Step by step: Inside Kate Courtney’s ride to the rainbow jersey

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When you take things one step at a time, you never know when you might be one step away from making something magical happen. That was my motto on the morning of the World XC Championship in Lenzerheide, Switzerland, where I lined up for my first chance to race the event in the Elite category.

At that moment, standing on the start line, I was calm and focused, my mind running through all the ways that I had prepared to give my all. I had trained harder than ever before, worked out the ideal fueling plan, pre-ridden the course, dialed in my lines, watched video of races that had been held on that course on Redbull TV, and so much more. My goals were set: A top 10, maybe a top five, and, in my wildest dreams, landing on the podium to earn a medal. I had taken so many steps to get there, and I was ready for the next one.

When I think back to race day, I remember moments — the hectic start, sections of the track, and thoughts in between the start and crossing the finish line to land straight in my parents’ arms. When I finally sat down to watch the race replay more than a month later, the nuance came flooding back. I remembered worrying I’d gone out too hard. I saw mistakes I hadn’t remembered making, or sections I’d ridden better than ever before. I moved up, then dropped back, then moved up again.

Halfway through the race, I was more focused on how far behind fourth place was than how far it was to the leader, my Specialized teammate Annika Langvad. I saw the moment my mind shifted to silver and the possibility of bringing home a medal in my first Elite World Championship. I thought of the American women whom I had watched win medals — Lea Davison and Georgia Gould — and I told myself to keep fighting. Finally, on the last lap, I saw myself go deeper than I had ever gone before in my life.

My face on the climb says it all. I was done. My jaw was clenched in pain, my body rocking from side to side and I can confirm that I felt about as bad as I looked. I knew I couldn’t push that hard and I settled back into the pace I knew I could hold — the pace I had trained day after day the weeks leading up to the race.

In my head, I thought I was fighting for the silver medal, but I told myself to keep pushing because anything can happen. By the bottom of the descent, I felt myself start to recover. I was focused and smooth on the technical sections and rounded the corner to see Annika off her bike and walking through an off-camber root section. At the moment, all I could think about was riding smooth. I focused forward and slipped by on the left side just as she remounted her bike. Okay, you have a shot here, I thought.

I took it one section at a time, focusing on the lines and navigating each rock and root as I’d practiced and visualized so many times before. My goal in that last half-lap was to perform at my absolute best and hope that my best on the day might just be enough to earn a gold medal against the best in the world.

I never looked back, never really thought beyond the task right in front of me, but when I finally entered the finishing straight and glanced over my shoulder, I could barely believe there was no one in sight. The race was a process more than anything, and during it I was too focused on the moment to even think of the possibilities.

After one of the most exciting races of my life, I would cross the finish line to become the first American in 17 years to win a cross-country World Championship title. Since that day, so many people have asked me what was going through my head during the race or in the lead-up to that performance. And to be honest, it’s hard to remember.

Memory works in mysterious ways, especially when it comes to bike racing. Certain moments stand out in vivid technicolor, while others fade. The sharp edges become smoothed over or replaced by quick glimpses that settle perfectly into a story you can tell now that you know the ending.

My knee injury in June, which at the time felt like the end of my season, now seemed like the ideal rest to prepare for the final race of the year. The near-miss of the podium in Mont Saint Anne fueled the fire and paved the way for an even better ride in Switzerland. My mistakes in the race, the moments when I stumbled, doubted, fell back or lost focus, all seem to blur together. Instead, I am left with the highlight reel of watching the pieces come together. It’s easy to look backwards and connect the dots, each step leading to the outcome that, only after the fact, seemed inevitable.

And that’s the thing to remember — before the race, this outcome seemed anything but inevitable. As I took each step to prepare, my mind wasn’t set on the outcome; it was concentrating on one tiny part of the process. It was focused on long winter rides in the rain, pushing that one last interval on a random Tuesday in January, raising the weight on that last squat rep, and knowing I was toeing the line prepared to the best of my ability.

When I took the lead on that last lap, I had a big opportunity to make something magical happen. But that opportunity was only possible because of all the steps that came before and because of a team that believed in me, supported me and embraced the process regardless of the result.

Taking home the rainbow jersey was a big step in my career, but at the end of the day it was just that. Another step.

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