Lea Davison is one of USA’s top XC racers. She has been racing at the highest level for fifteen years and has a number of National Titles to her name, two World Championship medals and a 7th place at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Lea is an amazing human, an incredible ambassador for the sport of mountain biking and she really, really loves maple syrup and candy.
Bec McConnell: Team USA have recently announced their ‘Long Team’ for the Tokyo Olympic Games. You’re on it with five other women. USA is in the fight for two or three places in Tokyo. Do you think you’ll get the maximum of three places and who do you think those places will go to?
Lea Davison: The Team USA female mountain bikers (myself, Kate Courtney, Erin Huck, and Chloe Woodruff) have really banded together over the past two seasons in the pursuit of getting those three Olympic spots for USA. It’s been a beautiful display of teamwork in an individual sport. It’s sent all of us around the world and then some! We have been strategic about it, and we are in the second ranking right now with three spots. I think we have put ourselves in a really good position to get those three spots! As to who will go, it will really come down to the last qualifying opportunity which is the World Cup opener in 2021. It was supposed to be the World Cup opener this year in Nove Mesto. I am doing everything in my absolute power to get to Tokyo and to win a medal.
You’re really passionate about the Olympic Games, what is it about the Olympics that is so special and powerful for you as an athlete?
I am really passionate about the Olympic Games. The Olympics is the absolute pinnacle of sport. To me, it’s the biggest stage we get to perform on and the biggest opportunity. I grew up watching every Olympic games and dreaming of attending. It’s been a lifelong dream, and a dream for so many athletes out there.
Alongside your sister Sabra you co-founded Little Bellas MTB. An amazing program which is focused on helping girls find a sense of empowerment and self confidence through positive mentors and mountain biking and of course keeping girls in sport. How did Little Bella’s come about and are you still involved with the program?
Yes! I am definitely still involved in the Little Bellas!!! My sister, Sabra, myself, and Angela Irvine co-founded Little Bellas over ten years ago. We saw that there were way more junior boys on the start lines of mountain bike races than junior girls. We wanted to change that. We also wanted to give girls better role models than what we were seeing in media and popular culture. We aimed to use the bike as a way to empower women.
My sister is now leading the charge as the executive director, and I am on the board of directors. Two years ago, I started the Little Bellas pro ambassador program with the help of the Little Bellas staff. The program takes elite female athletes; mountain bikers, triathletes, Nordic skiers, road racers, and links them up with their local Little Bellas chapter. Little Bellas get to meet their local heroes, and many of these pro ambassadors have attended the same schools they go to and ride the same trails. The best is when I’m training, and a car drives by and Little Bellas are hanging out the windows cheering and waving. These pro ambassadors can develop real connections with the girls and become their friends.
You have been racing as a professional since 2002 and have had some amazing success over the years, the highlights must be your two medals at the World Championship in 2014 and 2016?
YES! You know Bec! Winning a World Championships medal is an incredible thing. Both were amazing. In 2014, I came back from having hip surgery in January, and I didn’t start racing until late June that season. To come back from hip surgery and stand on my first World Championship podium was a moment I will never forget. Then, in 2016, I had a terrible start and came around the start loop in Czech Republic in 22nd position. I was able to ride through the field and win a silver medal! That was also an amazing moment. It seems like I thrive under a bit of a challenge. I guess I never make it easy for myself.
With so much experience and success, what keeps you motivated to race at the highest level and do you ever find it frustrating when your not performing at the level you know to be possible?
Oh yes. It’s definitely frustrating and heartbreaking to not performing at the level I know I’m capable of. Cycling is a brutal sport. You can have the best day one weekend and then be off the next weekend. I’m motivated by my goals and to constantly do the best of my ability. If I am doing my best, that’s a really high bar. That means pushing myself in training and races so I have nothing left in the tank. That’s the perspective that I try to approach training and racing. If I’m truly doing the best I can under the given circumstances, I really can’t do anything more. Sometimes I have to let go of the results, and just go with that especially in the lulls.
Since your first Pro Team in 2006 you’ve been a part of five different teams. You had a big jump when you joined Specialized Racing in 2011 where you had your most successful results including silver at the World Championships and 7th at the Rio Olympic games, but you lost your contract with Specialized at the end of 2016. Was this a surprise to you? You then joined Clif Pro Team for two years before changing to Team 20Twenty in 2019. Has it been difficult to go between teams over a short period of time or does the change keep you motivated?
