Bobby Lea has been fending for himself since he was 15, but not really.
He might have moved more than two hours away from home, lived alone in a converted schoolhouse and competed for Penn State in cycling before he had to seriously worry about shaving, but his family was never far — at least in heart.
“It’s not the geographic proximity of how close you are, it’s how close you are emotionally,” Lea said.
Friday night, the family was together in all ways at the Valley Preferred Cycling Center velodrome in Trexlertown, Pa., celebrating Lea being nominated once again to the U.S. Olympic Team in track cycling for the omnium spot, a six-event race format testing skill, endurance and guts. Rob, Tracy and Syd — Lea’s father, mother and brother — had waited most the day for the official announcement, which is subject to the approval of the U.S. Olympic Committee.
“Bobby told me four years ago that he was going to do it, and I said,‘Gee this will be hard.’ ” Tracy Lea said. “People talked that he of-course would make the team, but I wanted to hear it officially. I wanted it in black and white and wanted it to be real. And now, here we are tonight with our extended cycling family. It’s so exciting.”
This was the day Lea, 28, has been training for since he returned home from the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, where he finished 16th in the Madison, one of the omnium events. His performance since has been elevated in a great way — he has won four U.S. championships in the past four years. He has also placed 14th and 15th in two different 2011 World Cup events. And he qualified the United States for the omnium spot in the Olympic Games.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that from the time I got off the plane from Beijing, I had my eye on London,” he said. “For a while you quit thinking about making the team on a daily basis, but I’ve thought about going to London every day for the last year.”
Twenty-four athletes were nominated to the U.S. Cycling Olympic team, in road, track, mountain and BMX over the weekend.
Lea has only one male track teammate, Jimmy Watkins, 30, a full-time firefighter from Bakersfield, Calif., who will compete in the men’s sprint. Four women were named in the track discipline, including Sarah Hammer, who qualified automatically and who will race in the women’s omnium. She will join in the team pursuit with Dotsie Bausch, Jennie Reed and Lauren Tamayo.
In road cycling, five men and four women made the team, including Tyler Farrar, who finished 10th last year at the world championships, and Taylor Phinney, who was chosen to compete also in the time trial. For the women, 2008 gold medalist Kristin Armstrong will compete in the road and time trial, the latter of which she dominated this year.
Mountain biking will be represented by two men and two women, including rookie Sam Schultz, who has the top American world cup average finish this year. BMX will have a team of three men and two women, with David Herman and Arielle Martin the top-ranked athletes in the power rankings. Qualifying in BMX this past weekend are Connor Fields, Nic Long and Alise Post.
“I think what’s important for people to understand is what the athletes have to do to get there,” said Tracy Lea, Bobby’s mother. “Between Olympics, it’s years of competition, travel, training and a lot of stress. USA Cycling has been very supportive, and that’s made it so much easier.”
Lea was 15 when he knew a change had to come. His family lived in Maryland on a family farm, and there was a relative who was making Bobby’s life miserable.
“Bobby had to leave; he had to move and we couldn’t,” Tracy said. “We had to get him away and we were stuck — we couldn’t sell our house and go. So there were a lot issues and it was very complicated and not my first choice. We went through some very rough times, but we are a close family and it wasn’t easy, but we came through it.”
Leaving home, alone, was kind-of huge. He was a high school sophomore, he played soccer and he had friends. Tracy arranged for Bobby to get his GED and he enrolled in the Lehigh Valley campus of Penn State in the cycling program with a coach they knew.
“It hit a tipping point and we thought it was best for me to get out of the situation,” Lea said. “It was a big jump, but an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything.
“When I was in high school talking with my friends about the move, a lot of them didn’t know what to make of it. A couple said that high school was supposed to be the best four years of your life, and I had two reactions to that. One was, that’s kind of a drag, surely, it gets better. And the other was that I knew people out of high school who weren’t saying that high school was the best four years of their lives.”
Lea has a cycling family. His mother and father are both mastercyclists, and his brother Syd, 26, is a gold medalist in the Special Olympics and has won numerous titles in Athletes in Intellectual Disability events. When Syd was born, he had a cyanotic episode in the nursery, which means he stopped breathing for a time — how long no one knows — but that caused him to become intellectually disabled. Still, he has proven himself in so many ways. And he is his brother’s biggest supporter.
“Oh my God, my brother,” Syd repeated over and over when he heard the news Bobby made the Olympic Team.
Lea also has proven himself, though critics say he hasn’t reached his full potential. Lea may be the loudest of those critics.
“I haven’t reached my potential and I do think the best is yet to come,” he said. “I learned a lot about living a professional training life, eating better, training better. At the top, if you just improve 1 percent that can be the difference between first and last. One little piece of the total training and lifestyle can make a big difference and, the more I learned, the more I started taking steps and the results took a sharp incline. It’s a general lifestyle, more about little things. It’s when you eat — the timing of it that you need in endurance sports, where the timing of fuel is critical.”
Syd was so inspired by Lea’s two-time Olympian status that he decided to make his own lifestyle changes. Syd is well-built at 6-2 , 195 lbs; Bobby is 6-2, 170. His plan includes: no donuts, dinner early, bed early, shower early and no ice cream.
“After this weekend, he decided he wants to be more like his brother, so he sat down this morning and wrote out his own get fit plan,” Tracy said. “And this weekend he even made some [racing moves] like Bobby.’’
It’s because of lifestyle changes that Bobby Lea gives himself a more realistic chance of placing high at the Olympic Games.
“The best mark I was thinking before was just outside the top 10,” he said. “But as training progresses, I feel I can be a dark horse and take a fifth place or so. The Olympics are a special animal and you never know what can happen.”