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Small is biking through challenges

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Carmen Small: Passion For Sport (3:01)

As the women's cycling world gears up for La Course by Le Tour de France, pro cyclist Carmen Small explains how she came to love the sport. (3:01)

DURANGO, Colo. -- By the time Carmen Small was 8 years old, she already had a presence, compact but mighty. Donna Nazario saw it as she stood next to her ex-husband Allen Small in the transition area of a kids' triathlon at Fort Lewis College, waiting for their daughter to come through. Carmen hurled her bike to the ground and ran on, her luminous brown eyes focused ahead, her face a mask of concentration.

Donna sips a midmorning coffee and lets out a big laugh at the memory. "I just looked at Allen and said, 'Wow, this is going to be a force to be reckoned with."'

Carmen topped out at a modest 5-foot-5, blessed with power, stamina and a very hard head. She has channeled the intensity her parents saw into professional cycling, and she excels in the time trial discipline that requires her to tuck low and tight, keeping her core still and her lower body churning. She was part of the U.S.-based Specialized-lululemon squad of six women that won the team time trial at the world championships last year, a world bronze medalist in the individual event and a sprinter capable of leading out a teammate or surging off the front to win a race herself.

Determined forward momentum was the only way Carmen could contend with the crosswinds that buffeted her family life and, later on, the uneven roads of her sport. Like nearly all of her peers, she rides for love and little in the way of conventional reward or recognition. In the seven full seasons since she quit teaching high school math to become a full-time pro, Carmen, 34, hasn't cracked six figures in total salary. Yet each time she contemplates retiring in favor of something more secure, she sabotages the plan by continuing to improve.

On Sunday, Carmen and her Specialized-lululemon teammates will race against some of the world's best female competitors in a new circuit race in Paris -- La Course by Le Tour de France -- that finishes on the Avenue des Champs-Elysees a few hours before the final stage of the Tour. It is only one day in the spotlight compared to three weeks for the men, an event that can be viewed as both an opportunity and an obvious consolation prize for a sport fighting to gain traction.

None of those realities has dented Carmen's competitive desire. By her own admission, she is hooked. Addiction is a dark meme in her family, but she has converted it to kilojoules, using her bike to break a cycle.

A jack-of-all-trades

As a grade-schooler, Carmen was a wee gymnast who was bumped up to compete with older girls. At 16, she was a U.S. Junior Olympian in both slalom kayak racing and cross-country skiing, mentored by her father, a member of the U.S. biathlon and cross-country ski teams in the 1960s.

"Whatever she saw, she could do," Allen says simply.

As a setter on the Durango High School volleyball team that won the state championship in her senior year, Carmen defiantly played and acted taller. She loved the geometry and camaraderie of the game, the challenge of delivering the ball to each person on the front line with just the right trajectory.

Hammering the ball against the wall at home to perfect her sets for hours on end gave Carmen faith she could execute on game day. That faith helped her step lightly over the quicksand in her family life and find harder ground.

"If you keep busy, the reality of things doesn't creep in," she said. "It really saved me."

Donna, a warm, outgoing general contractor and property manager originally from Lubbock, Texas, battled alcohol and drug dependency while her daughters were growing up. While Carmen's older sister Nicole spun into a volatile, rebellious orbit, Carmen reacted to stress and conflict by gravitating the other way, tunneling into structure and regimen. She did her own laundry and dishes, kept her room neat and had no problem finishing her homework or making two-a-days when her sports seasons overlapped. The girls, once close, clashed often as their paths forked.

Sober eight years now, Donna jokes that Carmen used to make her nervous because she never got in trouble. A few seconds later, her face crumples abruptly, like paper wadded in a fist.

"Carmen succeeded against all odds," Donna says, her eyes filling.

Carmen says she has blocked out chunks of early memory that she has no desire to recover, but presents the snapshots she retains without self-pity. She had touchstones.

She found comfort in the homes of her childhood friends Emily Nicholson and Mandy Seale, and they remain close to this day. "[Carmen] is intent on not letting us drift apart," Emily says appreciatively.

Mandy still marvels at Carmen's "amazing ability to channel trouble, sadness, pain into drive. It's been that way forever. She overcame a lot of stuff that we didn't get into until we were older."

