From Bellingham to Biel: Western alumna rises to the top of cyclocross
By Tyler Urke
Two quarter-inch scars sit on Courtenay McFadden’s right hip, reminding her every time she sees them that she’ll be getting matching ones on her left hip in the coming weeks.
“I look at them and get irritated that I have to do the whole recovery process again,” McFadden said.
As one of the country’s top cyclocross athletes, the thought of laying in bed for weeks is agonizing. But it’s the 2009 Western graduate’s desire to push beyond what she thought her body and mind were capable of doing that keeps her going.
Cyclocross is a combination of biking and running with obstacles and typically harsh conditions. Cyclocross bikes are lightweight and specialized for their utility as the athletes often need to carry their bikes on their shoulders to clear barriers. McFadden, 33, started competing in cyclocross events in 2009 and has won nearly 40 races while competing nationwide and internationally.
She had her best year in 2016, all while dealing with hip impingement, also known as femoroacetabular impingement, that caused a torn labrum in her right hip. The way the ball and socket of McFadden’s hips form and the repetitive cycling motion led to her labrum getting pinched, and eventually torn.
Arthroscopic surgery in February 2016 and six months of intense physical therapy allowed her to compete in the 2017 season, but now the hip impingement is in her left hip. McFadden is set to have surgery again after competing in the USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships in Reno, Nevada on Jan. 9 to 14.
For McFadden, attacking challenges head-on is like attacking a muddy race track: filled with twists and turns. However, her biking career almost never took off.
What started out as a sunny, spring bike ride turned into a dark day as then 12-year-old McFadden was crossing a street in her home town of Mercer Island. While crossing a street she compared to Samish Way, McFadden stopped at an island in the middle of the road. The car in the lane closest to her stopped, but as she crossed the far lane, a car exceeding the 35 mph speed limit struck her bicycle as she walked it across the road.
Luckily, McFadden was left with just bumps and bruises. But the emotional toll it took remained with her.
“From that moment on, I had no interest in riding a bike ever again,” McFadden said. “I was terrified of crossing the street. It was pretty scarring.”
It took 10 years for McFadden to get back on a bike, and even then it was just to break the monotony of running multiple times a week to stay fit.
As a sophomore at Western, she taught a spin class at the Bellingham Athletic Club while going for her undergraduate degree in exercise science. She wanted a way to cross-train but didn’t want to get stuck inside doing spin, so she joined the Western Cycling Team in 2007.
There she met her future husband, Chris Ellis. After a team trip to Montana in which Ellis let her play his Game Boy, the two started dating and were married in 2012.
“Super Nintendo. That’s like her jam,” Ellis said. “We just clicked really well.”
Ellis, who had been competing in cyclocross for two years, tried convincing McFadden to give it a try. At first, she was hesitant.
“The weather is never very good, it’s cold – I don’t like being cold – and I don’t want to ride my bike around in the mud,” McFadden said. “That sounds ridiculous.”
But McFadden finally conceded in 2009 and entered a local cyclocross race. All it took was one race and she was hooked.
“I crashed probably 10 times, but I had a blast,” McFadden said.
McFadden has raced in nearly 200 professional events since, and has four wins in the last year while dealing with hip pain. Her cycling coach, Ben Ollett, has had hip impingement surgery on both his hips and said McFadden is as confident and aggressive in races as she is with recovery from surgery.
“She doesn’t need much in the way of pep talks,” Ollett said. “She goes out to race and races to win. Even when she has bad races it’s not ‘the sky is falling’ type of thing. She’s resilient and stubborn.”
McFadden hung her racing number up in her room from the 2017 Union Cycliste Internationale Cyclocross World Championships in Biel, Luxembourg, in which she finished 15th, as motivation to get back to where she wanted to be. She said it was a constant reminder during her recovery that if she wanted to get back to doing this, she had to put the work in.
McFadden said the scars on her hip serve as a constant reminder too.
“There were so many times where I said, ‘It would be so much easier if I didn’t have to do this. Maybe I should just give up racing and not work so hard,’” McFadden said. “But my scars are a reminder that I came back from surgery. I fought through rehab. And I never gave up.”