BMX & MTB Hall of Famer 9-Time National Champion X Games Dual-Slalom Gold 1995 Downhill World Champion
Go to Leigh Donovan’s website, www.ichoosebikes.com, and you will find this opening statement that not only tells you who she is but clearly states her priorities: “Leigh is a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mom, a friend, a bike racer, an entrepreneur, a coach, a business owner, and a passionate bike enthusiast.” We could not describe her any better. It would not be hard to make a documentary about Leigh’s racing accomplishments, but that has been done numerous times. What hasn’t been addressed is who is Leigh Donovan? What drives this incredible woman who radiates cycling passion and motivates everyone she meets? It hasn’t always been unicorns and rainbows. Leigh is an example of a real woman thriving in a predominantly male sport.
YOUNG, COMPETITIVE LEIGH
Leigh’s story goes back to the early ’80s before the bicycle became her weapon of choice. Extremely competitive, she loved winning above all else, whether playing Go Fish, Clue, softball or running races. Leigh resented women’s sports growing up, though. She felt that she was being punished for being female. She wanted to win overall, against the boys and the girls—whoever showed up! She was angry because she wanted to compete against the best, not a category or gender. As a 6th grader, softball was her sport of choice. Agitated during a game, she confronted a umpire with some choice words and found herself exiled from softball. She let her passion get to her and learned a valuable lesson the hard way. This was one of her last experiences being a sore loser, something she vowed would not happen again. This experience helped her become one of the most approachable pro athletes ever in the world of mountain biking.
Time off from softball was a blessing instead of a curse, because this is when she was introduced to BMX, the sport that would define her childhood. The Orange Y BMX track in Southern California was arguably the most competitive local track in the world. Leigh mainly raced boys back in those days, and her archenemy was none other than Brian Lopes. The two most competitive bike racers on the planet grew up racing BMX together. That is probably not a coincidence. BMX was a family affair, and the Donovan and Lopes families became fast friends. Within three months their entire lives revolved around BMX races. Leigh would spend the next three years competitively racing the boys from 11 to 13 years old before puberty would change everything. The boys became bigger, stronger and faster. It wasn’t fair. Leigh realized that she was going to be chasing her titles against girls from this point on. Her success in BMX seemed easy, as she achieved national win after win, with an overall national title on a cruiser that would land her in the history books forever.
Rarely does a champion share their darkest memories. It is easy to talk about the good times, but what about the depression and the loneliness? Teenagers are easily influenced by their surroundings. Even when they have the world in the palm of their hands, they can get derailed. Leigh worked at a flower shop after school and had her own spending money. She was winning races, but her happiness was a façade. Her home life had deteriorated. No one in her family was communicating. Her parents were on the brink of a divorce, and Leigh found herself totally alone.
Cocaine became her drug of choice. It was the perfect escape from reality and took the pain away. All her problems temporarily disappeared, and she found comfort hanging with her new boyfriend. Leigh’s issues with feeling fat, ugly and lonely all vanished. As with all addictions, acquiring the drug became the challenge. She figured out ways to pinch a little money from the flower shop occasionally to supplement her income. Leigh ran away from home at 16 and stayed with her boyfriend’s friends. That first night away, after excessive partying, she felt her larynx swelling shut. Fortunately, she had some nearby friends who were not into partying, and one of their fathers happened to be a doctor. Leigh refused to go to the hospital, so the doctor passed on some advice through her friends. He told her to ice her neck and chew ice chips.
She endured a rough night, but she survived. The following morning, she called her grandparents, knowing that she was on a downward spiral. She asked to stay with them to try to get her life back together. Once settled in, she figured that she would be able to right the ship and get on the road to recovery. She wasn’t expecting her father to show up the following day. The family went to “counseling,” or what Leigh thought was such. In reality, Leigh was being sent to rehab! It was an incredibly rough four days as she detoxed and was under 24-hour surveillance because she was considered a flight risk. Nine days later, she was sent home with a new lease on life.
