Q&A: Erin Huck’s comeback is aimed at the Tokyo Olympics

In May, Erin Huck broke her ankle, derailing her World Cup campaign. Now the American is aiming her comeback at the 2020 Olympics.

Erin Huck’s 2019 racing campaign began with the worst of breaks.

Huck, one of the country’s top cross-country mountain bike racers, opened her racing campaign with the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo firmly in her sights. Having such a goal committed Huck to a summer spent chasing UCI points on the World Cup series, where all but one of the races take place in Europe.

So, in May, Huck traveled to Albstadt, Germany, for the World Cup opener. While pre-riding the course, she took a tumble on a rocky section of the course and fractured her ankle. The injury required three surgeries, and all but ended Huck’s season.

She has yet to return to racing and still walks with a limp. The setback, however, has not ended Huck’s ambitions to qualify for the Olympics. Indeed, when VeloNews caught up with Huck, Tokyo 2020 was very much still on her mind.

VN: How would you describe the pain from this ankle fracture?

Erin Huck: I broke my hand last year and neither fracture hurt. You have enough adrenaline, so it wasn’t physical pain, but I knew I had broken something bad. So there was definitely a huge amount of despair when I realized that—oh shit—I just did that. But then the pain set in after that with surgery.

VN: And what about the emotional fallout from this injury?

EH: There were a lot of reasons why, at the time, it was pretty devastating. The biggest one was that I felt like I was in the shape of my life. Kate [Courtney] and I had been racing neck-and-neck all spring, and I was sick of getting second place to her, but I was also racing with her. Then I hurt myself.

So, to then see her go on and win the World Cups, and to see Chloe [Woodruff] win the short track was like, I knew I had been right there. I felt like I had been taken out of that opportunity. That was one heartbreak. And then, the [UCI] points is another concern. Kate is a rock star and is racking up the points, and I did a fair amount of work to rack up the points last fall and into the spring, and Chloe has done a lot, too. We built up a nice surplus, but now the other countries are catching up.

VN: How do you work through an emotional setback like this?

EH: I had broken my hand last summer so I had already experienced a bad injury that had taken me out of racing that had offset some of my goals for that season, so I knew what it had taken to come back from that. When I knew it was broken, I kept saying, ‘I can’t do this again. I can’t do this I can’t do this.’ But after I had the first surgery in Germany I woke up, and was like, ‘Ok I can do this. I have a plan and I still have time.’ And I realized how much I love the sport, and it brings so much happiness and fulfills me in such a way that nothing else ever could. It was only a matter of when I’d come back. Not if I could come back.

VN: Earlier this year USA Cycling released its criteria for qualifying for the 2020 Olympics. What were your initial opinions on the criteria upon its release?

EH: I had mixed thoughts, honestly. I think I had assumed it would have been more about consistency. And there is a [qualification] criteria, which is top 10 for the World Cup overall for this season. That is a consistency metric, if you will. But the thing I appreciate about the criteria is that I feel as though all four of us who have been targeted as the potential [Olympians] has the potential to automatically qualify. Before this criteria, you had to get a top-three finish, and that’s it, and that is hard to do. Bad luck can ruin that for you. And now it’s a top-8 which is completely attainable for any four of us. It gives you an attainable goal, but it will make it tricky because all four of us could qualify.

VN: You, Chloe, and Lea Davison were all regular competitors, and then Kate Courtney burst onto the scene and is now winning World Cups. What impact did Kate’s rapid rise have on you?

I think it’s awesome. I got to know Kate when we were at our first Pan-American championships in Argentina. We were roommates. She was a junior and I was racing elites. We weren’t sure about the food we were being served. She brought a packet of tuna fish, and I brought a packet of rice, and we had this camp food meal, and that was the first time I got to know her. And since then my impression hasn’t changed. She’s positive and confident, but also humble and encouraging. She’s had a lot of support through her career, and that has shown in how good she is, and it shows what good support can do also.

You look at our competitors, and there are certain aspects of each woman I really admire and try to emulate as much as I can. And for Kate, it has been her tenacity and her mental fearlessness. You can tell when she races that she’s used to winning. She has the skills, the hard work, the genetic skills. She was winning as a junior and U-23, and now she’s winning as an elite. And I think there is a sense of confidence and fearlessness that you have when you’re used to racing at the front. And I really appreciate that, instead of sitting in, she’s like ‘no, I’m going hard, and may the best woman win.’

VN: What impact has Kate’s success had on the mentality of you and the other American women?

EH: It’s similar to what you saw with the four minute mile—once somebody breaks that barrier, then all of a sudden everyone is capable of breaking that barrier. Seeing Kate win Worlds, it’s like, ‘Why can’t Chloe win a World Cup?’ So, Chloe goes out and wins a World Cup short track. If you asked her two years ago if she would be on a podium she’d say ‘maybe.’ But having somebody blaze the path has made us all feel that ok, let’s do this. If she can do it, we can be right there.