PC: Dominique Powers
I sit at the Venice airport, cappuccino in front of me, a bit groggy, occasionally cupping my swollen cheek in hand and wondering how noticeable my lopsided face is. It’s a mere four days from the second ever UCI gravel world championships, and as a selected athlete I have just finished the travel to Italy where the event would be held. A few hours earlier as we were flying over the north Atlantic, as the pain in my tooth intensified and throbbed, I wondered why I had chosen the difficult path of traveling with an abscess. But I knew now, just as I knew months earlier while lying helpless in the hospital bed -or weeks ago as I lay on the hot pavement writhing in pain with tears streaming down my face, or during the helpless frustration of numerous mechanical issues- that these challenges only intensify my desire to persevere. This isn’t a story for sympathy. It is my story of human resilience, of the healing warmth of friendship, and of the steadfast love of those around me who gave me the courage and strength to continue on when I could not see any hope on my own.
Earlier that year, my team and I traveled to the Joe Martin stage race which was to be the last road races of my season. I was equal parts excited to soon be able to focus on the off-road, and determined to race well for my team. During stage 2, the peloton hurtled towards a fast and technical downhill, everyone’s nerves and adrenaline peaking as positioning into this section was crucial. As I navigated around fellow riders for better placement, I suddenly hit a sharp bump in the road. All at once my hands slipped off the handlebars, my chest slammed into the steering tube, and I ragdolled over my bike into the forest. I was abruptly stopped by the trees and fell hard to the ground. I lay there, gasping for breath, pain shooting through my body, with every instinct directed solely towards survival. Finally I was able to draw in oxygen. I painfully crawled up out of a ditch, my body covered in dirt and leaves, only to find myself alone. Minutes earlier the road seething with cyclists, team cars, and officials, was now completely deserted. I felt like I was emerging from some strange time warp. Thankfully, someone in the caravan had seen my crash and alerted the officials. They came running up the hill into sight and I was quickly strapped into an ambulance, desperately waiting for pain medication to kick in.
During my 5 year career as a professional cyclist I had been blessed to escape broken bones. Now, I lay in a hospital bed unable to move with a broken left wrist, my right clavicle broken in two places, a small pneumothorax, a cracked rib, and trauma to my glute and tailbone that would take many months to heal. I had always thought that if it came to my body being broken while racing, that would be my signal to stop – yet no thought of quitting entered my mind. I was stunned and in exceeding pain, but all I focused on was that next step to recovery.
Those first days post accident were the hardest. The trauma to my glute and tailbone were so intense I could not move without an onslaught of paralyzing pain. I remember it taking me 10 minutes to slowly inch out of bed, shuffle to the bathroom, and then stand there helplessly wondering, Now what? I can’t sit. I can’t pull down my shorts. I can’t pull up my shorts. I won’t go into how I finally managed to perform the simple and very necessary task, but this all to say, any normal human activity was excruciating. Five days after the accident, upon returning home and being waited on hand and foot by my husband and daughter, I was admitted into the hospital for surgery to my wrist and clavicle. A plate was put into my wirst, and two more to stabilize my clavicle to aid in healing, and ultimately provide a better long term prognosis. My recovery took a huge leap forward because of this procedure and I was filled with hope as I looked towards the remainder of the season.
The reality of my situation set in very quickly, yet I managed to find some humor in these trying days. Instances such as emerging from the shower and needing my husband to dry my face off. Or asking my daughter to lift a small jar of pickles or open the fridge door, one hand unable to grasp anything with any sort of strength, the other unable to rotate. But I was determined and trudged through simple tasks resolutely. In a few days I was able to ride the trainer, my hair awkwardly pulled back into a quasi bun by my husband, my face beaming. Only days later I decided it was time to ride outside. My healing progressed rapidly, perhaps a bit too rapidly as my attentive and concerned surgeon held me in check. Two weeks post surgery and I was determined to race Unbound 200. Although it was ultimately decided for me that this was a terrible idea, my fire was rekindled and I tackled my return to fitness with zest.
