May 2008 - ATHLETE PROFILE
Primary Sport: Cycling
Other Sports: Triathloning, Swimming
Residence: Glens Falls (now residing in Los Gatos, CA)
by Shannon Brescher Shea
Opportunities sometimes present themselves when you least expect them. Megan Guarnier’s chance appeared as a shoulder injury that forced her to quit competitive swimming and led her to take up cycling. Now, a mere four years later, she is riding with the U.S. National Team.
For 13 years, much of Megan’s life revolved around her participation in the Glens Falls YMCA Gators swim team. A top competitor, she attended the national championships five years in a row. Arriving at Middlebury College in Vermont, she planned on swimming for their team. However, the workouts aggravated her strained shoulders so much that her doctor told her she couldn’t continue her practice schedule.
“It was a really tough decision to stop swimming,” Megan said. “I had always defined myself as a swimmer.”
Despite her body’s rebellion, Megan’s competitive nature endured. Switching to triathlons allowed her to swim, but required far less pool time. However, before she became a full-blown triathlete, her freshman hallmate suggested bicycle racing. “I didn’t know what I was getting into,” Megan said. She completed only a few triathlons before she realized she had found her new love in cycling.
However, her passion surprised her, despite her athleticism. “When I was little, I didn’t like biking at all,” she said. “When my family was going on bike rides, it was kind of like pulling teeth to get me to go.”
But cycling was far different than anything else she had done. “Swimming is a very objective sport,” she said. “You’re always in the same pool, always looking at the same black line.” In contrast, Megan savors how elements of cycling, from the course to the weather, change regularly. “You can be out on a bike anywhere in the world, and every day is different.”
In particular, she loves the variety of landscapes she can see from her saddle. “People are always astonished at how much distance you can cover,” she said. “There’s no other way that I’d like to see the world.”
In addition to cycling’s intangible rewards, winning her first two races stoked her enthusiasm. Her competitive drive and skills she learned as a swimmer helped her adapt to the demands of her new sport. “The Glens Falls YMCA swim team definitely shaped who I am and my discipline and the intensity I bring to my biking. As a swimmer, you definitely learn how to dig deep,” she said.
However, Megan’s dedication extends beyond the physical. Her first cycling coach, Mike Meslar of Saratoga Springs, said that Megan’s perseverance expresses itself in all that she does. “She’s definitely an overachiever,” he said. “She’s the type of person who has the ability to go beyond what you think she might be capable of doing. And it’s because she’s got heart.”
Megan’s physical and mental toughness helped her quickly ascend the ranks of local cycling. She joined the Capital Bicycle Racing Club and attended the 2005 Empire State Games Adirondack qualifier. She placed second, and with her teammates (profiled in November 2005 Adirondack Sports & Fitness) went on to win multiple races at the Empire State Games. Last year, she competed with Terry Precision Cycling, where she participated in her first International Cycling Union races. Shortly after, the elite Proman Team recruited her, leading to an invitation to the USA Cycling Talent ID camp. Most recently, Jim Miller, a coach for the U.S. National Team, invited her to act as an alternate for, and eventually join, the team.
To progress to such a level, Megan has had to make a number of significant life decisions. Having graduated with honors from Middlebury’s Neuroscience program, she originally planned on enrolling in an MD-PhD program. However, her ascent in the cycling world has prompted her to delay her graduate work and train in California.
“I knew once I committed to a MD-PhD program, I’m in it for the long haul. It would be work, no more play,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to put 100-percent into school and 100-percent into cycling and get what I wanted out of both of them.”
Although she misses her studies, the most difficult part of training is being away from her family. “It was scary because I’ve never been away from my family that long,” she said.
Being separated is particularly difficult because Megan credits their love with helping her achieve her goals. “There are lot of people I admire, but the people who have the most influence are my family,” she said. “If you don’t have a support network, you can’t do it.” Empire State Games teammate, Caitlyn McCullough, said that Megan’s mother helping her before a race became a “common sight” to her teammates.
As Megan’s cycling has progressed, her family has continued their involvement, and even caught the cycling bug themselves. Her aunt and uncle have begun to bike recreationally and Megan supports them as much as she would a teammate. “No matter what level they are, I love to see people enjoying the bike.”
Now across the country, Megan keeps in touch with her relatives via a Google group and blog. Although she regularly calls, her electronic posts allow her to communicate instantaneously with her entire family.
Her participation in the National Team gives Megan plenty to write about these days. Racing in Europe with the team has presented her with a variety of new experiences.
Generally, Europeans are more welcoming to cyclists than Americans, and Megan found their passion refreshing. “Cycling is like a national sport over there,” she said. “The crowds are always really, really intense and enthusiastic.” Spectators even asked her for autographs!
Her European tour, which included Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Italy, offered unique cultural insights. Although she didn’t have the chance to stop at the tourist hotspots, pedaling in Europe’s backcountry brought her to places she would have never otherwise seen. “I loved going up into the mountains,” she said, describing her time in Italy. “You would be in the middle of nowhere, and you would see things like little towns, with houses packed together.”
But if the geography was stunning, so was the competition.
“It’s the hardest racing I’ve done, over in Europe. Full-throttle the whole time,” she said. The fight for the lead is constant, and the racers are more aggressive than in America.
Even the roads themselves force riders to be constantly alert. “The roads that they race on in Europe would not be sanctioned in the U.S. They’re a quarter of the size of the roads in the US [and] there’s all sorts of ‘road furniture,’” she said. The variety of obstacles, including parked cars and roundabouts, force riders into single file lines up to three kilometers long.
Although she participates in the competitive end of cycling, Megan values the sport’s sense of community above all. “There’s something about cycling that brings great people to [it],” she said. From the fans that invite racers into their homes to dedicated competitors, Megan believes that the love of cycling creates a special culture. Similarly, while describing their relationship, Caitlyn compared entering this community to learning a language. “All of these things are so hard to put into words, you have to put your feet on the pedals to find out, to join this community,” she said. “[We] learned to speak the language together.”
For Megan, this sense of kinship is one of the best characteristics of the sport she loves. She says her philosophy is to: “Keep cycling fun, have a good time with it and keep things in perspective. And improve, always improve.”
Shannon Brescher Shea (firstname.lastname@example.org) of Clifton Park is a staff writer for New York State’s Conservationist magazine and a freelance contributor. She enjoys rock climbing, hiking, biking and skiing.