Then there was a huge turn of events. The family began to communicate again out of necessity. Indirectly, and in the worst way, Leigh had brought her family back together. They all learned to be open and honest with each other as she recovered. She was raised Catholic, and there was always a lot of shame related to events like this, but the family bonded together and went through the “Tough Love” steps. Leigh vividly remembers step nine, which was to confront people who hurt you. This was the first time in her life that she had witnessed her father cry, and it was this raw honesty that began the healing process. To this day, the family has remained friends with the people from the Tough Love program. Mr. and Mrs. Donovan will celebrate their 50-year anniversary this year.
Leigh’s last BMX race was in Oklahoma on Thanksgiving weekend in 1989. It wasn’t until 1992 that she would be introduced to mountain biking. Her neighbors, Colleen and Dave Wilburn, talked her into racing the Kamikaze in Mammoth, and through her BMX contacts, Dean Bradley and Brad Lusky, she was offered a support ride from Haro. She was given a bike and expenses for the race and signed up for the women’s expert class in downhill and dual slalom, which ended up being pro women. Leigh recalls the Kamikaze track walk the day before and saying,”This is so stupid!”
On race day, she arrived at the top of the course and witnessed everyone on wind-trainers in skinsuits. “Here I was, in Vans and shorts, looking more like a soccer player.” Bad crashes in practice and the race itself relegated her mid-pack, somewhere around 20th for the downhill. She did not put in a single clean downhill run all weekend. Mountain biking wasn’t as easy as it looked. Leigh had plenty of skills from BMX, but going 50 mph on slick shale and loose rock was a whole new experience. Not a standout on day one in downhill, Leigh did make an enormous first impression in dual slalom. She ended up beating Missy Giove, a living legend, in the small final for the third overall at her first event. She had no clue whom she had beaten.
Her sister Cari had driven them up to the race, and since they didn’t know anyone except for John Tomac and Dave Cullinan from the BMX days, they ended up spending the weekend in Jonny T’s pit area rather than with Leigh’s Haro teammates. Being surrounded by friends who were champions probably didn’t hurt.
Happy with Leigh’s success, Haro decided to put Leigh on its co-factory team and send her to the National Championships in Durango, Colorado, four weeks later. The competitive feelings returned. This was an opportunity to change her life and to pursue focused direction. It was time to take charge and find the fun of being back in the racing world. There would be so many ups and downs, with crashes and mechanicals, as well as wins and sponsor changes. But Leigh Donovan was back, and this time it was different. These experiences set into motion a decade of national and world titles that eventually led Leigh Donovan into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame.
There is an element of emotion in women’s racing that is never discussed. In a male-dominated sport like mountain biking, there are only two issues that you need to deal with—one is you and the other is your bike. Men can look at the calendar, set up a training program and schedule to peak right on a specific day months in advance. Guys never have to think twice about menstrual cycles. In fact, if you want to watch a guy become really uncomfortable, just bring up the subject. For women in sports, it is a very real thing and can be extremely painful, as it was for Leigh. She revealed that once a month for 22 years that day would be absolutely crippling: “It would twist me into a fetal position from the severe pain.”
For a guy to relate, think about that leg cramp that wakes you up in the middle of the night out of a deep sleep. Only triple it, center it directly in your abdomen and imagine it rendering you powerless for about 24 hours. This painful experience even contributed to a national title loss to Cheri Elliot in dual slalom. No amount of race preparation can undo that pain and discomfort. Since it is personal, women don’t talk about it openly. In post-race interviews they just bite their tongues and swallow their pride. Leigh tried to use birth control to manage the race calendar, but nothing worked as planned, and the weight loss Leigh experienced became another issue, so that idea was abandoned. What did work was giving birth to her daughter, Grace, at 34 years old. Leigh joked: “Had I known, I could have just had a kid when I was 18! I’m just kidding.”
