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Lea Davison: From Surgery To The Podium

By Peggy Shinn | Sept. 10, 2014, 11:04 a.m. (ET)

Lea Davison (far right) poses for a photo after winning bronze at the 2014 UCI Mountain Bike World Championships on Sept. 6, 2014 in Hafjell, Norway..

When Lea Davison crossed the finish line at the 2014 UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in Norway on Saturday, she couldn’t believe that only two women had finished in front of her. With a bronze medal around her neck, Davison shared the podium with Catharine Pendrel from Canada and Irina Kalentieva from Russia.

“It still hasn’t really sunk in,” Davison said via Skype from Norway. “I look at the medal and I’m like, ‘Wait, is that mine?’”

It was the 2012 Olympian’s first world championship medal — and not an award that she expected. The 31-year-old Vermont mountain biker spent last winter rehabbing her right hip.

“I would have been happy to just simply be back training and racing my bike, but to have a dream season like this after having hip surgery in January and missing the first half of the season, I'm completely thrilled,” she said. “I am the happiest girl in Norway.”

“It was like I won that race, just to get a medal,” she added. “I was probably celebrating more than Catharine or Irina.”

Davison’s bronze medal came as no surprise to her younger sister, Sabra.

When asked if she expected her sister to medal at worlds, Sabra said, “Yes, I did,” without pause.

“Whenever Lea’s having fun, she goes fast,” said Sabra, who lived in Vermont with Lea until just last week, when Sabra moved to California to train with the Far West Nordic Elite Team. “I could hear it in her voice, she was having a blast (in Norway) with Kate (Courtney, her Specialized teammate). I went, ‘Uh oh, this is going to go well.’”

But Lea’s life wasn’t going so well last winter. Around Christmas, while riding in Hawaii, she noticed a familiar pain in her hip. In 2010, she had had surgery to repair a torn labrum in her left hip. Now she had the same pain in her right.

She immediately flew home and saw her doctor at the Vermont Orthopaedic Clinic. An MRI confirmed that the cartilage in her right hip was torn. Surgery was the only cure.

It was a tough blow after a good 2013 season, where Lea had finished 12th overall on the world cup tour (and fourth in one race), scored a top-10 at the world championships, then ended the season with a win at the Langkawi International Mountain Bike Challenge in Malaysia.

“She was the strongest I’d ever seen her,” said Sabra, who could be Lea’s twin in both looks and outgoing, upbeat personality. “She was so motivated to go for world cup wins (in 2014). When you were riding with her, you could just see that vision in her mind of crossing that finish line first.”

But unlike in 2010, when it took Lea three months to figure out what was wrong with her hip, this time she had very little downtime between hard training and surgery. Clicking around on crutches rather than clicking into her pedals, Lea maintained the vision of crossing the finish line first.

Four weeks into her recovery, Lea could only lift her right leg three inches off the ground. But she looked at Sabra and said, “My goal is to win national championships again.”

Then she hit a speed bump in her recovery. Pain increased, range of motion decreased, and her doubts grew. Her coach assured her that she could still have a successful, if shorter, season, with the focus on world championships.

“I’m like, ‘Whatever dude, I’m glad someone has the faith, but I can’t see it right now,’” said Lea.

Despite her doubts, coach Andy Bishop, a former pro road and mountain biker, knew Lea was on track. Bill Knowles, who helped her rehab in 2010 and has built a reputation helping Olympic medalists and other professional athletes recondition from injury, was getting her strong again. And USA Cycling offered critical support, including bike-fitting sessions to address possible reasons for her hip injuries.

But how to compress a winter’s worth of cycling fitness into a couple of months? While her competitors were logging huge miles during the winter, Lea was simply trying to regain motion in her hip in a pool.

By early June, it was apparent that she still had a long way to go. So Bishop suggested that she enter a race. But not just any race. The BC Bike Race, a seven-day-long mountain bike stage race where each leg is labeled as “epic.” Over seven days, she would race almost 18 hours.

Bishop thought that she would ease into the race and only go hard for two of the seven days. But then Lea tasted victory, winning the first stage. The next six days were a battle, and Lea dropped out of the overall lead. After the longest stage, lasting over three and a half hours, she called Sabra and told her how hard the race was and that she was no longer winning.

“Lea, what’s the longest ride you’ve done this year?” asked Sabra, knowing that her sister had had minimal training. “I’m like, ‘Yeah, you’re ok, you’re going to be just fine.’”

On the second to last day, in another stage that lasted over three hours, Lea attacked her closest rivals on the steep climbs and reclaimed the overall lead. She was in tatters, said Bishop. But she had won.

Nationals were only two weeks later.

On July 19 — less than six months after hip surgery — Lea set out to defend her national title. For more than 80 percent of the race, she battled with 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Georgia Gould for the lead.

“I was a wild card to myself even while I was racing,” Lea said. “I had no idea how I was going to do. I was thrilled even to be out there racing.”

On the final lap, she broke free and finished 15 seconds ahead of Gould.

A few weeks later, Lea placed fourth at the Mont-Sainte-Anne World Cup, equaling her best world cup finish — a result that was fueled by excitement, she said, and gratitude.

Having missed the first four world cups, her ranking left her with Bib 22 at world championships. When the gun went off, her first goal was to pick off the 21 riders ahead of her.

Back home, Sabra watched on her computer monitor. It was 2:30 a.m. Pacific time, and Sabra told herself that she could go to bed if Lea was not in the top 10. By the end of lap two, Lea had moved into fourth.

Sabra thought, “Nope, I do not get to sleep tonight.”

With two laps to go, Lea took over third place. Charging behind her was Tanja Zakelj from Slovenia, currently ranked second overall in the world cup standings. Still unable to run because of her compromised hip joint, Lea had to walk one steep section of the course.

Still, she was able to hold off Zakelj and earn her first world championship medal.

From Norway, Lea is heading to Paris to attend a Beyoncé concert this weekend — second on her bucket list behind winning a world championship medal.

“So I just crossed off the top two,” she said laughing.

So what’s next?

Winning an Olympic medal.

A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008. 

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Lea Davison