What kid didn’t grow up with aspirations of playing professional sports for their favorite team? It’s a harmless dream, and one that for most athletes evaporates with a stout dose of reality sometime during the teenage years.
But not every seed of athletic ambition is planted during those formative years, not every dream dies so easily, and sometimes unexpected windows of opportunity present themselves.
The Amy D. Foundation aims to be one such window.
Formed in the memory of American national champion cyclist Amy Dombroski, who died at the age of 26 while training in Belgium, the foundation was established to support the dreams of female cyclists.
Amy D. Cyclocross Team Manager Maureen “Mo” Bruno Roy, whose team is slated to compete at the USA Cyclocross National Championships this week, said accomplished riders shouldn’t have to let their dreams slip away for lack of support and opportunity.
“The whole idea of being a professional athlete in this day and age seems ridiculous and even a little bit silly. I mean, who gets to do that?,” Bruno Roy said. “It takes a special drive and initiative. But it shouldn’t feel impossible. There should be some support to rally around that idea.”
Bruno Roy, who has been involved in the foundation since its inception five years ago, said the team helps to fill an often overlooked void in cyclocross.
“In the cyclocross world and community, it’s pretty unique to have a memorial foundation that has developed into a sub-pro or Elite team,” said Bruno Roy, who added that the Amy D. Team helps to fill the gap between individual racers who have excelled on their own and those earning a spot on a professional team. “It’s unique to be able to support riders in that gapped space … and provide some guidance of where you would like to go with the sport.”
For Emily Shields Werner, the dream started early. When she saw her first cross race 15 years ago, at the age of 10, she and her twin sister immediately sent their mom home to get their mountain bikes. There’s been no looking back.
Shields Werner said her path isn’t the only way to get into cyclocross racing, and she encourages women of all ages and experience to give it a shot.
“I feel like they should realize they can do it. It doesn’t matter if they grow up doing it,” Shields Werner said. “They shouldn’t feel intimidated and they should do it. It’s empowering. You can get into it at any age and have the potential to be a professional athlete.”
First-year Amy D. Foundation rider Stacey Richardson, 37, is a perfect example.
Richardson, the defending national champion in Masters 35-39, didn’t even start racing until 2015, and initially took up cyclocross after moving to Denver simply as a means to meet people and make friends.
“When I first started, I had no idea what I was doing,” Richardson said. “As I started going along, I thought, ‘I think I can get better at this.’ So I started to progress and learn.”
While her path to cyclocross might sound unlikely, Richardson said it’s not all that uncommon.
“I think for women my age, a lot of us started at an older age — and by older I mean in our 30s,” Richardson said. “Now we’re seeing more youth learn at a younger age. But a lot of women my age started older.”
Bruno Roy agrees, and speaks from experience.
“You don’t often hear adult women say that they want to be a professional cyclist,” said Bruno Roy, who raced with Amy Dombroski. “But we are realizing that the female athletic body and physiology has a lot more sustainability over time than men’s bodies. I didn’t start racing until I was 28 and retired when I was 40. I had a trajectory throughout my 30s.”
Amy D. Foundation team member Suzie Livingston, formerly an injury-plagued ultra-runner, started road cycling during recovery periods and admittedly stumbled upon cyclocross before clipping in for her first race five years ago.
“I started riding mountain because I liked trail running,” Livingston recalls. “Then I bought a cross bike — not even sure why — and I just thought, ‘I should race this since I have it.’”
This is Livingston’s first year riding for the Amy D. Foundation, and she said the experience has altered her purpose on a bike.
“I really love our group of four ladies on the Colorado Team, and it’s great to be part of something bigger than yourself and hopefully influencing other women,” Livingston said. (Riding) is really important to me. I love riding bikes and I’ll continue to ride no matter what, but it’s the other women who give me that drive. Every day I show up to race, and especially when I’m wearing the Amy D. kit, it’s important to be kind to the other women. We have this common bond, regardless of the age or experience.”
Livingston is also active in the Fort Collins grassroots racing community — leading women’s clinics and rides.
On the flip side of the coin, second-year Amy D. Foundation rider Katherine “KK” Santos fell in love with cyclocross at the age of 12 because it offered something completely outside the confines of team sports.
“I like that it was an individual sport, and your coach wouldn’t make you go sit on the bench if you weren’t doing well,” said Santos, who also races for Marian University, where she is a senior. “It’s still just fun getting to ride bikes with your friends and training together.”
The family atmosphere of the Amy D. Foundation team was a perfect fit.
“The foundation is really unique, because most teams aren’t not-for-profit. With this program, the support is always there for you. It’s more of a family. It’s not a normal bike racing team,” Santos said. “A lot of people have to do independent contracts and design a team around themselves, out of necessity. But companies like PEARL iZUMi want to be involved with the foundation and help it grow, and help women become professional athletes.”
Santos said the current women’s cyclocross product is worth the investment.
“Women’s racing is incredibly entertaining if you give it a chance,” Santos said. “They’re just as good as they guys and they’re just as entertaining. This season, they’re putting on more of a show than the guys are.”
For Katrina Engelsted, riding for the foundation has provided the confidence boost she needed.
“The Amy D. Foundation has given me the confidence and support to travel nationally for races,” Engelsted said. “A huge part of cycling is the mental game, and if you know you have a team of wonderful, supportive people behind you then you can do a lot to up your race game.”
Foundation rider Corey Coogan Cisek, who is currently in Belgium for a three-month cyclocross racing stint, said she loves representing the Amy D. Foundation internationally.
“It’s a particular honor to represent (the foundation) here,” Coogan Cisek said. “I feel Amy’s legacy everywhere in Belgium. In the two and a half seasons that she lived and raced here, she made an impression. The locals remember that plucky American who came here to live and race. My presence here is often their first introduction to the foundation.”
Coogan Cisek — who along with Shields Werner, Santos, Richardson, Livingston, Engelsted and Anna Dorovskikh make up the Amy D. Foundation women’s cyclocross lineup — said the foundation’s backing allows her to stay focused during race season.
“As an athlete, not just as a female, I am lucky to have team support,” Coogan Cisek said. “Having teammates, a director, and a mechanic makes me feel as if someone has my back, and gives me a sense of community.”
Ultimately, riders just want to ride or, preferably, race, said Shields Werner, who has competed in more races this cross season than ever before, thanks to the foundation’s support.
“I love racing so much more than training,” Shields Werner said. “It means so much to be on the team because it’s so hard to find support in cyclocross, especially in women’s.”
Santos said she’s having the time of her life racing for the Amy D. Foundation and pursuing her dreams on a bike.
“It’s my escape and my mental reset,” Santos said. “If I stress about anything in the world, I know there are two wheels in my garage that will make it better. A bike won’t tell you you’re not doing something right, it will just let you push it more. It’s a vehicle to happiness for me.”