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Nystrom: From the streets of Costa Rica to making cyclo-cross Worlds history

Felipe Nystrom (Costa Rica) after the World Championships in Arkansas
Felipe Nystrom (Costa Rica) after the World Championships in Arkansas (Image credit: Cyclingnews)

On lap five of the elite men's race at the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships, seconds before the arrival of eventual winner Tom Pidcock (Great Britain), the slight figure of a man the red jersey of Costa Rica was flagged down by the race official and pulled from the race before he could be lapped.

While most riders would be disappointed to have a forced early exit from the biggest race in cyclo-cross, 38-year-old Felipe Nystrom was the exact opposite. He let out a whoop of elation when he learned he would be given an official placing and radiated pure joy as he rode away from the course in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

His official placing was dead last but Nystrom didn't care - he was alive. Nine years ago he made the last of a desperate string of suicide attempts while in a spiral of drug and alcohol addiction and living on the streets in Costa Rica.

He'd overcome so much adversity just to get to the start line that just being there to make history as Costa Rica's first entrant at 'cross Worlds was a victory in itself.

"It was amazing," Nystrom tells Cyclingnews. "I wanted to make it to five laps and I made it to five laps."

Nystrom, 38, was the only Latin American in the race, and he and Mexicans Isaac del Toro and Carlos Garcia, who competed in the under-23 race, were the only riders from the Americas that weren't from Canada or the US.

"It's a real honour to be able to toe the start line with the calibre of riders that were in this field, and in a discipline that isn't traditionally Costa Rican," Nystrom said.

"Despite the result, I made history as the first Costa Rican to ever race a (cyclo-cross) World Championship and the only Latin American here [in the elites]. Hopefully, at some point, there's a [young kid] seeing this is possible and will actually be good at this, and in five or ten years we'll see more and more coming from Latin America."

Nystrom gave an extensive and deeply personal interview with the Bike Portland podcast in December when he was raising funds to travel to Belgium for the World Cups. He spoke about his troubled childhood, and how he was traumatised by physical and sexual abuse, and by bullying from his schoolmates.

Nine years ago, he was living on the streets in Costa Rica and "After my last suicide attempt, I made a deal with myself that if I was alive the next day, I would do something about it.

"There was something about that night: when I was brought back by the paramedics, something was different," Nystrom explained to Cyclingnews.

He was afraid he would slide back into addiction and depression if he stayed in Costa Rica and when he had a chance to move to Portland, he took it.

"I went to treatment then moved to the US to get a fresh start but I didn't really know how to make friends like normal people because for me it was always in a bar, drunk and high."

So he turned to sports. As a child, he had played soccer and had dreams of road racing, so once he found a stable job in Portland as a medical interpreter, he turned to sports as a way to meet people.

After trying triathlon but finding the swims in the Oregon water to be way too cold, he started racing on the road and took to the sport so fast he climbed from the beginner category 5 to the category 1 elite in a single season. By 2019, he won the Costa Rica national road championships.

Cyclo-cross is new for Nystrom, which explains his self-effacing assessment of his skills, but he has been dogged in his effort to make it to the World Championships.

"A year ago I found out that Worlds was going to be in Fayetteville, and I wasn't going to be getting a call to the road national team, so I figured this was the way to represent my country."

After racing in six World Cups and the Pan-American Championships, he finally achieved his goal. The fact that he technically finished, even if it was in last place, was a personal victory and a legacy and lesson in determination that he can pass onto his son.

These free helplines can offer round the clock assistance for anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts. In the UK, contact Samaritans.org or call 116 123. In the US call 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) or visit https://yourlifecounts.org/find-help to find your local hotline.

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Laura Weislo has been with Cyclingnews since 2006 after making a switch from a career in science. As Deputy Editor, she coordinates coverage for North American events and global news. A former elite-level road racer who dabbled in cyclo-cross and track, Laura has a passion for all three disciplines. When not working she likes to go camping and explore lesser traveled roads, paths and gravel tracks.