10 Athletes of the Year: #2 Lea Davison

Each January, Vermont Sports Magazine publishes the profiles of 10 Vermont athletes who have made our state proud in the past year. Even with race schedules cut short, travel curtailed and being isolated from training partners, these athletes pushed through the year of Covid-19 and showed how you can stay motivated, stay fit and stay on top of the game. Here’s our annual salute to 10 athletes Vermont should be proud of.  See a full list of this year’s 10 Athletes of the Year as well as links to previous years’ honorees. 

Lea Davison’s Year of Limbo

For anyone training for the 2020 Olympics, the past year was an excruciating challenge.  Here’s how Lea Davison, the Olympic mountain biker from Sunderland, made the best of it.

In early March of 2020, Lea Davison had just flown back from Spain when she began to feel ill. She had just come off the grueling, Andalucia Stage Race, a six-day cross-country race that sent more than 700 riders over 367 kilometers of village streets, goat path-narrow mountain switchbacks, and up and down the rocky, dusty hillsides of southern Spain. There was nearly 11,000  feet of climbing. Lea had pushed hard and after the final stage on March 1, found herself in fifth place overall, representing USA Cycling and Team TWENTY20.

At the time, the novel coronavirus, aka Covid-19,  had already begun its steady march through Europe. Northern Italy was in lockdown and Spain was soon to follow. “I thought I’d gotten back in the nick of time,” Lea says when we talk on a Zoom call in late December 2020.

Lea, at her favorite doughnut stop. Photo by Ansel Dickey/Vermont Social

But then she woke up to a sore throat and chest pain. “I was in pain. My whole diaphragm was in pain. I couldn’t walk that well and I couldn’t ride my bike and I didn’t know what was going on.”

At the advice of her doctor, she checked in for testing at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington, near the home she shares with her wife, Frazier Blair in Sunderland. “I think I was one of the first to get tested in Vermont for Covid,” she says. “They were just great and did MRIs and chest X-rays.” As it turned out, Lea didn’t have Covid; she had pneumonia.“Thank heavens I did go in and they caught it early so I was able to get on antibiotics and rest but it was an incredibly stressful time,” she says with a laugh, looking, as she seems to always do, at the half-full side of the glass.

When an Olympic cross-country mountain biker who has just ridden a six-day stage race says she’s in pain, you might as well multiply that by 10 to understand how it might impact mere mortals. As for stress? Consider her past 18 months.
For the past year, Lea has been fighting not only for her own spot on the Olympic cross-country team but also to help the U.S. women move high enough in the UCI (Union Cycliste International) rankings so that the U.S. could send three riders.

At 37, the Mount Mansfield Union High School graduate and Middlebury College alpine ski racer has more than proven herself: she has a silver and a bronze medal from the World Championships in 2014 and 2016 respectively and two Olympics under her belt. In the 2012 Games she finished 11th and in 2016, at Rio, was seventh.

A co-founder of Little Bellas, an organization that empowers girls through mountain biking, Lea has also been a role model and mentor to younger racers, such as her former Specialized teammate Kate Courtney. Now 25, Courtney punched her 2020 (now 2021) Olympic ticket by finishing fifth at the World Championships in Mont Sainte Anne, QC in 2019, and then won a World Cup in West Virginian a week later.

Along with Courtney, emerging riders Haley Batten, 22 and Hannah Finchamp, 25, were named to the U.S Cycling Long Team for last summer. For the first time in a long time, the U.S. has a depth of talent to choose from, with veterans Davison, Erin Huck, 39, and former Olympian Chloe Woodruff, 32 rounding out the six-woman team.

And for the first time, the governing body, the UCI, will allow the two top-ranked nations to send three contestants, instead of two, to the Olympics (something that has been the norm for men’s teams.) Before the Tokyo Games were postponed, the U.S. had until May 2020 to secure that ranking.

With the support of USA Cycling and a newly-founded Team TWENTY20, Lea Davison, Erin Huck and Chloe Woodruff—the three who had been working on shoe-string budgets with a handful of private sponsors — started working together to do just that. ‘We mapped out this crazy, round-the-world schedule of races so we could divide and conquer and rack up as many UCI points for our country as we could,” Lea said. It was like something out of Mission Impossible.

That meant Lea would spend part of her traditional “off-season” flying to Tokyo to race in the Olympic test event on October 6. There, at 17th, she was the top U.S. woman, with Huck in 23rd and Woodruff in 32nd. Four days later, Lea was in Greece, racing to second place in the Attika Stage Races. A week later found her racing another stage race on the Greek island of Kos,  where she took fourth. By the end of 2019, the women had collectively racked up 4,308 UCI points, ranking the U.S. second overall. Lea headed to the Andalucia race in February 2020 hoping to add to that. As Covid shut down racing worldwide, the UCI froze the points.

“They’re going to take the points up until that March 3 date that they close the points and then I think they’ll reopen them,” Lea said. With Kate Courtney already in, the five other women will be competing for the other two spots.

