Amber Neben puts new spin on adversity
Amber Neben, a two-time Olympian, world champion and national champion, is arguably one of the toughest women in professional cycling, if not all of sport. On May 17 at the Tour of California time trial, Neben suffered a crash that left her with broken ribs, a fractured hip and shoulder damage. Yet for all she's endured, broken bones are relatively low on her list of obstacles. From meningitis and cancer to crashes and surgeries, Neben, 38, has clawed her way back to the top more than once. It's fitting the professional cyclist for the Pasta Zara Cogeas team also runs a charity to help others through adversity. The Dare to Be Project is a nonprofit organization geared toward helping homeless and underserved youth embrace adversity, assist in setting life goals and teach the freedom and responsibility that comes with owning bikes.
Kathryn Bertine for espnW: There are all kinds of cycling-related charities. What inspired you to work with underserved and homeless youth, and why is this important to you?
Amber Neben (AN):The crash from my Tour of California time trial and my comeback from it is the perfect example of the idea behind The Dare to Be Project. … My road to becoming a world champion and an Olympian wasn't easy, so I understand how hard life can be and what it means to have a goal and overcome adversity. I'd like to think sport is a microcosm for life; all those things I've been through have taught me and given me skills I'd like to be able to share and use to inspire these kids who are in tough situations. They have their whole lives in front of them, and they might be going through a really tough time, but it doesn't mean they can't achieve their own personal goals or change the trajectory of their family path. I wanted to involve bikes because cycling is what I do. I'm a professional cyclist. That's my gift; that's my trade. Giving bikes and helmets to these kids is fun, but to me the real value is having the chance to interact with them and try to give them the intangible lessons they're going to need in this life.
espnW: What are some of the tougher challenges you've faced on your athletic journey?
AN: I've been through almost everything one can go through in the sporting world: stress fractures, knee surgeries, then I had to battle through a contaminated supplement ordeal and deal with something that was really unfair and unjust [Neben served a six-month provisional suspension in 2003.] Then there was the cancer [diagnosed with melanoma in 2007] that I faced and a series of really serious crashes resulting in surgeries and major comebacks in the pursuit of trying to make the Olympic teams. Even when I was 4 years old, there were challenges -- I had spinal meningitis. I've had a path littered with obstacles and challenges!
espnW: What do you want the kids of Dare to Be to glean from your experiences and why are you the right person to lead the charge?
AN: I think it is really important to understand life is often not easy and everyone faces challenges and adversity. It is not if, it is when. And when this happens, how will you respond? The kids can control their attitudes and their effort; they can choose to work hard and make good decisions; they can choose to pick themselves up and fight on. It is my goal to impact and inspire.
espnW: The reality of cycling is it's an expensive sport. Providing free bikes must come with some challenges. How do you overcome this hurdle as a charity, and is your intent to get kids into racing?
AN: The bikes we supply aren't race bikes; they're lower-end bikes that are intended to do a couple different things. Often these kids are overweight, so the bikes are primarily for exercise and to get outside so the kids have a chance to be healthy. Also, the bikes give them the tool to get back and forth to school or to work, as a mode of transportation. Most important, though, the bike is something that is their own. Before I give a kid a bike, I ask them questions like "What does this bike mean to you?" So many times the answer is, "I've never had anything of my own." Suddenly they have something that is theirs, and it's new and they have to take responsibility for it. So, these bikes let these kids know that they are valued and loved and cared about. I think it means a ton to these kids when someone can do this for them. From a cost standpoint, sure, I'm not buying the high-end bikes, but Dare to Be is able to give them something new. We just maximize our budget the best we can.
espnW: Are you able to keep in touch with the kids who receive bikes?
AN: Sometimes I get letters and notes from families, but oftentimes it's a transient community we're working with. In addition, there are confidentiality issues with many of the shelters. But with some of the schools we work with, we can -- and do -- follow up.
espnW: While the ethnicity of elite-level racing in the U.S. is predominantly white, all children relate to the joy of riding a bike. Do you feel you're up against any challenges when it comes to keeping kids involved in cycling?
AN: I think cycling transcends ethnicity. We don't look much at the ethnic side of it ... we're just looking for kids we can help. My bigger goal is to get them to "dare to be" something or do something with their life. I don't care what it might be … I just want them to start to think "What kind of skills do I have? What do I like to do? What do I gravitate toward?" We want them to identify their skills and passions. My bigger goal with my projects isn't to get kids to race, but to take care of themselves and talk to them about perseverance and adversity. They've got to set a goal and want to be somebody.
espnW: Give us some specific examples of the rewards of working with kids and bikes. What's the emotional return you've received?
AN: In the first years when we were giving these bikes to the kids, we'd look up and see the parents in tears because they can't [provide bikes] for their kids. It's the most powerful thing when you see the parents weep for joy for their kids. ... I remember one kid, about 16 or 17, and he'd been struggling trying to get a scholarship to a culinary school, and now with the bicycle, he was able to get back and forth to the school. Knowing you're a small part of that is pretty cool.
espnW: In addition to structuring The Dare To Be Project as a community service outreach, you've also created a platform to help new racers get their start in the pro peloton by creating a Dare to Be cycling team at some elite-level races. As a pro athlete actively racing and concurrently running a charity, how do you balance giving back to others while moving your own goals forward?
AN: For me, it is difficult to do them both, but it's worth it. I'm just constantly thinking of ways to get the word out about Dare to Be, and I try to inspire others to help. At Redlands Bicycle Classic, I saw that I could do two things: I could invite young riders to come race with me -- just as someone did for me 15 years ago -- and I can reach out to the community and help others, too. It inspired the idea going forward, where hopefully I can do races and events across the country. When you have a chance to work with young riders and mentor them, it's pretty powerful. I like to be able to push the idea of being a well-rounded person, and that life doesn't have to revolve around you. It's much more fun when you can impact others' lives. That makes the world a better place.
espnW: Your recent crash at the Tour of California has you sidelined for the majority of the year and surely facing the challenges of recovery and comeback. Where do you find your strength and patience?
AN: This crash and injury certainly isn't the first obstacle I've had to overcome. I draw my strength from my faith in Christ. For me, it's been a constant. The picture I like to use is when you envision a lighthouse out on a rock in the middle of a hurricane out in the ocean … that lighthouse isn't going anywhere, it's still going to be there after the storm. My faith is my rock and foundation. When the storms of life come -- yes, it's terrible when you're in the middle it -- but it doesn't last forever. So right now I'm just in the middle of one of those challenges. Something very good is going to come of it -- every time that's been the case. I just have to trust in that.
espnW: What do you dare to be?
AN: I just want to be the best steward of my talents that I can be, and to share my experiences with others. Hopefully I can encourage and inspire.
Learn more about Amber Neben's The Dare To Be Project.