Erica Tingey rocking and rolling
It definitely wasn't the "safe" choice. She hadn't ridden her mountain bike in years. The baby -- an armful of wiggle, cute as a new mother's day is long -- was only 18 months old. She could blame the decision on "mommybrain." Or sleep deprivation. Or the fact that the baby weight was not coming off, and she missed her old body -- once an athlete, always an athlete -- and the way it could move.
Whatever the case, when her husband suggested she enter her first mountain bike race, Erica Tingey cast aside her better judgment and dusted off her old bike.
That "Why not?" decision to race in St. George, Utah, would change her life.
"For some reason -- I wish I could remember what I was thinking -- I just went for it," Tingey said of that 2010 milestone. "I raced in the sport category and won … by eight minutes. That was the moment I was hooked."
Call it love at first race. She had entered a few road races before she got pregnant, but they were nothing like this. There was the pain, yes -- the same burning lungs, the same on-fire legs -- but there was also the mental challenge of weaving her tires through roots and over rocks, the adrenaline rush of giving into gravity. On her bike, the other roles she gladly played in life -- mother, wife, daughter, friend -- fell away for a moment, and she was just Erica.
The next race, Tingey "catted up" to the Expert category. Despite bonking like crazy, she had a blast. Lesson learned, she cleaned up her diet, trained more and kept racing. By the end of her first three months, she was able to hang with the local pro field. The following spring, she raced at the Bonelli Park Pro XCT as a Cat 1 racer -- the top amateur rank -- and won by a long shot, earning her official pro license.
She had found a new career. And, as a nice side effect, her old body was not only back, but stronger than ever.
"By the end of that first summer, I'd dropped 25 pounds," said Tingey, now 35. "and I've released another 10 since then."
That her career as a professional mountain bike racer was born shortly after her son was makes Tingey appreciate her unexpected path even more. Currently ranked No. 3 on the Pro Mountain Bike Cross Country Tour, the former competitive swimmer is grateful to have found her calling, if almost by accident.
"Sometimes I come home from a ride close to tears because I feel so good on my bike," she said. "I feel so lucky to have found something that fits me so perfectly. I truly feel like I'm living the life I was meant to."
That said, it's not easy. It's a balancing act. Training and recovery. Race time (read: income) and family time. Travel and housework. Some weeks, it seems like she's unpacking her bags into the washing machine and packing right out of the dryer. Race season -- February to August -- means traveling nationwide about every other weekend. Most weekends involve two or three races, and then it's home to catch up on all of the normal-life stuff. Bills. Laundry. Cooking. Sleep. Especially sleep.
"I come home from racing pretty spent," Tingey said. "Add to that the travel, and I need some serious recovery time. It takes a few days of napping to catch up to feeling normal again."
At home, Tingey builds her training time around her son's schedule. An easygoing kid with his mother's blond hair and bright smile, he's by her side as much as possible. They ride bikes in the driveway, go on family hikes, cook healthy meals together.
"I ride my bike when he is at preschool," Tingey said. "If I haven't gotten my core work done before he wakes up, then he'll play with trains or Legos right next to me while I do my workout. We've really come to enjoy this time together."
Many factors produce a successful pro athlete. Training. Nutrition. Hydration. Technique. The most important for Tingey, though, is family.
"I'm able to travel, race and train so much because I have the support of my husband and family," she said. "While my husband is at work, my parents do 90 percent of the babysitting. I also have lots of other family members on both sides who will babysit. Without all of them, there is no way I could be chasing my dream like I am."
If there's one life lesson to be learned from mountain biking, it is this: There will be obstacles along your path. How you get over them defines you.
Last June, a week before the World Cup, Tingey crashed hard during a race in Colorado Springs. Broken ribs and a collapsed lung sent her to the hospital for four days. After having surgery to re-inflate her bruised lung, she faced a new kind of hurt: Her season was over, and she wouldn't race at worlds.
"The following weeks were really painful, mentally and physically," she said. "I was at a complete loss for days, and pretty much frozen, since moving in any direction hurt."
Then something good happened along the road to recovery. Her coach introduced her to Dallas and Melissa Hartwig, authors of the book "It Starts with Food," which extols their "Whole30" nutrition plan based on the Paleo diet. Tingey saw it not as a diet, but as a way of eating that focused on whole foods, healthy fats, naturally raised meats and plenty of vegetables -- foods she hoped would help her performance and recovery. She gave it a try and found she preferred racing on "clean fuel." Now she eats sweet potatoes for breakfast.
Tingey rarely thinks about The Crash anymore. You can't ride to win if you're riding not to fall. And she's too busy looking forward -- she's racing in the final Pro XCT event of the year this weekend in Vermont and in a World Cup race in Quebec on Aug. 10 -- and enjoying the present. Nearly every race photo beams with teeth. Is it a grimace or a grin?
"It's a smile. I love racing my bike!" she said. "When I'm racing, it may hurt, but I love the hurt, the whole process and experience."
Tingey talks a lot about chasing her dream. Her Big One? Olympics 2016.
It's bold, sure. She'll turn 39 during the Rio Summer Games. Back when she was a young swimmer, she set her heart on making the Olympic team. At 14 though, for various reasons, she had to give up on swimming. But the dream never died.
"There are many hurdles I don't have solutions to, but it's my dream," she said. "I never thought I'd make it this far five years ago, so why not just keep dreaming big?"