Before I knew it two months had passed since the accident and I was riding 20+ hours a week in Colorado, acclimatizing for the many races at altitude I had coming up. Everything seemed to be healing well and, despite some discomfort, I was happy with my progress. I raced Crusher in the Tushar (how many months post accident?), part of the Lifetime Grand Prix, and was delighted to come in 10th overall female (8th in the Grand Prix). A month later I won Foco Fondo, another gravel race at altitude. This win was a huge boost for my confidence and I aimed for the upcoming races with excitement. But some darkness was yet in store for me.
First came my performance at Leadville MTB 100, a race renowned for its difficulty. Over 100 miles, 10,000 feet gained, and all done at an altitude of 10,000 feet or more. I had stayed at altitude for 3 weeks prior to race day and had high hopes for a solid performance. However, race day came and I could not perform to the level I held myself to. I finished completely empty and utterly dejected with myself. I didn’t understand how I could invest so much into an event and consequently be so disappointed in my performance. Looking back, I see now that I needed to extend some grace to myself, some understanding. I tried to move on and focus on the next event, SBT (??), a mere week away. Race day came and this time I was met with a mechanical in a crucial moment, which thus separated me from any hope of a podium or win. After fixing the issue, I furiously pedaled on, passing scores of people, struggling inwardly over whether to quit or continue. I chose to continue. Giving everything you have when you are in a position to win is one thing, but doing it when all hope is gone is another. I rode the entire course and finished, sad, but incredibly proud of my ride.
I am a great believer in the power of words and thoughts. What we think, what we say, how we view ourselves, and what we focus on will manifest itself in our lives. And so despite my disappointments, I focused on positive thoughts and actions, hoping to turn the cycle around. I returned home from the altitude of Colorado to the heat and humidity of Texas. During a casual recovery ride I suddenly found myself flat on my back after thoughtlessly slipping on the shallow lip of a bike path. I had been caught up in thought over a distressing financial situation and wasn’t paying attention. I lay there in the baking sun, tears falling, sure that I had cracked my sacrum. I managed to get home, my right leg completely shut off, the pain in my sacrum radiating through me. Although I did not break anything, the trauma from the first accident was fiercely reignited in my glute and tailbone and I was back at square one. It took many visits to a renowned specialist to heal me.
I could carry on over my continued misfortunes, such as the double flat at Gravel Nationals, the missed turn at Chequamegon MTB, and finally an abscessed tooth that only cropped up days before the trip across the globe to Gravel Worlds. But as I sit here in the airport, taking strong antibiotics and heavy pain killers, I find my perspective is changing. I wouldn’t wish what I’ve been through on anyone, yet through these trials others have shown me great kindness. My husband was the perfect example of patience, love and hope as time and again I felt I couldn’t go on. My daughter never ceased to amaze me with her gentle love and affection as I sat crying in our home, wondering if it was time to call it quits. Friends and sponsors reached out bringing gifts with a smile, and I gained new understanding and wisdom from many of them. Inwardly, I was forced to deeply contemplate the why’s of what I do. I’ve had to dig into myself and face inner fears and insecurities. Many times I had to swallow my pride and accept a result that I didn’t like. Through all of this, even now as the pain in my face is nearly unbearable, I know deep within me, that my time is not yet done. And so, while the year is not over, and with a few races still on the horizon, my mind is fixed on 2024 and the hope a new year brings. Undoubtedly I will meet more challenges, but I am now more equipped to face them than before. I will prepare my mind and body to bring their very best, and I will meet each race with joyful gratitude. This world I am a part of is more than just bikes and racing. It is a community of people in love with living life to its fullest and experiencing this beautiful world from angles otherwise unseen.
Emily Newsom is a perpetually smiling face from the cycling world that we’re excited to welcome into the Maple Fanatic program. This Texas based pro has ridden the world’s biggest road races and is now taking her talents to a mixed race schedule that will involve gravel, mountain biking, and still some time on the road. As a mother and wife, she has strong family values, has a degree in piano performance, and is always challenging for the top spot on the podium.