Maybe the best thing about having pneumonia is I caught it early and it forced me to rest and recover,” Lea said in December. She and her wife Frazier, an executive with Orvis and a former NCAA downhill ski racer (and Division I All-American) at Williams College, had driven to Asheville, North Carolina so Lea could train.

“Once we got to the point where the Games got postponed, it was like a pressure valve release,” Lea says. And for the first time since they were married in 2018, Lea got to really spend time at home with her wife.  “It was absolutely amazing to be with Frazier for this long and for the whole summer in Vermont, which I haven’t done maybe in 20 years.”

While Lea has been openly gay for much of her racing career, the positive response to the couple’s 2018 wedding at Kingdom Trails opened her eyes to the role she could play in helping other LGBTQ athletes. Suddenly, being gay wasn’t a liability. “It’s been amazing. I mean, it’s a gamechanger, really, to have sponsors like Louis Garneau celebrate Frazier and I getting married and throw it out in their email blasts, make us special skin suits and do a photoshoot. Those actions redirected my thinking,” Lea says. 

“This felt so amazing to me and so supportive so I want to give that gift to other people. From that point on,  I made it a goal to tell my story more to make a positive impact.”  And she did.

On July 20, Lea posted a photo of herself and Frazier to Instagram with the caption: “When I came out to my dad, he simply said ‘Lea, there’s too little love in the world’. Those impactful, wise words set me free to love whomever I wanted to. Fast forward 15 years, and I’m legally married to the love of my life.  Now, more than ever, these words are relevant. We need to show up for the black community and to love BIPOC. We must keep pushing for an inclusive world. Let’s go. Black lives matter.”

With no races on the schedule and no travel possible, Lea and Frazier cycled to creemee stands, bought an espresso machine (“I made a deal with myself that if the Olympics got postponed, I was going to need more caffeine”) explored back roads. Lea also set up her own new training regimen. “I wanted to create new habits so I started going to bed earlier and training earlier – more like 9 am than 11.  I also started doing things differently, like I turned off my cycling computer and just started to get back to the basics of why I love being on a bike.”

She mapped and discovered new routes around Southern Vermont, including a new favorite two-and-half hour ride to a doughnut cart in Cambridge, N.Y. and back.  She mixed it up with mountain, gravel and road. “Simi Hamilton designed me this crazy 80- to 100-mile gravel ride, I was out there for like 6 hours,” Lea recalls. Hamilton, the U.S. Ski Team Nordic A-teamer and Olympian who lives in Peru, Vt. with his wife, Olympian Sophie Caldwell, rode with Lea at Slate Valley Trails in Poultney on a course Lea called “a World Cup Similation—probably the most fun ride of the summer,”  Lea recalls.

With many of the U.S. Nordic team in Vermont last summer, Lea also rode with skiers Ida Sargent and Julia Kern. “If it hadn’t been Covid, I would have loved to have trained with the Nordic team,” she said.

Lea continued to work with her longtime coach, former Tour de France racer Andy Bishop, of Williston and she signed up for Zwift races online. “Those races really opened up new opportunities for me. They presented a very safe environment for me to push myself because I’m on my trainer in a basement. It’s not like I would go off a drop or through a rock garden so I was able to push myself and find new limits. There’s no down time when you’re in one of those races,” she notes.

During one sprint Lea saw her heart rate reach 206 “I don’t think I’ve hit over 200 since I was 18 and that was a long time ago,” she says, laughing. “Andy [Bishop] was blown away, he was like ‘what were you doing before this?’ He was psyched. He was also racing the World Cup simulation and then we got to ride together in person for a week and he was really psyched with the progress I had made this summer.”

With the year in limbo behind her, Lea is looking ahead to getting back to racing in real life. After training in Asheville, N.C. over the Christmas holidays, she was driving to Tucson where she planned to be based through April, then heading to California to race, then to Arkansas, then home to Vermont for a couple of weeks before heading to Europe for the World Cup.

The first two World Cups, the opener on May 8-9 in Albstadt, Germany and a second race, a week later in Nove Mesto in the Czech Republic, will decide who goes to the Olympics. A win in the Czech World Cup event would automatically qualify Lea to compete at the Tokyo Games, rescheduled for July. If no American wins then the first American in the top 8 would get to go.
Nove Mesto will be the last opportunity and when she talks about it, Lea is gleeful. It’s where Lea won one of her most prized medals: silver at the World Championships, in 2018. It’s a course she knows well and is happy about. “I LOVVVVVE that course she says,” grinning ear to ear.

And she’s going into it feeling, as she has said, stronger and fitter than ever. “I do feel like I’m definitely in a different place. And I’ve done everything that I can to take advantage of this time, I really have.”

Watching and listening to her talk—animated, happy, enthusiastic, strong—you can’t help but think: Lea’s got this.

Opening photo: Lea Davison, training in Vermont in fall of 2020. Photo by Ansel Dickey/Vermont Social

See a full list of this year’s 10 Athletes of the Year as well as links to previous years’ honorees. 

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