Ingezonden

Koerber, now Rockwell, back on the World Cup circuit (Trek World Racing)

This story was first published on Cyclingnews.com

It’s
been quite a year for Willow Koerber
Rockwell
. A little less than a year ago, she showed up at the opening UCI
Mountain Bike World Cup round in South Africa ready to start her season. Yet on
the eve of the race, she faced an abrupt change of plans: she
was pregnant
.

The
American, who has twice medalled at the cross country world championships, sat
out the season, got married in the fall and then gave
birth to her daughter Raven Starr Rockwell
on December 31. Now she is
trying to make the comeback of a lifetime as she returns to racing and pursues
her Olympic dream.

Although
she did not plan to interrupt her career to have a baby, Rockwell thinks it may
actually help her in the long run, by giving her a renewed love of racing after
a much deserved break.

“You
can’t believe how much you love this little one. It’s refreshing,” she
said. “In bike racing, you can be so obsessed and so selfish without
trying. It’s great to have that be not number one.

“That
huge chunk of time off has made it more fun to me to get out on my bike now. I
had a lot of success on my bike, but it wasn’t always fun. It was more often
not fun than fun,” said Rockwell. “I miss Raven when I’m out there,
and I can’t wait to get back and breastfeed her. It’s a lot more fun now. My
whole life doesn’t revolve around racing.”

That
doesn’t mean it was easy to sit out an entire season while her competition kept
racing. After coming home from South Africa last year, Rockwell said she was
depressed. “I laid in bed for four days in gray sweatpants. The only thing
that got me out of bed was the need to write. I wasn’t going to make it if I
didn’t write.”

Rockwell
is back on the circuit just 2.5 months after having her daughter, Raven Starr
Rockwell

What
she was writing was a book called “My Wheels Gave me Wings” on her
experiences, which has
just been released by Sunbury Press
. She describes it as a journey through
fear and despair and into love and healing.

“It’s
about a lot of different things in my life. Life in general,” she said.
“My whole life was a battle with myself. I opened my soul up to the struggles
I had in life with biking, specifically, my identity and self worth. I replaced
racing with love in my life. You have to acknowledge the divine feminine and
masculine within – whether you are male or female. The divine feminine was shut
down within me. I was all about doing.

“My
book is about the struggle to survive. It’s about letting yourself experience
all aspects of life, not just the suffering and succeeding side of life. I
share tips about tapping into different energies in the universe and not doing
it all on your own. It’s about making it fun again.”

Rockwell
said, “I believe in personal apocalypses that make you look in the mirror
and find a way to be one with yourself.” According to her, the book
contains everything she needed to say during the last year of her life.

Rockwell
has an autobiographical book out, as well, titled: “My Wheels Gave me
Wings”

On
the sidelines

For
elite athletes whose lives revolve around training and racing, having to take a
break — whether due to injury or pregnancy — can be one of the toughest mental
challenges they will face in their careers.

“It
was very hard. Of course, I didn’t feel like I had chosen to miss the season.
It cracked open all these parts of me. It was hard to see that biking had been
my whole identity,” said Rockwell. “It was hard to look in the mirror
and rebuild my identity.”

She
said that the best advice she received while pregnant was to forget about being
a pro athlete completely. “Don’t think that you will keep up your
training. Let yourself be pregnant. Eat when you want and let go of the
attachment to being a pro athlete. It was a struggle for me. I know I’ll have
another kid some day, and I’ll take that advice for myself again. Enjoy what’s
happening now. It’s a challenge. It’s emotionally challenging. It’s a miracle,
but it messes with your mind, too.”

At
times her pregnancy seemed to last forever. Rockwell was due — or so she
thought — on December 10. Later, her caregivers revised her due date to
December 22, but the baby wasn’t born until New Year’s Eve.

Rockwell
commented on her birth experience relative to her toughest races. “Giving
birth was far more difficult. I don’t want to be the person who scares people.
Everyone has something to go through. I had fear to go through and it was like
a near death experience to have a baby. It was empowering. I’m not a 24-hour
racer. I like to go hard for 1.5 hours and that was not my labor and delivery
experience. Hills have an endpoint, for example, but with labor, you don’t
know. There is no formula. But the next day after giving birth, I knew I could
have more babies.”