I was completely blindsided by Specialized’s decision at the end of 2016. I thought I was all set with a silver world champs medal and a seventh place in the Olympics, and then, to get that news, was completely heartbreaking. Honestly, I struggled with that for a while. I was definitely grateful to land on a team after that, that supported a full world cup schedule. I had so much fun racing and traveling with the ladies on Clif Pro Team, but, at the end of the day, it wasn’t the best fit for me because of the management. This is why I was so excited to join Team Twenty20 with a team full of women that really believes in me and my ability. This team gives me flexibility because they fully know and trust that I know what I need to get to the top. I think I really landed in a great place.
You’re openly gay and married your wife Frazier in 2018. Is being gay an important part of your identity and have you ever felt extra challenges in the sporting world because you are a gay athlete? Is it a part of yourself that you are passionate about sharing to help and support those who find it more difficult to come out?
Yes! Frazier and I met in the lead up to the Rio2016 Olympics, and we got married in 2018. Unfortunately, I have experienced some homophobia in the bike industry, and I’ve also witnessed some beautiful support from the bike industry. In June of 2018, Clif Bar Company celebrated Frazier and me on their social media to honour pride month. This was the first time that a sponsor openly supported and celebrated me being gay. That was a game changer. Then, for my wedding, Garneau made Frazier and I matching custom wedding skinsuits and also celebrated us through their channels. This was also very impactful. These actions inspired me to be more open and vocal about being gay because it’s really important to put it out there. Athletes, especially the younger generation, need to know that it’s completely okay to be gay. You can be gay, be a professional mountain biker, be an Olympian, and be supported by sponsors. If I help one athlete or bike racer then it’s all worth it.
You’re a pretty wild girl, you love to dance and to sing and you’re always so happy and energetic. Of course you take your racing seriously, but you always have that smile on the start line. Do you think your relaxed and upbeat attitude has contributed to your long career in the sport?
Absolutely! My approach is #happinessisfast! That can mean a lot of different things to different people, and it really is true. I have found that I perform my best when I’m having fun and enjoying life. I need to have a balance to be successful. This includes but is not limited to: dance parties, start line jokes, Haribou candy fuelled training rides, swimming holes, and generally making the most of our lifestyle and traveling. What we do is extremely challenging and it also brings us to incredible places. We have opportunities, and we have to make the best of them!
This year you turned 37 years old, in the ‘old days’ you’d be considered an older athlete and probably be looking to retire. In the new age athletes are competing for much longer and the Women at the top are a variety of ages. We know your eyes are firmly set on the Olympic Games next year. Then what?
That’s a great question! My eyes are firmly set on Tokyo2020, and then after that, time will tell! I would love to continue to work with Little Bellas. I really feel like my mission here on earth is to empower women, and Little Bellas is a wonderful springboard for that work. I also love mentoring in the bike racing world so we’ll see if that takes me down any pathways. I am open to a lot of different opportunities so we will see!
Last year, we visited your beautiful home town Jericho in Vermont for a C1 race but the highlight really was enjoying a maple creemee with you, Frazier and your Dad. Would you argue that the maple products are better in Vermont than in Canada?
Hahahahahaha. Is that even a question? I mean the answer is obvious. If it’s real maple syrup then I’m happy, but I do definitely prefer the liquid gold from my home state.
Your mum is pretty famous around the races, she’s got a voice behind her and loves to support you but for sure she isn’t the only one. Who have been the most important people supporting you along your journey?
I absolutely wouldn’t be here without my family’s support. My mom and dad fully supported my bike racing ambitions from the very beginning. I have a great support team that has helped me through my career. I have been working with my coach, Andy Bishop, for probably over fifteen years so he is definitely one of the most pivotal pieces in the puzzle. I’ve also been working with my strength coach, Bill Knowles and his team for almost as long. Bill has brought me back stronger from two hip surgeries which is nothing less than a miracle (and a lot of hard work). Recently, I’ve been working really closely with Bill Knowles’ and his associate, Matt Siniscalchi, and we have been experimenting with some really cool strength stuff. Frazier is the other big piece of the puzzle. She is fully supportive of my goals and aspirations. This is critical because this Olympic pursuit takes me away from her a lot of the time. In the first year that we were married, we only spent 6 months of it together. So I feel very lucky to have a wife that truly understands what it takes to perform at this level.
Finally if you could do any race with anyone, who and what would it be?
The first thing that comes to mind is I would love to race BC Bike Race with my coach, Andy Bishop. It would be so much fun. Thinking a little bit outside of the box, how cool would it be if I got to do a bike race with Beyonce? What would that even be like?