Amber Neben and I were teammates almost 10 years ago on the ground breaking Team T-Mobile for women. Wow, how time flies when you are having fun. Amber has had my respect from those formidable years together as we both navigated our own journeys and paths towards realizing our dreams. Amber is slight in stature and slow to give an opinion. She is non-confrontational and lends her focus to a higher power. Amber is different from other bike racers I have known. Her heart is swollen with love to give back and make lives of those less fortunate better but more than that, she aims to give inspiration, challenges us to activate change and “dare to be.” Most professional bike racers, or professional athletes for that matter, are self-centered, self-absorbed and cant see the light except for the one that shines on them. Amber goes against that convention. She is the creator of Dare To Be and here is what her website describes that program as: “Through The Dare To Be Project, U.S.Olympian and World Champion Cyclist Amber Neben delivers a bike, helmet, and bike lock with a special message of overcoming adversity to underserved kids for Christmas, a birthday, or a special project. Through the unconditional gift of a new bike we connect and inspire each kid to DARE TO BE a doctor, a teacher, the President . . .whoever it is they dream to be!”
I caught up with Amber from her home in Irvine, CA to check in on her and ask her some probing questions about her process of preparing for her second Olympic Games, her highs and lows in the years leading up, her mental and physical training, her dreams as a little girl and her hopes and goals for the future.
DB: 2012 was a year filled with highs and lows for you. All in a year of bike racing, right? Being that it was an Olympic year and the stakes were high, how did you form this year differently than say 2010 or 2011? Did you have a different feeling and outlook on the season ahead of you when the New Year rang in on January 1, 2012?
AN: I actually started the 2010 season after having two surgeries from crashes in 2009, (July and September.) Then, I started 2011 after a second incomplete season in a row of racing (torn adductor in the spring, 2010 and surgery in July again.) My off seasons prior to both of those years were slightly different in feel because of the lack of racing, and my focus was more on another “comeback.” The 2011 season, however, went very well for me. I had a full year of racing in my legs, and I had also won a bunch of races. I was in a great position to both be able to train hard all winter for the Games and to focus on trying to make the team. Although the Olympic Games were a very realistic goal, I actually approached the winter before the 2012 season with the same discipline and focus I normally do, but there certainly was an element of extra intensity in the emotion and mental component of the preseason process. My training was actually different in November in December, but from January forward, I hit things fairly similar as previous years. And since I needed to hit some specific races early to both help the USA qualify a 4th start spot and to put myself in a better position to make the team, I did select different peak points than I normally would have. In general, yes, I was very locked on to the Olympic goal all winter and then through the first part of the season.
DB: Did the Olympics make you hungrier now for more competition in 2013 and beyond or do you feel satisfied with your illustrious career and ready to make a change? I know Olympics grabbed hold of me like a wringer, and i can’t stop thinking about doing it all again in 2016. Its different than anything you will ever go through at any other cycling competition, be it World Championships or whatever. Its so special and you are hyper aware of that when you are there. Can you describe the key differences you felt between Olympic competition and any other big event on the calendar?
AN: Good question. I was actually emotionally, mentally, and physically exhausted after the games. It had been such a hard 4 years to get back, such intense focus and work, and then it didn’t go as I had hoped and dreamed. It was certainly an amazing accomplishment, and I come away with incredible memories. Very, very cool stuff. At the same time, though, I have also raced a very long time with very high goals, so it certainly would be easy to call it a career at this point. However, I still enjoy the process of trying to be a champion, I still enjoy the chance to share with the next generation, and I still feel like there is something in the tank to race with. I am not convinced that God is finished writing the story of my cycling life just yet. Another four years is a very long time, but I won’t say no. I am not saying yes, but I am also not saying no to it! Right now, I am looking forward to a new team with new opportunities.
The Olympics are HUGE. EVERYONE knows what and when the Olympic Games are. They are universal. People may not know your sport, but they know you are an Olympian, so you must be at the top of your game. The entire world is watching, thinking about, talking about this event. They only happen once every four years, and only a very small number of people get the chance to compete. They are a very special thing. The moment is so huge. The attention, the pressure, the bigness just grows and grows and then you are in the middle of it. It is such an awesome experience. The other big events we compete in have elements of the above, but nothing can compare to the attention level and knowledge of the Olympic Games.
DB: I was enamored by the sheer vastness and magnitude of the entire Olympic experience. We have never competed in any venue even close to the Olympic environment. How did you prepare yourself mentally and emotionally for competing and delivering your ultimate performance on race day at the Olympic Games? What did you learn in Beijing that best prepared you for another Olympics?
AN: I think my life prepared me for the Games. I don’t know that I could have scripted my preparation. The mental component necessary to become a champion or an Olympian is often forged in the fires of life, and that was/is certainly the case with me. With each challenge, failure, success, step, I have grown and been prepared for such moments. Personally, I really like huge events. The bigger and the more pressure, the more exciting and fun for me. I like the moment and the atmosphere. I like the challenges that come.
My Beijing experience added an element of familiarity and calmness. I knew how BIG the Olympic Games would be, and I knew what to expect from the standpoint of the village and the craziness surrounding the final week. I also knew that as HUGE of an event as the Olympics are, I would be doing something I had already done a bunch of times before… race a bike. At the end of the day, I would be doing what I had done, what I had trained for, what I was prepared for, so there was nothing unusual about the race itself.
DB: What is a typical Amber Neben day of training like in an Olympic prep year? (don’t give me a recovery day description please:-) I want the knarly stuff!
AN: 25hrs on the bike. Yes, Olympic prep years actually have an extra hour. Full gas. Only one bottle of water. 1/2 a gel. It is so hard.
It is an entire process. I think the biggest thing is you are tired a lot b/c of the focus required from every element of training and living. It is hard. Well worth it, but very hard.
One day… how about a January Saturday… waking up at 4:45am so that I can meet my coach to carpool 90 minutes down to Palomar at 5:30am. Doing 2 x 60min LT intervals up and then going back down in whatever weather shows up. Driving 90min back home… eating, stretching, resting, so that I can get up the next day and throw down another hard training day on tired legs.
DB: What did you love the very most about the Olympic experience? Is there a moment or a day that will stay with you forever?
AN: My Beijing Olympic memories are filled with the experiences, ie meeting the president, the Opening Ceremonies, the village. My London memories are more about the races themselves. The intensity of the fans and the emotion and energy that we raced in is something that I will never forget.
DB: How old were you when you first remember dreaming about becoming an Olympian? Did you fulfill those dreams in London?
AN: I was a 5th grader dreaming of scoring the winning goal in the gold medal soccer match!
My dream was/is? to win gold. I reached my dream of becoming an Olympian, but not the dream of winning gold (or even a medal.) However, I raced with everything I had. I have no regrets. I was not fast enough on the day. For whatever reason, the goal of winning a medal was not to be. Hopefully, though, as I have gone and as I go, God can use my story to impact lives for Him.
DB: If you could share the intimate most feelings and associations of the Olympic Games with someone who had never heard of them before, how would you do it?
AN: Imagine dreaming of doing something as a child. Imagine holding onto that dream through all kinds of challenges and adversity fires… for 25+ years… never giving up, always working forward, knowing that the dream was still attainable… AND then… you do it. You become an Olympian. You experience being at the highest point, the center of attention in all the world. It is an amazing, amazing achievement.
Interview by Dotsie Bausch of Cyclingillustrated