning. There wasn't a set plan. It suited the changes in my life and how I was doing emotionally and mentally. For me, it was a huge change.
"I changed how I was thinking and how I was feeling more than what I was doing on the bike - especially so since June," said Koerber, who commented about how much fun she had racing throughout the second half of the season.
"I rediscovered a lot of joy in riding my bike this year, and I appreciate the opportunities and don't take them for granted. I appreciate the opportunity to travel the globe and pursue my dream. Everything changes and nothing changes at the same time.
"I've been so excited for all the support and enthusiasm since my results at worlds. It's awesome," she said. "People I don't even know have been encouraging. It's a special feeling - I haven't felt that before."
That special day
Approaching the World Championships, Koerber was coming off a win at the US ProXCT round in Windham, New York, where she flatted twice en route to the victory.
Before worlds, Koerber said she was "super calm". "I've never been so calm on a start line. I told my mechanic, everything will be great today, and I won't see you in the tech zone. My mechanic was a little nervous, but I said 'today will be perfect'.
"Everything was working magically since I'd come to Durango in June. I was getting help and was in an environment where I could believe in myself. I had all the tools I needed to get a bronze medal and even to win. I went there to win."
Koerber was caught behind a crash on the first road section at the beginning of the race, but she'd worked her way up to the first group of six by the end of the first lap. The chaos of the start didn't faze her. "The whole time I never felt panic. I just knew I needed to let it unfold.
"I don't remember much about the race, but I do remember smiling a lot. I felt really good and I remember it unfolding like I thought it might. I don't remember too many details, but I think that it what makes it a good race."
She does remember a speedy Irina Kalentieva, who went on for the win, passing her near the end. "Riding that last lap, I was pretty much by myself, and I knew I was in third and was riding toward a bronze medal. I'd kind of already done the racing in the previous laps."
It was a textbook perfect race day. "It was awesome. I'd like to repeat that - when you're legs feel great and you're doing well. It all came together."
Since Dunlap won her gold World Championship medal, the racing hasn't gotten any easier. "The competition is fierce. There are a lot of awesome women. I think there were 15 women who could have gotten a medal at worlds. Eight years ago, we were all young in the sport. The level of competition has increased every year.
"Between 2001 and now, there was a lot of maturing physically, emotionally and mentally. Most of the top US women are around my age, and the US women's team is reaching its peak now. It takes time to be confident in yourself and to be confident on the start line and to be good with all the traveling and figuring out your training.
"The constantly changing podiums [at the World Cups] are a testament to how hard everyone works and how much everyone wants it. It makes it more special to me when I do get on the podium or win a medal at worlds."
Big wheels keep on turning
Koerber tried out a 29er bike for the first time mid-season. Now she says the only mountain bike she has is her 29er. "I don't have 26-inch wheels anymore."
Her conversion happened overnight. "I switched when we went to Vermont. The whole team had been talking 29ers all year. When I heard Heather [Irmiger] was on a medium, I thought maybe I could ride a small. It showed up in Vermont and I did one practice loop on the 29er and then raced it. I got second and felt good. The next week I won in Windham, New York. Then with my third place in Australia, I'm not going back!"
Koerber might have switched sooner, but noted that there are a lot of myths about small people and 29ers, though now she doesn't understand why. "It took no getting used to," said Koerber. "I think Heather said it feels like you're in the bike instead of on it. It's like an extra security blanket surrounding you. I have lot of confidence in it, and it's good to not be thinking out there. You don't want to be thinking while you're racing."
Koerber will be able to keep both her bike and her sponsor for 2010 as she has renewed her contract with Subaru / Gary Fisher.
The family effect
Koerber comes from a family that is not only behind her cycling success, but is also fast on two wheels. Her brother Sam is based in Asheville, North Carolina, and races pro. He recently finished second at the Pisgah Mountain Bike Stage Race. Her father Bob, who also completed the Pisgah race, continues to ride and compete.
"Most of my childhood memories revolve around my family doing some kind of athletic activity together. My whole life has been about us making up competitions. We would have team time trials on road bikes when I was 12 and Sam was 9. Our life has been about riding bikes and family adventures. Growing up in Pisgah [North Carolina], you can't not ride a mountain bike. I was born into a perfect family and perfect environment to encourage my career choice."
Koerber still thinks it is fun to ride with her family. "They don't let me get away with anything. It doesn't matter whether I get a medal, they'll still be hard on me when I go ride for them. It makes me faster, so it's good."
Now in Durango, Koerber no longer lives near her family, but she's found a good group to support her in many of the same ways.