In 2010, after nearly 10 years away from racing, Leigh found herself in a bit of a mid-life crisis. She and business partner Jennifer Gabrielli had been running Tangerine, a clothing store in Temecula, and they found that retail was getting tougher. She was losing interest and needed something new. Along came Jill Kintner, who managed to talk Leigh, now a 38-year-old mother, into racing mountain bikes again. It would be different this time, mainly because her schedule was extremely limited. Leigh only had five hours a week available for training. Although this sounded completely unrealistic if she wanted to be competitive, it was actually the best thing that could have happened she explained here: “I spent more time doing mental training. I had one goal, which was to do my best. It wasn’t results-driven this time.” Leigh found happiness in those five hours a week, which made her life better. She showed up at every race, went all in and gave it her best. Some results were good and some, well, not so good, but winning wasn’t the ultimate goal; it was finding herself. This is why she can relate so well to non-racing mountain bike enthusiasts, because it is now all about the passion for riding a bicycle.
Racing was the catalyst that propelled Leigh into the next big chapter of her life. She volunteers a ton of her time to the local NICA racing team and shares her wisdom and experience, which brings the most out of these kids. She launched ichoosebikes, her coaching and training business, to share her knowledge and passion with the current generation of riders. “Coaching defines me. Competitive athletes are not balanced. If we try to live without sports, we can’t do it. At 47, I don’t know where my place is. I still don’t know where I am going, but my goal here is creating a better, more passionate group of cyclists. We are better human beings because of cycling.” She takes the most pride in her coaching recognition, even more than her own accomplishments. “I get the most out of others’ success.”
Mountain biking has always been a male-dominated sport. It can be very intimidating for women to break into. First off, there is insecurity. Simply dressing in Lycra for a bike ride can be terrifying for a woman in a group of strangers. Leigh, even with all her race wins, titles and fan base, still has the same issues as most women. This is another unspoken truth: “I’ve always had horrific body issues and a lot of insecurities. I don’t like looking at myself and have an extremely hard time wearing cycling clothes. It was difficult growing up with a younger sister who had a perfect body. I have hips and big thighs from BMX and have always felt fat. One day, growing up, I heard my mom tell someone that my legs were big from racing. Another time, when I was a teen, my grandpa told me I looked fat at the pool. You don’t ever get over hearing these things. Cellulite and varicose veins are a woman’s worst nightmare; it’s real stuff.” This from one of the most adored women in all of cycling.
Leigh goes on: “I know I’m not fat. I know I’m not ugly. I’m learning to love myself more every day. I don’t like sexual attention at all. It’s uncomfortable. I’d prefer to be invisible.” This is something all women experience, even world champions. “In my store I was surrounded by size-zero women, and you can’t help but feel insecure. So, I shopped. I bought new clothes that made me feel better about myself. Some days I would wake up, get dressed, and the pants I chose would dictate my mood for the entire day. If they felt tight or didn’t look good on me, it would set off an insecurity.”
Leigh prides herself on having a purpose, chasing goals, pursuing accomplishments and having integrity to keep her insecurities in check. Raising a teen daughter makes her even more aware of this epidemic of body issues, but being aware of them doesn’t make them disappear.
Men are shocked to hear that women have these issues; they are completely blind to them. When you hear that one of the most attractive women in the sport is insecure about her appearance, you realize we all have hang-ups. Even our heroes and role models who we think are invincible have personal demons to battle. This goes to show that being a champion doesn’t get you off the hook; we are all still human beings first. Leigh goes through the same issues that you and I do on a daily basis, and that is what allows her to be such a great mentor.
There are so many people who are responsible for who we become. Leigh was fortunate to have a family that had the mind-set to unite when things spiraled out of control. Her sister Cari was always close and supportive from the shadows. Their drive up to Mammoth in 1992 got the ball rolling on this whole mountain bike journey. Brian Lopes instilled a competitiveness in her like no other and has remained a lifelong friend. Having a supportive husband, “Stikman” (Craig Glaspell), in her corner during her 10-year race run was key to her success. It is so important to have your partner believing in your career while keeping a stable home life.
Leigh realizes that few people actually compete in the sport, and it is the beginners and local riders who are extremely valuable to our industry yet are often overlooked. This is where Leigh shines the brightest and can share her passion and pay it forward so the next generation can love biking as much as she does.
Leigh Donavan is a daughter, sister, wife, mom, friend, bike racer, coach, business owner, an entrepreneur and a passionate bike enthusiast!
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