Carmen's father, Allen, and stepmother, Margaret Poer, have been married for 24 years. She lived with them at times and they helped support her emotionally and financially, from college tuition to the purchase of her first racing bike. And Carmen can look back now and see the humanity in her mother's journey.

"She showed up when she could," Carmen says. "Maybe I didn't know any different, but it wasn't horrible. I never was without my mom."

But she also formed a resolve to distance herself from Durango and all its clinging cobwebs. Excellence would be her ticket out.

Carmen went to a community college in Idaho on a full volleyball scholarship, then transferred to Colorado State University in Fort Collins, where she earned a mathematics degree and decided she would teach. She had always found math appealingly straightforward, with one correct solution to each problem.

She thought she had things solved when she arrived for her first semester of student-teaching at Broomfield High School between Denver and Boulder. Chuck Leech, the faculty member who supervised her, expected a standard first-day lesson plan for Algebra I. Instead, Carmen delivered a heartfelt talk about her background, her love for the subject and how much she would invest in seeing that the class would learn to love it, too.

"Carmen never lacks for confidence, and she wanted them to know her," Leech said. "The kids weren't responding, and I was thinking, 'You need to cut and go to Plan B,' But she got them to be on her side, and it paid dividends for the rest of the semester."

A natural in the classroom, Carmen was quickly hired to fill a vacancy and settled into what she thought would be her vocation. But her life was about to depart from the syllabus.

Becoming a cyclist

It wasn't until Carmen was a college triathlete that she realized she had a particular, if raw, aptitude for cycling.

"I didn't know what I was doing," she says, laughing. "I was literally that person in shorts and a T-shirt, thinking I'm hauling ass in, like, my tennis shoes."

From her first criteriums -- the short, punishing races where courses often loop around right-angled streets, sorting the fearless from the merely skilled -- she found that speed and bike-handling in close quarters came naturally. Michael Engleman, then with USA Cycling's development program, invited her to a talent identification camp in Colorado Springs in 2005. She showed up wearing triathlon gear, full of questions.

Corey Hart was a sports science consultant to USAC at the time and took notice of the feisty newbie, not so much for her power numbers as her attitude.

"For me, just seeing the glow she had after a hard ride -- she'd get kicked in the head and still have a smile on her face," Hart says. She asked him to coach her and they've worked together since.

As Carmen proceeded with her regularly scheduled life, teaching at another Denver-area high school, tutoring math on the side and marrying her college sweetheart, she found ways to shoehorn her increasingly consuming hobby in with everything else. She raced with a local amateur team in 2006 and broke her collarbone in the first elite national race she ever entered.

"Totally went too hot into the corner," she recalls with the matter-of-fact tone of an athlete who has crashed many times since.

Sitting in serious pain in a hospital exam room with Hart eight years ago, Carmen got an X-ray view of her soul along with her clavicle. She was 26 and married; she had a condo and a good job. There would be no money or recognition in cycling for a long time, if ever. She didn't care. The chain ring had sunk its teeth into her, and her inner voice was the one she trusted.

Carmen is one of many top U.S. women who discovered her calling relatively late and has had to manage a teetering stack of other obligations. Durango and its thin air and rugged topography began to beckon again. Her father was in ill health and she needed to go home. Her first marriage foundered as her career picked up steam. When USAC development guru Jim Miller asked if she would go to Europe and race with the national team for portions of the 2008 season, she said yes and left teaching behind.

Other than a brief, unhappy stint with an Italian team, Carmen progressed steadily as she found gigs in successive years with domestic teams Aaron's, Colavita, Tibco and finally Optum, whose boss, Jonas Carney, admired the way she picked people's brains, restless for knowledge.

She met Ben Sonntag on group rides in town and felt the chemistry almost immediately, but it took Sonntag several months to ask her on a real date. A professional mountain biker from Germany who had come to the United States to study and compete, he was shy while she was outgoing, but he loved her warmth and her fortitude and shared her vision of a base camp in her hometown mountains.

