NICA & GRiT: Erasing Barriers and Bringing Youth to the Benefits of Cycling
Megan Seiler & Madeleine Wood
Editor’s Note: Due to high school mountain bike racing programs like the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, NICA, kids are introduced at an early age to the welcoming and diverse group of riders that make up the mountain biking community. Megan Seiler joined the Muskego/Mukwonago/Mukwonago Composite Team (MMMCT) in southeastern Wisconsin when it had fifteen athletes. Of these athletes, there were only two girls, including Megan. However, this scarce number of female riders didn’t deter Megan’s love for mountain biking. As the years went on and word of the team spread, more girls started to join the team. In 2019, Madeleine Wood joined MMMCT and was welcomed by many female athletes and coaches. This story of an increase in female participation in mountain biking is happening to NICA teams across the nation. Thanks to programs like GRiT, Girls Riding Together, the mountain biking community is becoming even more inclusive. And thank you to Megan and Madeleine, high schoolers who pitched (accepted!) and wrote this outstanding story.
NICA, founded in 2009, aims to create mountain biking programs for schools all over the United States. Its mission — to build strong minds, bodies, characters, and communities through cycling. Many have witnessed the change these programs have empowered in young people. Furthermore, NICA recognized that only 20 percent of its student-athletes were female. To increase this number, GRiT was created to empower female riders by providing a safe environment for both new and seasoned athletes to explore Wisconsin’s beautiful trails with other female riders.
At many events, all are welcome, whether racers, coaches, or mountain bike enthusiasts, including moms, sisters, and other family members and friends. A program like GRiT has proven vital to support inclusive and diverse female participation in cycling, to empower the industry leaders of tomorrow, and to change public perception of what a girl should be.
Goals & Achievements
NICA and its GRiT initiative aim to keep everyone connected and included. Sydney Shimko, a member of the Wisconsin’s NICA League management team, said, “We offer the chance for riders across teams and cities to get to know each other and share in their experiences. We also work to promote women in leadership roles across teams, providing female role models for girls and boys.”
One of NICA’s coaches, Amberleigh Czech, emphasized how important it is for young people to have safe, adult mentors to look up to. She also finds that being a female coach provides her with the unique opportunity to show athletes that mountain biking can be enjoyed by any person at any age.
Also, NICA and GRiT have opened the door to a community of cyclists that transcends individual teams. “GRiT specifically empowers female-identifying riders by bringing them together into the broader group,” Shimko said, “helping them to feel connected even when they may not have a large group of female student-athletes on their team.” Finding “your people” is vital to retaining athletes year after year. For example, before the GRiT initiative began, many teams, including our own, had three or fewer female athletes. However, after a lot of recruitment, team dynamics changed while competition and enthusiasm remained strong. The true nature of inclusivity and community within NICA remained unchanged. Chris Smith, another coach on our team, sees NICA’s virtues shine bright on race day. “I cannot count the number of times I have seen racing incidents,” he said, “when another rider stops to help someone in need, in lieu of keeping their spot in the race.”
GRiT shows athletes that there are other girls out there who love riding and adventure as much as they do. Eighth grade athlete Audrey Seaverson said, “I think that GRiT helps unite female riders to make them feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves.” This is profoundly true outside of the league as well. Don Brunner, a coach with MMMCT, expressed that you can go anywhere and talk to people about bikes. A fisherman might not tell you his favorite spot, but a biker probably will.
A Welcoming Community
While GRiT aims to highlight female athletes, NICA’s main goal is to promote inclusion for all riders. Chris Smith noticed this as soon as her sons joined their local mountain biking team. “Since I have two boys who have participated in the program,” she said, “I love the way NICA models complete inclusion of everyone.” When she finally decided to join the team as a coach, her main goal was to be a role model to all riders, showing them that anyone can mountain bike for life.
Brunner, whose daughter, Maddie, joined MMMCT after participating in all five GRiT rides the season before, emphasized the importance of this accepting community. Maddie used to be hesitant about mountain bike racing. While she told her dad that biking was really hard, Brunner knew that, in reality, Maddie didn’t want to stand out among the other racers. As an athlete with only one arm, she worried that she wouldn’t be accepted into the biking community. However, after participating in the low-pressure GRiT rides and noticing the large female population on race day, she felt her fears fade and was hooked. By the next year, she was riding with the team like she had been doing it all her life. As with Maddie, biking, along with its exercise virtues, has proven itself capable of changing lives beyond the scope of a single season.
NICA and GRiT’s goal of inclusion doesn’t stop with the riders; coaches from a variety of backgrounds are necessary for the success of this program. As Amberleigh Czech says, every coach has something unique to offer, whether it be off-the-bike strength work, bike mechanics, or trail location knowledge. This diverse pool of coaches also allows for guidance for riders of all skill levels, helping everyone who joins the team make progress in their own way. Riders of different ages, genders, abilities, and backgrounds are all welcome into this community.
GRiT and the sport of mountain bike racing in general give female athletes skills and memories that will last them a lifetime. “I see first-hand the joy and pride in the smiles on the faces of girls and women,” Shimko said. “The fun they have together, the reward and confidence they feel after conquering taught challenges, and the basic freedom and fun of riding bikes.”
Similarly, Smith noted that biking allows riders to learn about the endless possibilities of their physical and mental capabilities. Finding their limits and learning to pick themselves up after they fall is a skill that is important in life beyond the trails. Good and smart risks, like trying out a new feature, allow kids to see their own capabilities. When they see themselves accomplish challenges, elation overflows into confidence even off the bike. Additionally, Brunner and Czech noted that NICA races provide young people the opportunity to travel around the state and explore new riding areas, inspiring them to incorporate that exploratory riding into their vacations.
More to Come
This year, the GRiT program plans on increasing their ambassador program, which allows female athletes to become GRiT leaders and mentors, and implementing a camp. However, Shimko said, “The eventual goal is to get participation of female riders and coaches so high that [GRiT] is no longer needed within the context of the co-ed league.”
Czech and Brunner agree that female participation in mountain bike racing will only become more common. Momentum is easily gained when female riders talk about their sport at school, with their friends, and with their family. As evidenced by our own team, the best way to build a tightknit group of enthusiastic lifetime riders is to tell friends who will inevitably tell other friends.
When we discussed their hopes for the futures of NICA and GRiT with coaches and athletes, many expressed interests in nutrition education, learning from or meeting with professional racers, and targeted basic bike maintenance classes. These opportunities would inspire current athletes and coaches to continue to broaden their knowledge and remain involved. For young people who find themselves unable to access the full NICA experience, NICA offers scholarships that provide a loaner bike or a race fee waiver.
As for those who are not yet aware of the power of cycling, if you take them on a ride, talk up your favorite place to ride, or point out a great place to rent a bike can change a life. NICA, with the help of GRiT and its leaders, is changing the way teens view mountain biking, themselves, and the community around them. NICA and GRiT show young people the strength within themselves, a power they will not soon forget.