Many people share their story only after they’ve found victory. Kimberly Johnson talks with teammate Dana Platin about chasing her dream and becoming a professional cyclist.
Kimberley, could you share with us your background and how you got into bike racing?
Sure! One of my favorite things about getting to know fellow racers is the wide range of backgrounds and stories that bring people to the sport. For me, cycling entered my life during an incredibly dark time, and became a huge piece of my sustained recovery from a life-threatening battle with anorexia nervosa. After spending months in the hospital and a treatment program, I was finally cleared to re-incorporate physical activity, something which had always important to me and a big part of my life. At the time, my previous love, running, was not a healthy choice for me, and so cycling was a “better than nothing” alternative. I was beat down and discouraged, tired, and somewhat hopeless, but I showed up nonetheless for a Monday night ride with Boise’s junior team the summer before my senior year of high school. I had no idea that I would quickly fall in love with the sport, that what started as a low-key group ride on a junior development team would, in less than two years, lead to active participation in the team, competing and placing at Junior Nationals in 2007, and starting a collegiate cycling team my freshman year at Seattle Pacific University. While at SPU I had the opportunity to race at collegiate nationals, be part of the Collegiate-All Star team at NVGP two years in a row, and help mentor new riders just getting into the sport. Although my journey with cycling has had it’s fair share of bumps, I’m incredibly grateful for the role this sport has played in my life, the people I’ve met, the places I’ve been, and the person it’s helped me to become.
Could you talk about your road to going pro, the dream, challenges and setbacks you encountered along the way?
After college, I made the decision that I wanted to be all in. I loved racing my bike, and I wanted to do it at the highest level I possibly could. Although I am still young, and have many life lessons still to learn, I am fairly certain that more people regret things they didn’t do than things they did. So when I graduated in 2011, I decided to put off graduate school to pursue my dream of racing professionally. I knew it was a big goal, but I’m the kind of person where I’d rather try and fail than 20 years later, look back and wonder what I could have done, and wish I would have given it a shot. Although bike racing professionally doesn’t make all that much sense logically — you have to make incredible sacrifices, you don’t get paid well (or, for many, including myself, at all), injury is inevitable, and the life isn’t glamorous–there was something about it that kept me coming back, time and time again. Something glorious about pushing myself to the limit, and then finding out that limit is further than you ever thought. Something that, despite the heartache, makes it worthwhile. With a few notable exceptions, in bike racing, you lose far more often than you win, and challenges often seem more plentiful than the triumphs. But I am grateful even for the setbacks and challenges, because ultimately, they mold you into a person of substance, teach you what you can withstand and what you can overcome. I fully dedicated myself to making strides, and did everything in my power to set myself up for success. But in cycling, as in life, there is much outside of one’s control. In 2013, I went down hard in the second stage of Tour of the Gila and cracked my elbow. Just a year later, the day after returning from that same race, I found myself lying in a hospital with a c2 fracture after a 75-year-old motorist’s moment of negligence. Both of these injuries dramatically altered the trajectory of the past few racing seasons, and forced me to wrestle with the realities of the sport, and what I might or might not be able to accomplish. I knew I wasn’t the first cyclist to a season thwarted by injury, and over the months of healing, I worked hard to stay patient, strong, and optimistic. I had ample time to think about the sport and what I really wanted, and everything came back to the veracity that inspite of the challenges, I love racing my bike, and want to do it at the highest level I possibly can.
How about work/life/training balance?
Like many women chasing after this dream, I don’t have the luxury of being able to train and race full time. This is something I’ve wrestled with a lot — the fact that in order to be able to pay rent, eat healthy food, get to races, and have even the basic gear I need, I have to work full time. And I’ll be quite honest, while working full time, it is arguably impossible to accomplish the same quality and quantity of training as those with more financial resources. It’s not just the physical training that impacts recovery — every kind of stress adds up, and so trying to squeeze in 15+ hours of training on top of a 40 hours of work plus the daily to-dos, family time, etc, can feel overwhelming at times. I don’t say this to complain — it’s absolutely a choice I’ve made — but rather, acknowledge the reality of the situation. In this, I’ve learned the value of being a bit more gentle with myself. I expect a lot of myself, I always have, but everyone has their breaking point. And allowing yourself the time and space to take a breath and recover when you need it, before you get to that point, is invaluable. I’m not great at “relaxing,” but I’ve learned the necessity of quality recovery. If you don’t recover just as hard as you train, it’s only a matter of time before things fall apart. So I guess on the topic of work/life/training balance… yes, it’s incredibly tough….building a schedule that that fits both your work and your training (and don’t forget all those other important pieces of life) takes discipline and meticulous planning, but if racing your bike is something you can’t imagine living without, then you can find a way.