They decided to marry just before Ben's student visa ran out, rushing to find a clerk who would perform the ceremony on the Friday afternoon of a holiday weekend, and they celebrated by racing in Durango's signature Iron Horse cycling event. Then he went to Germany to await his green card, the first of many prolonged separations.

Both Ben and Carmen -- she uses the Twitter handle @smallsunday, adding the English translation of his last name to hers -- are frank about the strains their peripatetic lives put on their partnership. When she turned 32 at the start of the 2012 season, they had the dream house Ben's parents had helped them buy and agreed it was time to start a family.

Carmen notched her best results yet, but just missed being named to the U.S. Olympic team. Then Specialized-lululemon manager Kristy Scrymgeour came calling with an offer to join one of the best teams in the world.

"I could not turn down the contract," Carmen says. "It was a no-brainer. I would have been bitter and jealous and resented it."

The couple had contentious discussions. They went to counseling. They worked it out. That slogging was vindicated when Carmen had the season of her life last year, culminating in two world championship medals.

That same September, she and Ben took on something far more challenging than juggling two careers. They opened their home to two teenaged girls -- her sister's daughters -- who needed them.

Stepping up for family

When Carmen's nieces moved in last fall, her sister Nicole was in an addiction recovery facility in Albuquerque, New Mexico, trying to beat a long struggle with drugs and alcohol and still dealing with the repercussions of an old domestic violence case that had landed her in jail. Donna and Allen were sharing responsibility for their granddaughters, but they were worn out from years of on-and-off caretaking. Carmen decided she needed to do more for the girls, as she says, "than lecture everybody about how they should be raised."

It was an act of love that propelled her around a blind corner.

Carmen brought compassion and motivation to the task, but no hands-on experience with child-rearing. She saw some of herself reflected in her nieces' questioning eyes, but quickly realized they might not be able to use the same tools or find comfort in the same routines that she had.

"I can relate to the girls because I did have a similar circumstance," she says. "But the way I coped with it is totally different. It's so per-person. You can't compare it."

Carmen is precise and brings an economy of motion to everything she does, whether it's chugging through a series of uphill intervals or slicing an avocado. She and Ben devoted themselves to making the girls' time with them organized and predictable, chauffeuring them to sports practices, supervising homework, offering a dollar on days when their chores were done with a smile.

During an interview in May at the Tour of California, Carmen talked about the tensions familiar to any working parent. She couldn't put in the same volume of training, and her time trial form was sagging. She understood and accepted the tradeoff, but it was hard. Hart assured her she might be behind in the spring, but she'd be ready for the world championships this September in Spain.

Her open, expressive face collapsed suddenly.

"We're making a positive impact on their lives, and that's what it's about," she said through tears. "It's my family and I'm not gonna turn my back."

The next day, she sprinted to an unexpected win in the circuit race in Sacramento, one of two days of women's competition during the eight-day men's stage race, but her morale was still hard to manage. She rolled home from a training session before the national championships in late May distraught at the thought that she wouldn't be able to properly defend her time trial title. She finished second to Alison Powers at the national championships, then rebounded to win the overall classification at the multiday North Star Grand Prix in Minnesota last month.

Miller and Hart think Carmen could race internationally for several more seasons. The world championships will be held in Richmond, Virginia, in 2015, a powerful incentive for her to stay in the game. Carmen is still questing for a higher plateau. When she began to feel a creeping phobia of crashing -- the cumulative effect of several damaging wrecks -- she began working with Blair Wiles, a Durango psychotherapist who has begun a started practice, and felt it dissipate.

Fellow Specialized-lululemon rider Ally Stacher notes that in racing as in life, Carmen switches easily from taking care of others -- chasing down attacks, sweeping other riders from a teammate's wheel -- to taking care of herself, conserving energy and hiding in the bunch so she can spring off a lead-out and sprint for the win. In either scenario, "She can really put herself in the pain cave," Stacher says admiringly.

Carmen has had a good deal of practice.

Challenges still remain

When Ben returns from a race in Montana in late June, Carmen is about to depart for the women's Giro Rosa stage race in Italy. They won't see one another much this summer. Ben talks about the way they've dealt with their differences and how his own comfortable upbringing in a small town north of Frankfurt molded him.

