Lea Davison was on the beach on the Hawaiian island of Kauai last week when someone tweeted congratulations.
“For what?!” thought the 28-year-old mountain biker.
For being nominated to USA Cycling’s 2012 Olympic long team, she realized. On December 1, USA Cycling named its 2012 Olympic long team and Davison’s name was on the list.
The announcement, however, was not entirely a surprise. Davison had a breakout season in 2011 on mountain biking’s world stage, culminating with a tenth place and top American finish at the 2011 UCI World Mountain Biking Championships in Champery, Switzerland, on September 3.
This result alone automatically qualified her for the 2012 Olympic long team. She also finished top 10 in two World Cups in August and was the top ranked rider in USA Cycling’s Pro XCT series — two other qualification criteria.
“But it’s always good to have it written, to have it official,” she said.
Now Davison is gearing up to officially make the short list, and her momentum from last season could carry her there — to be one of two U.S. women competing in the Olympic mountain bike cross-country race in London next August.
It won’t be easy — even for Davison, who always seems to smile, even when she’s racing. She will be competing for those two spots with 2008 Olympians Georgia Gould and Mary McConneloug, two-time world championship bronze medalist Willow (Koerber) Rockwell (due this month with her first child), two-time world cyclo-cross championship medalist Katie Compton, and former national champion Heather Irmiger, who finished right behind Davison at 2011 Worlds.
To automatically make the final team — which will be named June 15, 2012 — riders have to finish in the top three at least once in the first four 2012 World Cup races.
“The tricky thing is literally five of us could be on that podium,” said Davison. “It’s whoever brings their A game.”
And thanks to a hip injury, Davison has a whole new A game.
Davison’s Olympic dreams were born in the mountains of Vermont, where she grew up with younger sister Sabra. Except they were alpine skiers, not cyclists.
In the summer, the two girls ran, rode bikes, and did whatever else they could find around their home in Jericho, which sits in the shadow of Mt. Mansfield, Vermont’s highest peak.
In high school, Davison was twice the Vermont state cross-country running champion, and she and Sabra — two years her junior, though they look like twins — captained their team to a pair of state titles.
Then a boyfriend encouraged Davison to try mountain biking. That summer, between her junior and senior year, she started racing on Wednesday evenings at the Catamount Outdoor Center in nearby Williston.
A year later, she represented the U.S. at the 2001 UCI Junior Mountain Bike World Championships, finishing seventh.
That fall, Davison entered Middlebury College and joined the Panther’s nationally ranked ski team. Freshman year, she won the Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Conference slalom title, defeating at least one former U.S. Ski Team member in the process. Two weeks later, she finished 12th in slalom at the NCAA Ski Championships — two-tenths-of-a-second from All-American status.
A torn ACL in her knee after NCAAs derailed her alpine ski career. Though she continued to race for the Middlebury ski team, she never returned to her previous level, perhaps because her focus had shifted to mountain biking. Her junior year, she won the national collegiate mountain biking title and turned pro before she graduated in 2005.
The following season, the Davison sisters (Sabra also got into mountain biking) were competing at a local race when they looked around and realized that girls weren’t keeping pace with the growing sport.
“There would be five or 10 girls versus 100 to 120 junior boys who would roll up to the start line,” said Davison. “We were like: ‘This is a problem.’”
So was born Little Bellas, a mountain bike mentoring program for girls ages 8-14. Since 2006, it has grown from a Sunday afternoon program to include weeklong summer camps at the Catamount Outdoor Center, as well as camps that coincide with the Sea Otter Classic race in California and a mountain bike festival in Wisconsin. The girls ride obstacle courses, tell jokes, cruise around on singletrack trails, and play games like “Dab” (dab your foot to the ground and you’re out). Davison thinks of new games while flying to/from races.
“The more girls we see riding bikes with smiles on their faces, the happier it makes us,” said Davison, though it’s hard to imagine her any happier.
While Little Bellas grew, so did Davison’s mountain biking career. She competed in two world championships (2007 and 2008), and in 2009, finally climbed into the top 15 at a couple of World Cups. But before the 2010 season, she tweaked her labrum while skiing, then tore it weightlifting over the Holidays.
The labrum is a ring of cartilage that surrounds the hip joint socket and helps keep the femur head inside the socket.
Unable to ride without pain, Davison had hip surgery on April 30, 2010, then began rehabbing with Bill Knowles at iSport in Killington, Vermont.
Emphasizing functional strength, Knowles is renowned for helping world-class athletes return to their sports stronger than when injuries benched them. Olympic gold medalists Hannah Teter and Hannah Kearney are among his clients.
Knowles developed a training plan where Davison does rounds of exercises involving resistance bands, balance, and core strength.
She credits the program for her strong season. And her coach agrees.
“That’s been my whole focus with [Lea],” said Andy Bishop, a former pro cyclist who raced the Tour de France four times before switching to mountain biking. “That was her weak point, she needed to develop power.”
During her latest session with Knowles in October, Davison trained so hard that she had to walk backwards down stairs for three days.
“That’s good!” said Bishop.
Now, after several weeks riding and hiking in Hawaii, Davison is feeling stronger than ever and ready to pedal into 2012.
The first World Cup race is March 17. And Bishop thinks the podium is well within Davison’s grasp.
“If she can keep her strength and power build-up going, momentum is in her favor,” he said. “Finishing last season well gave her confidence that [the podium] is possible.”
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.