Birthing
Raven was a rebirth of sorts for Rockwell, too. “I think a lot of people
with kids will say the same thing. If you’re open to it, it can change
everything. How you see everything and yourself. It was healing and expanding
but also difficult. I was pushed way past my comfort zone. Everything has
changed. It is good.

“It’s
how we all got here. It happens to you, and then you have your own baby. I’m
aware that’s what’s happening. I’m not so young that I don’t know what a big
deal it is.”

She
said that she had no expectations of what it would like to be a mom because she
has no friends around who have babies and she personally doesn’t know any pro
athletes who have had babies. “I only knew that everything would be
different, but at what level, I had no idea.”

Juggling
baby and training

Although
male pro athletes are regularly stepping on to podiums with their young
children, not many female pros chose to have babies mid-career.

“I
wish more women racers could have babies. It’s a huge part of being a woman. In
a way, I lucked out because when would I have had a baby? There were too many
questions. I’m lucky that I get to do both.”

Rockwell
was 17th at last weekend’s World Cup test event in South Africa

She
credits her team Trek World
Racing
for supporting her throughout her pregnancy. “I had extremely
great support .I’m very thankful to [team owner] Martin Whiteley for sticking
by me. It’s an unusual situation. There’s no handbook for how to go about it.
It’s a scary thing. you don’t think you’ll take a year off and have a baby and
get my job back.

“It’s
not a huge sport and there’s not tons of financial support. Once you’ve made
it, the last thing you want to do is take time off. It’s not like men take a
year off and have a family either. There is an expiration date on all this
stuff. It’s almost a trap – once you get to the top, you think you have to stay
there and there is no breathing. You feel like you have to say there. When
you’re trying to make a living and provide for yourself a decent future for
after mountain bike racing, it’s not a lot of money even for the best people in
the sport. I think it’s a twofold thing. Women that are finally making money
are probably at the peak of their racing career are about at the age you feel
like having a family, too.”

In
the first two and a half months after having her baby, Rockwell did about six
rides, none of them on a mountain bike. “In a way it doesn’t feel like I
skipped a beat, but I skipped a whole year. I was racing hard since I was 15.
That’s over half of my life stressing out over racing.”

It
took her a few weeks to get back on her bike after having her baby, but now she
squeezes workouts in between breastfeeding her baby.

“I
have an amazing $300 breast pump so that’s what I do, so I can be gone for a
few hours. I don’t train longer for 2.5 hours. For the rest of my career, I
won’t train longer than that. I pump before and I have someone helping me with
the baby. I tell Raven I love her and then I leave and go ride and put my
intention into the ride and come back, and then she wants to eat again right
away. Usually I have water in one hand and sandwich in the other when I nurse
her.

“What
I’ve learned in the last few years in my career is that most of my power and
strength is internal. I have a huge base. I put my body through the ringer and
that program is there. I know how to do that. I am a bike racer. It’s all about
balance. I’m doing some intensity. On days someone might do a three-hour ride,
I’m breastfeeding and healing my body.”

She
noticed in recent years that the less training she did, the faster she went.
She used to have too much time to train and even to over train. “I’m being
pushed in the direction that works better for me now anyway,” she said of
her reduced training. “I feel good. It takes a lot of trust and surrender.
This is the new way. It’s a blessing that I don’t have that internal battle
anymore.”

Rockwell
headed to South Africa last week for the first World Cup. She travelled with
her baby and her husband Myles, who is also working for Trek World Racing as a
downhill racing liaison. Her first test of her legs was the World Cup test
event this past weekend, where she finished 17th.

Optimistic
about her comeback, she said, “It helps to have people to talk to –
support as a new mom. Your body changes, your physiology changes, your
psychology changes. They can’t expect you to jump back up and be the old
Willow.”

Being
on the start line this
weekend at the World Cup in South Africa
will be the first important
milestone of her comeback. “That’s where I found out I was pregnant with
Raven. Everything was up in the air for me. As soon as I found out, there was
no question I was having her. It’ll be a huge deal to start that race and to be
back. I’ll probably be last at the start and have to move up since I’ll have no
UCI points from last year.”

With
the first four World Cups serving as the final qualifying for the US Olympic
Team, there is some pressure to get back up to speed quickly, but fortunately
for Rockwell, there is a month in between the first two World Cups, so she is
emphasizing rounds two through four in her quest to make it to London in
August. But if the Olympics don’t work out, she has other goals. “I’d like
to be world champion,” she said. The Worlds will take place in Austria in
September.

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