Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the December 2014 issue of Velo magazine, the annual awards issue.
In January, she was unconscious, lying on a table in Vermont, a labrum tear to her right hip being surgically repaired. In September she was overjoyed, standing on a podium in Hafjell, Norway, a bronze medalist at the world cross-country championship.
For Lea Davison, the 2014 season didn’t just deliver the best result of her career — it was a glimpse into the realm of what is possible, a test of the mental as much as the physical.
Following surgery, Davison had to first learn how to walk correctly again, before thinking about pedaling a bike. Exercise amounted to crutching around her house, or range-of-motion exercises in a local pool. Her first ride back was in Santa Barbara, at a USA Cycling women’s mountain-bike skills camp in early March, where she pedaled the granny gear for 30 minutes. Increased pain in April forced her to take a week completely off the bike, missing the Sea Otter Classic. She didn’t truly begin training until late May.
The turning point in her season, Davison said, was the technical and difficult seven-day B.C. Bike Race, in June. She came away from that event with the form needed to defend her national XC championship, ahead of Georgia Gould (Luna).
“The goal at B.C. Bike Race was just to ride, but I was so excited about racing again that I went for the win on the first stage and got the leader’s jersey,” Davison said. “Then, I was locked in a tight battle for the overall with Wendy Simms the whole week. I raced myself into the ground, but I ended up with the win, by a mere one minute after 18 hours of racing … and I couldn’t really breathe. My diaphragm was completely cramped by the end because I hadn’t breathed that much in over a year. It was a gamble with the race ending two weeks before the national championships. Luckily, it paid off.”
A national championship medal is not the same as one from a world championship, but there were indications that Davison was returning to world-class form. A fourth-place at the Mont-Sainte-Anne cross-country race in August tied her career-best at a World Cup. But for a rider who was ecstatic to finish 11th at the 2012 Olympic Games, a podium finish in Hafjell was well beyond expectations.
“It means the world to me. When I came down that finish straight at the world championships with a bronze medal, it was like I had won that race,” Davison said. “With all the hard work I put in, to go from crutches in January to getting the best result of my career, it gives it even more meaning. It was literally like my wildest dream had come true.”
Davison, 31, had been through a similar surgery in April 2010, forcing her to miss the rest of that season, and rebounding with a 2011 season that was, at the time, her best to date. Still, this time around, there was no guarantee that she’d be competitive midway through the same season in which she had the surgery.
“I definitely had my doubts, but all I could do was my best,” Davison said. “An experience like this really has a way of making me focus on the things in my control. It was so easy to focus on what everyone else was doing, all of the base miles my competitors were putting in, all of the races everyone did from March to July. But, I absolutely couldn’t. I couldn’t focus on results. My only focus was to do everything in my power to heal my hip, get back on the bike, and feel back to normal. Luckily, all of my sponsors stuck with me through this bumpy road. That support really makes a big positive impact during a time like this. Look what can happen when there’s a good support network around an athlete combined with hard work — so much is possible.”