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Q&A: Lea Davison’s long road to mountain bike worlds

After undergoing hip surgery earlier in 2014, Lea Davison fought her way onto the podium at mountain bike world championships

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If you asked Vermont native Lea Davison (Specialized), at the end of January, if she could imagine herself standing on the podium at the mountain bike world championships in September, she’d probably just have laughed. As one of the fastest cross country racers in the world, Davison, 31, has a long list of top results to her name, but her most successful win to date is her recovery from invasive hip surgery earlier this year.

With her 2014 season nearly a wash, Davison bounced back from injury with the support of her family, friends, doctors, and coaches before earning a bronze medal at mountain bike worlds in September.

Velonews caught up with Davison following worlds to recap her hectic year.

VeloNews: What was the extent of your hip injury?
Lea Davison: I started feeling pain in my hip at the beginning of January. My doctor thought it may be bursitis, so I went on a 10-day course of heavy anti-inflammatory medication. The pain didn’t clear up, so I got an MRI and they found a clear tear in the labrum on my right hip. I went in for surgery as soon as possible with Dr. Lighthart at Vermont Orthopedic Clinic in Rutland, Vermont on January 24.

VN: What was the recovery timeline given to you by doctors following surgery?
LD: We thought with an earlier surgery date, I could aim to race the end of the season. Dr. Lighthart said the joint should be healed four months out, so I worked with Bill Knowles, my strength coach and athletic trainer, on recovery and strength training. The doctors wanted me to be on crutches for four weeks, but with Knowles’ training plan, direction, and a ton of hard work, I was walking by two weeks out. The entire process was very aggressive and I had to work on gait training for five months. It doesn’t always come easy …

VN: What was your state of mind, knowing how daunting hip surgery can be?
LD: Well, I had the same surgery in April of 2010 and took the season completely off. My next season, 2011, was my best yet, and I made a huge jump in my career. So, unlike the first time around, I knew I could come back to racing strong eventually. The question was, could I come back to the same level of racing where I left off in 2013, halfway through the 2014 season? This was a complete unknown. So, I just put my head down and worked as hard as I could and kept my fingers crossed. But, when I was clicking around on crutches or working on walking correctly, it’s a bit of a mystery how exactly this could happen. My coach kept telling me, he wasn’t worried. Bill Knowles, and my cycling coach, Andy Bishop, had a plan and really believed that I could have some great results in the second half of the season.

I definitely had my doubts, but all I could do was my best. 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, Specialized, Clif Bar, Oakley, and L.L. Bean stuck with me through this bumpy road. This support really makes a big positive impact in 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.

VN: What was the recovery like?
LD: In the beginning, for the first couple of months, I would literally spend all day working on recovery. I would wake up, do a strength and range of motion workout. Then, I drove to physical therapy and got manual work.  After that, I would drive to the pool and do strength and range of motion workout in the warmer pool where all the kids played. I would drive home and do my last workout of the day. It was harder and more involved than ‘normal’ training on the bike. My biggest threat during this initial phase of recovery was slipping while crutching around on the ice or slipping on the way to the pool. Luckily, I had ice picks on my crutches and my girlfriend, Jojo, to give me a piggyback over all of the slippery surfaces and drop me into the pool. I spent some time spinning on the trainer, but it was very limited. I started at 10 minutes and worked my way up to two sessions of 20 minutes.

VN: What about getting back outside and on the bike?
LD: I went out to Santa Barbara for a USAC women’s mountain bike skills camp in early March and this was my first time riding outside. It was for 30 minutes, flat, easiest gear in the sunshine, and I was so happy. I was feeling great, pain was decreasing, and my hopes were growing. But, right at the two month post-surgery mark, I started to have pain and my range of motion decreased pretty significantly. So, this was a major setback. I went from thinking I was going to be fully on bike training in early April to having to take the whole week of Sea Otter off of everything to try to reduce pain. I really started training on the bike in earnest [1.5-2 hour ride with a climb] in late May.

VN: And racing, when did you feel ready to tie on a number again?
LD: I did my first mountain bike race back at the ProXCT in Missoula, Montana, and I was proud of my result. I still wasn’t anywhere near my form in 2013, and I would still have pain when I came back from a two-hour ride. Then, my coach had the brilliant idea of doing the seven-day mountain bike stage race, the BC Bike Race at the end of June. From that point on, my hip stopped hurting and I gained valuable fitness. It was like ripping off the band-aid and condensing my cycling base into seven days. At the BC Bike Race, the goal 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 leaders jersey. 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. I raced myself into the ground and 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.

VN: What does it mean to podium and have your best-ever result at worlds with such a hard and hectic year?
LD: 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. With all the hard work I put it 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. When I told Benno, the Specialized team manager, the news back in January that I would have to have hip surgery and miss the first half of the season. He said, “I don’t care about the World Cups or anything. Do whatever you need to do to be good at the world championships.” When he said that, I thought, “Well, that would be nice, but it’s also a bit crazy.” To be able to bring home a bronze, it’s almost unbelievable. I just keep looking that this medal and thinking, “Wow, this is actually mine. I did it.”