Zwift Academy transforms a rider from amateur to pro with Canyon//SRAM

Introducing the newest member of Women's WorldTour team

This article originally appeared on BikeRadar

Ever dreamed of going pro? For one woman, that dream just became a reality thanks to Zwift, Canyon//SRAM and her hard work.

After 11 months, numerous challenges and intense training, former US Olympic trials marathon runner Leah Thorvilson beat out 1,200 entrants to win a place on the Canyon//SRAM team for 2017 through a talent search programme run by online training program Zwift.

The Zwift Academy, a talent search programme run in partnership between the Canyon//SRAM team and online training program Zwift, was launched in early 2016 to identify cyclists with the potential to go professional.

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Using an online platform such as Zwift is an interesting approach to identifying potential cycling talent, and in many ways was a gamble for Canyon//SRAM.

"Finding talent in cycling is a numbers game, in terms of casting the net wide and drawing performance data back in," said Jon Sharples, founder of TrainSharp and one of the judges on the Zwift Academy programme. "That's what excited us about the Zwift Academy concept. Indoor training provides the accessibility for participants, a safe environment to train and a controlled environment to analyse data, then Zwift adds the social element build a community of riders and spur them on."

From 1,200 to 1

The Academy program was broken down into three stages. The first, an initial sign-up period, gave potential competitors the chance to familiarise themselves with the platform and join regular weekly rides, led by members of the Canyon//SRAM team. Stage two focussed on data screening and talent development, using hard training rides and structured training programmes in the Zwift workout mode.

The third and final stage was broken into two sections. In the first, 12 semi-finalists followed a bespoke training regime with indoor and outdoor riding, with a mentor to guide them through the process. From these, a final three were selected to attend the Canyon//SRAM training camp to allow the team and staff to see how they performed in a team environment.

The three finalists were Jesse Donavan (40) from Vermont, a 3-time Ironman champion with a background in backpacking, running and elite Nordic skiing, Yvonne van Hattum (37) from Holland, currently residing in Dubai, a veteran field hockey player and runner, who discovered cycling in 2015, and the overall winner Leah Thorvilson (37) from Little Rock, Arkansas, a marathon and 2012 US Olympic Marathon Trials competitor who moved to cycling in 2015 as a result of injury.

Introducing the newest member of Canyon//SRAM

At these latter stages, selections were made by a judging panel including Canyon//SRAM Sports Director Beth Duryea, professional Pursuit World Champion Mike McCarthy and TrainSharp founder Jon Sharples. Leah Thorvilson, the rider selected from the final three, leaves the team camp in Majorca with a team-issue Canyon bicycle, team kit produced by Rapha, luggage, and a training and race schedule as she readies herself for her first season as a pro rider.

"It's been an incredible journey and a totally surreal experience," said Thorvilson, who dedicated much of her summer to completing the required group rides and structured training programme. "Prior to ZwiftAcademy, I never would have guessed this was possible. [Finalists] Jessie and Yvonne are tremendous athletes whom I now consider close friends. I'm so grateful for the opportunity, andI can't wait to begin this next chapter with the Canyon//SRAM Racing team."

Canyon//SRAM rider Tiffany Cromwell, one of Thorvilson's new teammates, welcomed her to the team. "It'd be an honor to have any of the Zwift Academy finalists on team for 2017; they've literally put their lives on hold for this opportunity, but Leah distinguished herself in making the final cut," Cromwell said. "Leah is a welcome addition here."

The next step

Missed out in 2016? You'll be pleased to know this wasn't your one and only chance. With all parties overwhelmed with the success of the program, Zwift have confirmed that the Academy will return for 2017.

"When you see an idea really become something, it's an amazing feeling," said Ronny Lauke, Canyon//SRAM Racing team manager. "We took a chance with the Zwift Academy and were very pleased with the potential we saw not only in Leah, but in the other finalists as well. Watching and seeing all these women dedicate themselves to the sport, it makes one wonder how many more are overlooked."

"We knew that Zwift and its community were capable of producing a rider who could race at a World Tour level," said Zwift CEO and founder Eric Min. "But this was only made possible because of Canyon//SRAM Racing. This year was a pilot, and in this respect, our three finalists were true pioneers of their sport."

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