Former Powell resident Steinmetz wins national title
When Neven Steinmetz was a student at Powell High School, she participated in the traditional sports —volleyball, basketball, that sort of thing. The thought that 15 years later she might be standing atop the podium as the national champion of an extreme sport never crossed her mind.
But she's slowly getting used to the feeling.
Steinmetz, a 1995 Powell High School graduate, was crowned the 2010 national mountain-cross champion last month after winning the title in Colorado. Steinmetz is currently in the final stages of earning her Ph.D. in chemical engineering at the University of Colorado.
“You have a far-off goal of winning a national championship. I think everyone has some kind of thought along those lines,” Steinmetz said. “But for me, it was still hanging out somewhere over in the dream corner of my mind.”
Mountain-cross, also known as four-cross or simply 4X, is patterned after skier-X or boarder-X, popular X-Games and Winter Olympic events. The sport begins with four riders in the starting gate who must navigate a downhill dirt track filled with tight corners, speed-gathering straightaways and lots of bumps and jumps. The first two riders across the finish line in each heat advance to the next round and continue to race until only the final four riders remain.
Steinmetz successfully navigated all her preliminary races at the national championships without much drama.
Her championship run in the finals more than made up for it.
“I got off to a horrible start in the finals,” Steinmetz said. “Coming around the first turn, my foot came out of my pedal and I was in third place, which isn't good. The tracks we run on usually aren't constructed for passing, so the biggest advantage you have is being the person in front.”
For much of the race's first half, Steinmetz had a battle on her hands just to get into second place. That all changed abruptly as she came out of a corner and faced the second of three straight sections on the track.
“I didn't realize it until I saw myself on the video, but I just got the perfect line through that section,” said Steinmetz. “I went into the straight fighting for second, and then entering the corner at the end of it, suddenly there I am with a shot at first.”
Steinmetz's path through the straightaway enabled her to carry much of her speed into the next corner. It also allowed her to tuck her bike to the inside of the corner while the race leader — who also happened to be the defending world champion in the event — was forced to take a higher outside line. Steinmetz exited the corner with a slim lead and a short while later the pair collided, with only Steinmetz staying upright.
With the other two finalist riders well behind, Steinmetz's only challenge in the final straightaway was remaining atop her bike to cross the finish line.
“I see it and I'm still like, whoa, where did I come from?” said Steinmetz, who is unmistakable on the track on her pink cycle while wearing pink attire as an ambassador for Project Pink, a breast cancer awareness program. “I must have hit all the jumps in that section just perfect to carry that much speed.”
Steinmetz's national title was made even more amazing by her relative short period of time in the sport, as well as the unorthodox route she took in entering it.
Steinmetz's dirt-bike career started as a downhill rider, a more speed-based event in which riders navigate a downhill ski sort of slope with the goal of getting from top to bottom in the fastest amount of time. The thought of entering a mountain-cross race likely would have never crossed her mind had it not been for one thing.
“When I started out, they were desperate for riders to fill the race, so they offered free entries,” said Steinmetz. “I decided to try it out because it was free and I found myself getting addicted to it. Most folks in 4X get into it via BMX racing.”
Steinmetz says she has eight years of experience, five of which has been spent as a pro. Her competition has been at it “a lot longer,” she says.
That she's able to compete at all is somewhat of a miracle. Steinmetz's cycling career nearly ended before it had a chance to start. Eight years ago, while out riding, she was struck by a car.
“I was flat in the middle of the road,” Steinmetz recalls. “I had to have hip surgery. I went through tons and tons of rehab. No way did I ever imagine something like this. I started riding again just to have something to do during the summer and to help with my rehab.”
Gradually, Steinmetz got on a training regimen as she got more and more into the sport. Still, she found her focus split between her schooling and her budding professional riding career.
“School has always been the focus for me, but the last two years it has been more split,” acknowledges Steinmetz.
Considering that she's in the finishing stages of a doctoral thesis, that hasn't always been the easiest of balancing acts.
“The day after I won the national championship, I had to go back and do a huge defense presentation for my Ph.D. committee,” said Steinmetz. “Hopefully I'll be done in April, but that just means my anxiety level is high.”
Steinmetz has an additional reason to feel anxiety. She plans to attend the world championships in Mont Saint Anne in Quebec, Canada, later this month. The event, which is scheduled to take place from Aug. 31-Sept. 5, provides her an opportunity to continue her ascent up the ranks of her sport.
“It's the pinnacle event for our sport,” said Steinmetz. “Whoever wins that day in the finals, they're the world champion.”
Much of the cost of making that trip will come out of Steinmetz's pocket. While she has the luxury of sponsors that help provide much of her equipment, from the bike that she rides to the helmet and safety equipment she wears, the actual travel costs are something she must come up with on her own.
“The United States doesn't pay money to defray costs for gravity events,” Steinmetz said. “It's not something the United States Olympic Committee funds. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a little money in the sport, but since I started a lot of the sponsorships have been components —which still is nice.”