How does cycling help you on a personal level?
As crazy as this might sound, cycling keeps me balanced. I’ve always enjoyed being physically active, as I’m a fairly high-energy, high-intensity person. When I’m riding, I feel more level, more calm. I do recognize the irony — the juxtaposition of a still mind and moving body. Cycling has also taught me to nourish my body well, and appreciate it for what it does for me and allows me to accomplish more than simply how I perceive myself in a mirror. And it provides almost immediate feedback — if I do not properly fuel for training or racing, if I am over-trained and undernourished, I do not train or race well. I am weak and sluggish, and the necessity of good nutrition is reinforced. Again it comes back to balance. Exercise is good, sleep is good, rest is good, food is good, when they exist in harmony.
Any advice for the next generation of female riders?
Focus on your own journey, and be patient. There may be more downs than ups at times, and it can be easy to look at other people’s trajectories with a bit of envy. But I’ve learned in the end, it’s much better to decide what you want and do your best to get there than follow someone’s footsteps in the hope that your experience will mimic theirs. About a year ago, after I had broken my neck and was feeling like everything I’d done was for nothing, I had a bit of an epiphany regarding my accomplishments in cycling. I had hoped to be further along than where I am, but regardless of what external accolades I do or do not receive in the sport, cycling has already done more for me than even a nomination to the Olympics would. It literally saved my life, and since then, has continued to make me a better, stronger person. Winning races is a glorious feeling, almost addictive, and I absolutely strive to be the best I can. But in all of this, do not forget that the value of cycling can and should go beyond results and medals and podium spots.
Congratulations on being invited to race in the 2015 US Pro Challenge, how did you embrace the challenge?
I’m grateful for the opportunity to be a part of women’s cycling history, and proud of the hard work I (and many others) put in to make the team a reality. Cycling can feel like a very selfish endeavor at times, and so any times I’m able to give back and help open doors for others or encourage the next generation is a win for me!
Grand Tour for women?
I think great things are coming for women under the leadership of Brian Cookson, a definite step in the right direction for UCI. Continued progression of women’s cycling to a place of greater equality and sustainability requires momentum, commitment, investment and a bit of risk. And the little things also matter–it’s easy to feel like one person can’t change anything, but if many people do a little bit, and the people in positions of power do more, everything starts to look a bit brighter. This is one of the reasons why I worked so hard to make the Colorado Women’s Cycling Project p/b Spark team at the USPCC a reality–not just for for my own ability to race, but to open the door for five other women. I think we are in a great place for forward movement, and I’m excited to see what happens.
A strong woman, what’s your definition?
I believe the kind of strength isn’t pure brute force, but a kind of strength under control, strength infused with grace and compassion, for oneself and others. I see strength as a willingness to take risk that may lead to success or may end in failure. Striving to be the best version of yourself, while refusing to do so at the expense of others. Strength means sometimes sacrificing your own desires for the good of others, because ultimately, at the end of life, it won’t matter what I’ve accomplished if I’ve left a trail of destruction in that path. You can be a fierce competitor and still a kind person, and that is something I very much strive for.
The last month has been an absolute whirlwind for me. As soon as the US Pro Cycling Challenge finished, my husband and I had only a few days to pack up our entire house, clean it to the best of our ability, and drive 30 hours east to start a new job in a city I’d never visited. I had received and accepted an offer at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill the first week of August, but I am a master compartmentalizer, and knew it would serve me as well in the instance. I was only a few weeks out from the US Pro Challenge, a race I had been targeting all year. The last thing I needed was a stress-induced flood of cortisol in my system. So until I took off my jersey of Sunday after the Golden criterium, I did not allow myself to think too much about the gigantic impending life change. We’ve now been in Chapel Hill almost a month, and are starting to feel settled. I typically take a month off the bike at the end of the season, so it was actually good timing. I’ve been mountain biking, trail running, and getting to know our new city. Although much is still up in the air, at this point, I’m planning on targeting the Winston Salem Cycling Classic and US Pro Nationals, both for their logistically feasibility and the fact that it’s a race I’ve wanted to do for years. I will have to adjust my concept of ‘climbing ride,’ but other than the lack of mountains, the riding here is beautiful. I don’t know what is to come this year, but I do know it will include a bike, and likely a few more races.