She admits that, for one week, she let herself fall apart. Leah Thorvilson’s Olympic aspirations were over. Her life as a runner was over, most likely. So she got on a bike, and in only 12 months, she rode her way into a professional contract with a WorldTour team, Canyon – SRAM.
“I feel very blessed. I feel like I’ve been given a second shot. Maybe I was built for this all along,” she says, a few days after earning her spot on the team at training camp in Mallorca, Spain.
Thorvilson’s road to the WorldTour is unlike any other. Online indoor cycling app Zwift announced Zwift Academy earlier in 2016, a competition to discover a new, talented rider for the Canyon – SRAM team (and, of course, generate publicity for the increasingly popular company). Thorvilson was the last woman standing, after a summer of indoor workouts at 4 a.m. before her day job.
But as unconventional as that talent search was, it’s overshadowed by Thorvilson’s backstory.
The 37-year-old became an elite marathoner after running track and cross-country while studying at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where she works as a director of development and external relations.
Her results sheet from about 2004 to 2014 is mind-boggling. You’d need to spend some time counting the “1s” to tally her victories. Her marathon personal record was a blistering 2:39:43 from a 2011 race in Minnesota. In some strange way, that June day was one of Thorvilson’s first steps toward cycling and Canyon – SRAM.
With that run, she qualified for the 2012 Olympic trials marathon, in January. The trials held in Texas were disastrous. She ran a 2:42:09 and was 55th, although Thorvilson admits that she knew subconsciously that an Olympic bid was always a bit overly optimistic.
“When I went to the Olympic trials … I knew I didn’t have a shot,” she says. “It would take me having the race of my life and 10 people having an off-day to have a shot at making top-three. It was literally — nothing is impossible, you never know when you’re going to surprise yourself — but it wasn’t really realistic.”
After the trials, she told Competitor magazine, “I got really, really down, not on how the race panned out but how you put so much stock into something and now it’s over.”
So Thorvilson did what most elite athletes do after a letdown: She attacked the rest of her 2012 races. “It’s kind of a go nuts kind of year,” she said in 2012.
She won 10 races in a row, including six marathons and a 50-miler, the latter she won outright, faster than all of the men as well. That feeding frenzy of punishing races was “the beginning of the end,” Thorvilson admits. First she tore a hamstring, requiring surgery in 2013. This led to knee problems and she went through two surgeries: a bone graft on her femur and a fix for a torn meniscus.
That’s when the doctors gave her the news. That’s when she realized that her life as an elite runner, perhaps any sort of runner, was over. “It was an earth-shattering thing for me,” she says. “Running completely had become my identity. If I’m not a runner, what am I?
“The only plan I knew was ‘I guess I’m gonna get on a bike.’ From the first day I went out and got on a bike I fell in love with it. I never thought I’d find something I’d love as much as running.”
Thorvilson is acutely aware, however, of the quantum leap between simply loving cycling and being able to race professionally. She admits that, among the national and world champions at the Canyon – SRAM team camp, she felt intimidated, self-aware, and acutely concerned about riding safely in the group.
The team’s returning pros took it upon themselves to give Thorvilson pointers. Alexis Ryan gave her tips on drafting efficiently. Pauline Ferrand-Prévot sat up on the descents to coach Thorvilson through corners. On the last day, Lisa Brennauer dropped back and encouraged her soon-to-be teammate, saying, “You’ve done a lot better,” according to Thorvilson, who adds, “They were very kind.”
Once the numbers are pinned on, pro cyclists are anything but kind, so fans will have to wait and see if Thorvilson will be able to make it in the pro peloton. Between her natural gifts as an endurance athlete and her innate understanding of the demands made by a professional lifestyle, it seems like she has a fighting chance.