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Thursday, April 19, 2012
Amber Neben turns challenges into opportunities

By Cristina Goyanes

As Amber Neben began telling the story of how she survived spinal meningitis at age 4, she stopped to talk to someone who dropped by her Orange County home to give her a drug test.

"They're going to watch me pee in a cup and fill out some paperwork," said the pro cyclist, who rides for the Specialized-lululemon women's cycling team. "It's normal. I'm on the out-of-competition testing list, so the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency knows where to find me pretty much every day of my life and is welcome to come test me whenever they want."

As a top cyclist in her 10th season with several major titles under her logoed Lycra -- including a world championship, U.S. national championship, and, as of March, a Pan American title -- Neben is happy to participate in testing in the pursuit of a clean sport. Ironically, she tested positive for a steroid metabolite in 2003 but quickly proved it was due to a tainted supplement and had her two-year suspension reduced to six months.

"Amber's case was ruled a non-intentional violation by the hearing panel," said Steve Johnson, USA Cycling president and CEO. "However, due to the principle of strict liability, she was required to serve a six-month suspension."

Since then, the top-ranked American road cyclist, who's currently seventh in the world, has been careful about what she consumes, especially during an Olympic year.

Despite Neben's achievements, the 37-year-old has yet to win an Olympic medal and is hoping to change that in London.

"I'm never satisfied unless I win, so that's what I'm always shooting for," said Neben, who has overcome two serious illnesses and three bad crashes among other hardships to get to this point. "Any time you face adversity, you have to decide, are you going to stay down or get back up? I've always chosen to let that obstacle become an opportunity."

Embracing adversities

If adversity is opportunity, Neben has had plenty in her life, starting with meningitis. She wasn't supposed to wake up from her three-day coma. And if she did, she would certainly be brain- damaged, or at the very least deaf, doctors told her frightened parents. But the 4-year-old redhead woke up totally fine and was outside playing soccer with the neighborhood boys before they knew it.

"When I look back at that time, I think God did that to start writing the story of my life," said Neben, a devout Christian.

Early on, she showed signs of being a great athlete -- first with soccer and later with track when her high school PE teacher persuaded her to try cross country as a freshman. Neben reluctantly gave track a go, and by her sophomore year in 1991, she was ranked among the nation's top 10 in the 1,500 and 3,000 meters. For the next four years, the 5-foot-4 petite powerhouse ran like hell, focused on becoming a national champion and going to the Olympics as a runner. Her fleet feet and good grades landed her a full scholarship to the University of Nebraska. But recurring stress fractures in her feet and femur changed the course of her career after her second collegiate season.

"I remember sitting at the track knowing that I had to let my body rest and recover," Neben said. "So I stopped running and stayed active as an assistant coach until I finished my degree. All of a sudden, I had to let go of my dream as an athlete."

Or so she thought. Quitting track made her the biggest gym rat. Neben began riding the Lifecycle exercise bike, spinning 100 revolutions per minute, up to twice a day, every day. Little did she know that she was building the foundation for a sports career that would revive her dream of becoming a pro athlete -- even a world champion.

Finding a new Olympic dream

It wasn't until she decided to buy a real bike in 1997 that she learned she could race on one. "I still have an engine, I thought -- I'm doing this," Neben said, recalling how she immediately started mountain bike racing in her T-shirt and running shoes. Three years later, Neben, then 25, dropped out of her Ph.D. program in molecular biology, genetics and biochemistry at UC Irvine to go pro.

"One of my favorite books is called 'If You're Going to Walk on Water, You've Got to Get Out of the Boat,' and at that instant, I was willing to get out of the boat and try to walk on water," she said.

Though, by her own admission, she sank a few times, Neben kept "walking on water" as a decent pro mountain biker in 2000. Then in June 2001, a SoCal road cycling team invited her to do a two-week road race. Neben, who had not raced a road bike up to that point, ended up winning a stage at the event, which qualified her for the world championships in September.

"I was struggling with the technical aspects of mountain biking, but my fitness level transferred very well to the road," Neben said.

By 2002, Neben traded her fat tires for skinny ones and within a year became a national champion in road racing. Her Olympic dream was back on.

Though Neben missed making the 2004 Olympic team by eight seconds, she secured her ticket to Beijing in 2008 despite a bout with skin cancer.

"I lost three weeks recovering from a surgery to cut out the stage one melanoma in November 2007," said Neben, who has an 11-centimeter scar on her back. "It was a minor setback in training, but overall, I was lucky we caught it early and I didn't need chemo or radiation. Still, any time you're faced with cancer, it's pretty scary."

At the Games, she was elated to finally be part of the Olympic experience.

"Walking in the opening ceremony, being in the village and racing was awesome until about the last 10 km in the 102.6-km road race," Neben said.

Her bike chain dropped (probably due to the day's steady rain) and jammed.

"After four years of waiting, there was nothing I could do but watch the race go away from me," she said.

But she didn't quit. She jumped off her bike, put the chain back on, hopped in the saddle and crossed the finish line a disappointing 33rd.

"I didn't even get a chance to see what was in my legs," she said.

That night, she lost it at dinner, but six weeks later, she regained her confidence at the 2008 world championships, where she won gold in the time trial, which meant she could wear the prestigious white-and-rainbow-striped jersey every time she raced the following season. She proceeded to win every time trial race in 2009 until the Giro d'Italia in July, when a rider ahead of her fell and took her out going around the corner on a downhill.

It was the first of three big crashes -- the next crash was at worlds that September and then the following was at the Giro in 2010 -- that all ended with Neben in an Italian ambulance, on an emergency flight home and in immediate surgery that included grafting a finger and inserting a metal plate in her broken hand and another in her shattered collarbone.

Getting back in the saddle

"I thought about stopping, but it was one of those things that I felt like I wasn't finished writing my story in the sport, so I continued to persevere," Neben said.

After having three surgeries, her priority in 2011 became about staying healthy and off the pavement. She was thrilled to get a full season of racing on her legs with zero crashes.

It was also her first year racing for the high-profile HTC Highroad, best known for its men's team featuring hotshots like top Tour de France sprinter Mark Cavendish. Unfortunately, the team unexpectedly lost its sponsor and disbanded in August. In October, Team Specialized-lululemon was born and snatched up Neben and a few other former female HTC headliners.

In December, her new sponsor, Specialized, generously donated 70 bikes to Neben's cause, The Dare To Be Project -- a charity she started with her husband, Jason, in 2010 to help homeless kids feel more positive about their future.

"It was a way for me to give back and reach out," said Neben, who knows a thing or two -- or 10 -- about finding the silver lining.

So far, 2012 is gearing up to be a good year for Neben, who is set to compete in at least eight races from now through early June, which is when she'll find out if she's made the U.S. Olympic team. She helped teammate Evelyn Stevens to a win in Wednesday's La Fleche Wallonne and is now prepping for the Grand Prix Stad Roeselare on Sunday.

"La Fleche is one of two World Cup events where women get to race the same course as the men, so it's really special for us," Neben said. "I won the Grand Prix last year, so it'll be difficult to win a second time -- but not impossible!"

Spoken like a woman who has never backed down from a challenge ... err ... opportunity.