Stanford sports diehards present and past have witnessed more than their share of elite athletes. Nowadays, the likes of Skov, Randle, Ogwumike and Montgomery have become commonplace names. There’s Steffens and Ipsen, Solomon and Rodgers…the list could go on for some length. Viewing the world through Cardinal-colored glasses, these Stanford athletics “experts” are quite comfortable with their perceived vast expanse of knowledge.
But what if a claim were to arise that even the most avid fan didn’t know the name of the individual who is possibly the most accomplished athlete on campus? “Nonsense,” would be the retort. “I know everyone!”
Well, let’s update the prescription, because another Stanford superstar is about to come squarely into focus. It’s about time Cardinal fans learned mountain-biking specialist Kate Courtney’s name — she’s faster on two wheels than they’ll likely ever be.
It is understandable why Courtney has flown under the radar in her time on the Farm; as a club-sport athlete, the freshman’s laundry list of victories and awards don’t receive near the attention they merit or that varsity and NCAA-sanctioned sports enjoy. Moreover, mountain bikers — a niche within a niche — aren’t all that visible to begin with and are followed by a very select segment of the sporting world. In fact, the epicenter of that following is quite close — in the region of Marin, just north of San Francisco.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Courtney hails from northern California and grew up riding a tandem with her father, Tom. Since Marin is arguably the Mecca of mountain biking worldwide, Courtney was immersed in mountain-biking culture from an early age, but it wasn’t until midway through high school that she started to put serious time and energy into the sport. A promising distance runner during her freshman and sophomore years at The Branson School, Courtney realized that “sometimes, cross country is a little bit of just suffering,” and turned the full force of her efforts to the bike.
The career that has followed is nothing short of remarkable: Courtney has won more races than she can count with two hands — and then some. The year 2013 was a particularly incredible haul, with her victories at the Pan-Am Championships, Mont-Sainte-Anne Junior World Cup and USA Cycling’s Cross-Country Nationals. And all of that was before she swept the cross-country and short track titles at the Collegiate Mountain Biking Nationals in October. Shortly thereafter, cycling industry giant Specialized signed her to their professional mountain bike team.
While Courtney is certainly ready to jump to the next level, moving up hasn’t come without its challenges.
“It’s been a big challenge this year for a lot of reasons,” Courtney said of her transition to the professional ranks. “It’s my first year starting college, so I’m away from home. I don’t have my dad to work on my bike every day and don’t have him to ride with every day.
“I’m racing the best women in the world,” she added. “I’m in the field with them. And that’s just an amazing opportunity…just to get to ride near them and start to learn what it takes to compete at that level.”
Despite her new training and living environments, Courtney’s success hasn’t deviated from its usual high level. She recently placed fourth in the Women U-23 Cross Country race at a UCI World Cup event in Australia, cementing her position as one of the world’s best young riders. Yet even with her mounting successes, Courtney hasn’t fallen into the trap of complacency that snags many young, high-achieving athletes.
“It’s made me a more determined person, but recently, more humble and more willing to work really, really hard,” said Courtney of how success has impacted her. “This year showed me that this is really what I want to do, and I have a long way to go. That’s very powerful.”
If she truly is to reach the pinnacle of her sport, Courtney knows she must improve her downhill technical skills. In recent years, the designers of mountain biking cross-country courses have added more obstacles — including jumps, drop-offs and rock gardens — that have changed many athletes’ approaches to training. For Courtney, sometimes conquering the fear at the top of a ledge is just as important as cranking out the training miles.
“[Obstacle-filled courses] are not only hard to ride, but it’s hard to stand at the top of that and say to yourself, ‘Okay, I’m going to jump off this giant drop in front of a bunch of people,’” she said. “That’s made it more challenging, but also forced me to adapt and train that way.”
And training for Kate Courtney is no simple joyride across campus. Think going uphill on Santa Theresa on a windy day or biking all the way from Stern to Hewlett is difficult? Try the climb on Old La Honda Road, which Courtney says is one of her favorites — nearly three-and-a-half miles of a grueling, when-is-this-going-to-stop, are-we-there-yet ascent of 1,290 feet of vertical climbing with an average gradient of 7.2 percent. Sound hard? It certainly is, but someway, somehow, Courtney finds joy in the crushing pain of oxygen debt and lactic acid build-up. Her Facebook profile picture has her smiling triumphantly alongside her bike at the top of Montebello — another local, brutal climb — with the caption “My happy place.” As she explains, it’s the relationships that she’s built with her training partners that have spurred her to forget suffering on the way to the top.
“Those are definitely the times I’m happiest: when I’m with people I enjoy spending time with and doing something that I love — and that [they] also love,” Courtney said. “That’s why I’ve been able to train so hard this year while doing school and why I’ve been able to keep loving it while I’m working hard and doing intervals — because when I go out, I know it’s what I want to do.”
And what Kate Courtney wants to do is become one of the best mountain bikers on the planet — a goal she’s already well on the way to fulfilling. In time, the wider Stanford sports community will come to appreciate her accomplishments; they’ll soon adjust their Cardinal-tinted lenses and see her for who she is: Stanford’s next budding superstar. That is, if they can recognize the blur as she whizzes by.