"She needed to fight for everything, and I just needed to ask for it," he says. "But sometimes the easiest road is not the best road. She has influenced me to dig a little deeper."

Their house is a haven that a pair of elite cyclists might conjure in daydreams, nestled next to the rising grade of a county road with good training routes in either direction. Firewood is stacked out back, near the trailhead for a path Ben cleared for them to hike and ride. Coral-and-yellow columbine blooms nod at the base of the stucco walls. The property lies within the geographical limits of Carmen's hometown, but it feels far from the fragmented childhood she describes.

She looks around at the open fields and split-rail fences, the heart-shaped aspen leaves glittering in the wind and the evergreens soldiering up to a high rocky ridge, all sharply in focus under a sky the pure blue of a ceramic glaze that deepens at its apex, and asks, "Aren't we lucky?"

Carmen lifts the lid of an outdoor grill and positions the makings for fajitas: halved bell peppers, red onion slices, strips of chicken and steak. She is smiling, relaxed, immersed in the act of feeding people, which she enjoys. But it has been a wrenching week.

Her sister Nicole has returned to Durango, sober and trying to ground herself in a day job and a future, possibly picking up where she once left off in the health care field. She wanted her daughters back at her side, and the girls have gone to live with her. The older siblings have barely spoken in the past few years as Carmen's sense of obligation, frayed by years of conflict and disappointment, finally snapped. Everyone in the family feels the old undulating currents of hope and fear and resentment.

Inside the house, Carmen's innate orderliness reigns. An NPR station murmurs discreetly in the background. The granite kitchen countertops are spotless save for a jigsaw puzzle in progress, the pieces neatly sorted by color.

There are few signs that her nieces spent the school year here. A few sticky notes and cards, reminders of future appointments, curl out from one wall. The June calendar next to them bears notations about tennis and volleyball practices. But the hangers in the spare bedroom closets are bare, the dressers empty and the bedspreads unrumpled.

On a recent visit to their grandfather's house, the girls exclaimed as they leafed through photographs of him back in his ski racing days, of their mother and their aunt as kids. They were well-spoken and animated in conversation with a visitor.

Donna, 15, loves to draw. She had just come back from a long backpacking trip that made her feel "accomplished and tired." Carmen, 13, pulled up an iPhone video of herself on a Nordic ski course, which showed her tackling it with an echo of her aunt's feline aggression.

"She's intimidating because she's always good at everything," the younger Carmen said, then added quickly, "but she'll always teach you how to do something, and encourage you."

The resemblance between the two sets of girls is uncanny, so much so that when Donna took her granddaughters to the grocery store years ago, people did double-takes, wondering if she'd started over. She is grateful that Carmen sheltered them in her slipstream for a while.

"It doesn't matter what the outcome was. What matters is that she stepped up to the plate and she did it," Donna says.

Carmen keeps reminding herself that years ago when she was in high school, she chose to live with her own imperfect mom. They have their issues now, but things are more mended than broken between them. Her mother, who has found joy in her late 50s singing and playing harmonica in a local blues band, has told Carmen to keep riding as long as she can, that she is modeling what it looks like to have a healthy obsession.

Of her sister, Carmen says, "There's a lot of healing that needs to happen with that relationship. I'm not putting a time frame on it.

"This has to work. We will do everything in our ability to help her be successful. We have to. Bottom line, the girls want to be with their mother. It's the best place for them. It's hard; it's draining to raise kids that aren't your own."

There are tattoos on Carmen's hip and ribcage that are usually hidden from view, Japanese characters that represent life and wholeness, forgiveness and love. They spell out something she usually thinks of in quantitative terms: her personal best, something to strive for. She got them a few years ago after sitting by her sister's bed during a hospitalization, watching her undergo cognitive tests, for once more scared than angry about what the future might hold.

"The emotional response was like I was a child again," Carmen says.

She knows she needs to let go of the idea that she can fix everything, and focus on what she can control. So on a morning in late June when much is in flux, Carmen pads out to the garage in fuzzy purple slippers, lifts one of her bikes off its hook on the wall, slips into hard-soled bike shoes and goes back to work.

Out of heart. Out of habit.