"Durango is great. Just being in an environment with so many professional mountain bikers, I can train at nine in the morning with a good group of people. The weather there has been great, I'm really a fan of the sunshine. Just everything, you know, being happy about my opportunities instead of being sort of fearful of failure which has probably been my biggest downfall my whole life and career."
Winning is contagious
Koerber wasn't the only successful rider on her team this year. Subaru - Gary Fisher teammates Heather Irmiger and Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski won joint national marathon titles in early July and then followed them up two weeks later with joint national cross country titles.
"I think we were feeding off each other's successes. Our whole team had a challenging year in 2008. I don't want to speak for everyone, but we did feel the pressure and no one was performing how they wanted to. There was a lot of bad luck and mechanicals. It seemed like there was always something happening every weekend. Someone was always having a bad weekend. This year was different. We had some weekends where all of us did great.
"This year it seemed like the better it got, the better it got. It was good for the whole team. We were inspiring each other constantly."
Lightening up the mood seemed to do the team's riders wonders. "We drank a lot of wine. We were partying after the World Cups. Last year, we were trying to being too focused and too serious. The more fun we have, the better we do."
Koerber had a good World Cup in South Africa. At the opening round, she finished sixth. "I felt great and it was so good for me to know that last year was over, and I wasn't riding in the 40s and hurting. I didn't feel like there was a concrete truck on my back. It was so cool to be in a completely different place."
From there, things just got better and better. "I saw Heather win at US [cross country] Nationals, and I did the best I could do, which was second after her."
From, there it was onto Mont Sainte Anne, where Koerber stepped onto the podium. "I felt like ok, now we're in the zone. I can see what I want to do in Australia. I'm riding with these girls and feeling good."
The win at Windham only helped build her momentum.
Koerber is pleased with the 2010 World Cup schedule. "There is less travel. As much as I like South Africa and Australia, those are huge travel situations. For me, the calendar makes sense and I can see where I can rest in the middle of the season. It's nice to look at something that makes a lot sense."
Some highlights will undoubtedly include the World Cup in Windham, New York, after she won the US ProXCT round there this year, and the World Championships in Mont Sainte Anne, Quebec, Canada, where she logged her best World Cup finish ever - third - in 2004.
Speaking of Windham, Koerber said, "I'd love to win there. I am confident that I can go really, really hard up that hill because that's what I did this year. I got flats and then I chased. There is no such thing as energy that you have to save. You need to be cool and calm, but I can attack that climb every time. That's one particular course where I know I can race like that. The timing is awesome - one week before worlds. It's going to be good for the whole US team to not travel so far.
"I also get goose bumps looking at the World Championships date. I'm so excited. I've had three World Cup podiums at that race and been in the top 10. I am from the East Coast and appreciate that kind of riding. I appreciate the elements and whatever the conditions are. It's nice to feel confident going into that race."
In the meantime, she's busy training during the off season, including trail running and staying home. "There's a little time in the fall - transition time. I don't have a ticket to go anywhere. That's challenging for me, but it's good. I need to learn how to slow down. I've been seeking out more mellowing activities - meditation or just chilling out. I'm trying to think less and be less anxious - I'm naturally an anxious person.
"I'm riding my bike in the off season - usually I look at it and I'm so burnt out," she said. "I'm really looking forward to next season, to having my goals and chasing them.
"I like pressure. I wouldn't be an athlete if I didn't like pressure. I wouldn't stand on the start line feeling calm if I couldn't control my mind."
Koerber's new life plan is to enjoy every day. "The time goes so quick, I need to appreciate it."
Looking back at her worlds medal and what led up to it and has come since, Koerber reflected, "What's interesting is that there are always things that you put in front of yourself. You say, 'when this happens, I'll be happy' or 'things will be different'. I wouldn't say it's changed my life in any way, but it's made me realize what I put in front of me. Sitting here after the winning that medal, I'm saying, "Ok, I'll keep doing what I was doing. I don't feel like kicking back and saying everything is over. It's motivation to keep going. "
If all goes according to plan, her recent success will continue to breed more success. "I got the bronze because I quit being hard on myself, and now I can quit being hard on myself, you know what I mean? I had to reach that level and I have a lot of special people in my life right now that are helping."
Koerber predicts she'll keep on racing if she's having fun and improving. "I'll race for as long as I feel like I'm contributing to the sport - that my presence on the scene is needed and people want to know what I'm doing or maybe I can say something to help someone else. I will race as long as I feeling like I am where I am supposed to be."
(Additional editorial assistance provided by Greg Johnson)