'For most of my career, I had a lot of fear of coming out': Olympian Lea Davison now rides with pride at Unbound
From racing gravel to advocacy and doing TedX talks, retired MTB pro Lea Davison is exploring new terrain
At Unbound Gravel this weekend, recently retired World Cup and Olympic mountain biker Lea Davison hopes to bring a little extra bit of light and visibility to the start line.
Beyond her natural warmth and bubbly personality, Davison will let her kit and actions do the talking.
For each round of the Life Time Grand Prix series, Davison will be sporting a different custom kit inspired by an organization she feels strongly about. Additionally, any prize money she wins that round will be donated to that particular organization.
In Kansas, Davison's custom Allied gravel bike and Garneau kit will sport a tri-color fade, symbolizing her coming out of the darkness and living in the light as her true, authentic self. The Athlete Ally logo is visible on the back
“I chose Athlete Ally for Unbound because it felt like a natural fit. It's the beginning of Pride Month, it’s an organization that I'm an ambassador for, and it’s all about promoting LGBTQ+ rights and visibility and acceptance within the sports realm,” Davison told Cycling Weekly.
“I wish that when I was coming up, [being gay] would have been more of an accepted and visible thing, but still, I look around in the cycling industry and I don't see a lot of people like me, especially racing in the upper echelon of the sport. And that visibility is pretty crucial, I think.”
And so, where the visibility is lacking, Davison decided to take on that role herself. Something she never imagined being able to do.
Out and more loud than she’s ever been
The now 39-year-old Vermont native wasn’t always so outspoken about her personal life. In fact, for the majority of her career she was afraid that being out could mean an end to her Olympic dreams.
“For most of my career, I had a lot of fear coming out. I was out quietly, but there were still those questions of ‘if I'm coming out and living more out loud, am I going to have sponsors? Am I going to be on teams?” Davison shared.
“You need mechanics and team support to make Olympic dreams happen. It takes a village. I was afraid that if I came out and I was more out there about it, that that village would start to fall apart and I wouldn't make my Olympic dreams happen.”
And so throughout her career, through two Olympic games, two World Championship podiums and five U.S. National Titles, Davison remained silent. Until 2018 that is.
With her wedding to then-fiancée Frazier Blair just months away, sponsors Clif Bar and Garneau reached out wanting to celebrate their athlete and this milestone in her life on the brand’s communication channels. Davison was stunned.
“That was the first time any sponsor had recognized publicly that I was a gay athlete, and they wanted to celebrate me or rather, that aspect of myself. I was just blown away because for most of my career, I had a lot of fear coming out,” Davison said.
Clif Bar featured Davison and Blair in their Pride Month messaging while Garneau made custom wedding skinsuits for the couple.
“It was a pretty powerful experience for me, and I want to give that same experience to people in that community and youth growing up, sharing the message that yes, it is possible to be a professional cyclist, to be a two-time Olympian, and to be gay and living a full, authentic life,” she said.
So from that moment on Davison has made it her mission to be “living more out loud”.
“Sports can have an impact on the larger society. And yes, sport is political and it’s a privilege to have this platform,” she said.
“I think that’s the best part of social media — it provides a tool to get those important messages out there and to be a positive role model. I didn't have that 20 years ago. Of course there are drawbacks but I try to lean into the positives. If I get even one message from a kid or a teenager saying I make them feel more comfortable or inspired them to come out, then it’s worth it. And I've gotten more than one of those messages. so that's pretty amazing.”
The Life Time Grand Prix: An off-ramp to true retirement
The Life Time Grand Prix announced its formation at the same time that Davison was contemplating her future in racing and what the next phase would look like. The Grand Prix offered her a perfect off-ramp to retirement. A new challenge, still fiercely competitive yet, for the first time in her professional life, all within the U.S.
It ticked all her boxes, but when Davison decided to enter the six-event series, she did so with a whole different mindset and desired outcome.
“I wanted to make it more meaningful. For once this is not about the results or qualifying for the Olympics or a world championship team like you're doing at the World Cup level. Instead I’m going to use my platform that I've built and this platform that is the Life Time Grand Prix to promote organizations that I'm passionate about, and hopefully spread the word and fundraise,” Davison said
That’s not to say that she won’t be competitive however. After all, the higher she places, the bigger the prize money and resulting donation to one of her chosen charities.
“My goal is still to be competitive. Whenever I line up, I'm going for it and I want to be in the mix,” she said.
After a fourth place finish at the series opener in April — and earning “a chunk of money” for Little Bellas — Davison will be lining up on the front row at Unbound on Saturday, her longest ride and biggest challenge yet.
When asked if she’s ever ridden a bike for 200 miles, Davison burst out in laughter. “No! Not even close.”
“For me, this is one of the biggest races of the season. This is the big focus because it's just so massive and such a big challenge,” she said. “This is going to be cool because I'm kind of psyched to see what I can do. It’s truly like pushing my limits.”
For Athlete Ally, having Davison flying their colors at this international event is both an honor and much needed ray of light in the current political climate.
“Lea is a beacon of visibility of representation for other LGTBQI+ athletes and fans who long to see themselves in the sports they love,” said Joanna Hoffman, Director of Communications at Athlete Ally.
“Especially as we're seeing yet another record-breaking year of legislation targeting the LGBTQI+ community, and specifically transgender children who simply want to play sports with their friends, having high-profile athletes like Lea championing equality and inclusion matters. It helps show the world that LGBTQI+ people belong in every aspect of life, especially and including sports."
TedX: The Olympics of Public Speaking
In between rounds one and two of the Life Time Grand Prix, Davison was invited to speak at TEDx Boston in May, which centered around the 50th anniversary of the passing of Title IX, an educational amendment that prohibits sex-based discrimination in any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance, including sports.
With life after racing in mind, Davison has a keen interest in public speaking, learning how to share her own story and even taking a course in public speaking. So when an invitation to speak at the all-women, Title IX themed TedX talk landed in her email inbox, Davison was thrilled.
“I mean, what an opportunity of a lifetime!” she said. “It's like the Olympics of public speaking, except you don't know how to qualify. It's a complete lottery.”
Davison spoke about her experience being part of “USlay,” which was the collaborative attempt of American xc mountain bike athletes to qualify three individuals for the Tokyo Olympics. While Erin Huck ended up getting selected for third slot instead of Davison, Davison speaks highly about the power of lifting up others and building a team in an individual sport.
Davison’s speech centers around the concept that collaboration is winning, and that there is opportunity for collaboration to enhance everyone’s life — from sports, to business to building bipartisanship to solve climate change and human rights issues.
The TedX talk will be published on tedxboston.com the week of June 6th.
To watch Davison race Unbound and all subsequent Life Time Grand Prix events, tune in to FloBikes, which is hosting a live stream of the racing with commentary by Janel Spilker and Frankie Andreu.
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Cycling Weekly's North American Editor, Anne-Marije Rook is old school. She holds a degree in journalism and started out as a newspaper reporter — in print! She can even be seen bringing a pen and notepad to the press conference.
Originally from The Netherlands, she grew up a bike commuter and didn't find bike racing until her early twenties when living in Seattle, Washington. Strengthened by the many miles spent darting around Seattle's hilly streets on a steel single speed, Rook's progression in the sport was a quick one. As she competed at the elite level, her journalism career followed, and soon she became a full-time cycling journalist. She's now been a cycling journalist for 11 years.
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