Kate Courtney, world champion mountain biker, has an Olympic champion mentor: Reggie Miller
U.S. mountain biker Kate Courtney likened her comeback to win the 2019 World Cup overall title to hitting a three-pointer in overtime of an NBA Finals game.
“A little stressful,” she said, “but, of course, one of the biggest highlights of my career.”
One of Courtney’s riding partners back home can relate: Basketball Hall of Famer (and Olympic gold medalist) Reggie Miller.
Anybody who follows the sharpshooting legend’s social media knows he found a hobby in retirement. Maybe more than that.
“Wannabe MTBer,” his Instagram bio reads. Attempts to reach Miller were unsuccessful, but he shed light in a Q&A with the mountain bike website mbaction.com that’s linked in his Twitter bio.
Miller mountain biked for the first time after moving to Malibu, Calif., in 2000. He was approached in a restaurant by Rage Against the Machine bassist Tim Commerford, who took him out on a ride with big-wave surfer Laird Hamilton and Bally Total Fitness founder Don Wildman.
“I was still playing for the Indiana Pacers at the time, so my fitness was good, but those guys left me in the dust,” Miller said, according to the report. “But being on those trails and in those hills got me hooked.”
It wasn’t until the Instagram era that Miller began racing mountain bikes. And that’s how Courtney, a fellow world champion and fellow Californian, believes she connected with him more than one year ago.
“But he also has been at a couple Southern California races,” she said, “and, of course, I knew the name.”
They rode together in Palm Springs in late 2018. They met up again last month at a Golden State Warriors game, where Miller was doing TV commentary for TNT.
Miller’s penchant for the sport is obvious in the Q&A, where he reeled off names of mountain bikers he admired. Miller said he wanted “the focus of a Kate Courtney.”
Courtney attributed her mental strength, the kind that made her a world champion at 22, partially to Miller’s mentoring.
“In the last couple of years as I started to really chase that top step of the podium, I’ve had a lot to learn from Reggie, and he’s been a great positive voice in terms of convincing me I can make it to the top,” she said. “And also, you know, helping you navigate the challenges of staying there.”
Miller may have benefited just as much from Courtney.
“Maybe, but let’s just say Reggie Miller is way better at mountain biking than I’ll ever be at basketball,” she said. “I think people underestimate how hard it would be for someone who’s been the absolute best in the world at something and maybe the greatest of all time in something to try something new that maybe they’re not exceptional at.”
Courtney was raised in Marin County, Calif., where mountain biking’s roots formed in the 1970s. She grew up at the base of Mount Tamalpais (“Mount Tam”), riding a tandem bike with her dad (but often times not pedaling herself) to get blueberry pancakes on Sunday mornings.
She played a variety of sports, but in high school began mountain biking seriously to cross train for cross-country running.
“Never looked back,” she said. “I certainly never ran again and fell in love with mountain biking.”
She competed for the national team while still in high school. Courtney turned professional, signing with Specialized, after two years at Stanford. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in human biology before winning that world title in 2018.
She was the youngest rider in the 67-woman field in Switzerland, and in her senior worlds debut. She became the first American to win a world title in 27 years. Her bike was put on display at the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame in Marin County.
“Kate has arrived and represents a new generation of American mountain bikers,” Scott Schnitzspahn, USA Cycling Vice President of Elite Athletics, said that day.
Any mountain biker is familiar with obstacles. Courtney suffered two concussions as a junior racer. The first one, about eight years ago, was worse and left her with symptoms for months.
Courtney, then 16, finished an impressive 10th in her international debut in a junior race in the Czech Republic. The next weekend, she crashed at the start, fell down a rock garden and DNFed for the first and, she said, so far only time in her career.
“The combination of having this race where I thought, man, I really could do this and having a race where I thought, oh wow, this is a huge challenge, was the perfect spark,” she said.
Courtney was a world U23 silver medalist with 122,000 Instagram followers when she arrived at the 2018 World Championships.
“My motto on the start line was, an underdog is just an underdog,” Courtney said, “until they show their teeth and you realize it’s a wolf.”
She passed passed 2016 World champion Annika Langvad of Denmark on the seventh and final lap in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, and won by 47 seconds in 1:34:55. She looked back several times after crossing the finish line in disbelief.
She earned the rainbow jersey -- traditionally given to world champions across cycling disciplines. Courtney donned it on a ride for the first time on the Stelvio, an iconic Giro d’Italia climb.
“I had this kind of amazing moment where it all settled in,” Courtney remembered. “I ate gummy bears and cried and was just so excited to be able to wear this super special symbol that connects me to so many people in cycling.”
Courtney finished fifth in defense at last year’s worlds, but she gained a perhaps more prestigious title: World Cup overall champion for prowess over an entire season of racing. She goes into the Olympic year looking to earn the U.S.’ first gold medal in an event that debuted at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
Atlanta also marked Miller’s Olympics with that year’s Dream Team. Perhaps later this year they can again ride the Boo Hoff Trail, this time both as Olympic medalists.
“It’s exciting to see a kind of lifelong sport that unites so many different athletes,” Courtney said when asked about Miller’s mountain biking. “The fact that he doesn’t have an ego about that and it’s like, oh, I want to try this new thing, I want to learn it and does it publicly, is something I respect so much.
“I hope that I can do [that] in my career, although probably not with basketball, because I think it would be horrific for everyone involved.”
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