Prof wins world cycling championship

Sean Lavery

Kellogg School of Management Prof. Leigh Thompson is a busy woman: The 51-year-old Texas native juggles her time between raising three kids, teaching executives and graduate students, conducting research, writing a book about creativity and working on scientific articles.

And on top of that, Thompson recently added “World Champion Cyclist” to her list of accomplishments after taking the gold medal at the Union Cycliste Internationale Time Trial Masters World Championship in Austria.

Thompson said she never thought of herself as an athletic person as she grew up in the world of Texas high school football.

“I had no aspirations for racing. I was totally un-athletic, so I went the nerd route,” Thompson said. “For me, it’s a totally new identity.”

Thompson met avid cyclist Robert Weeks after getting her first job in Seattle. The two of them quickly fell in love, she said, and he introduced her to the world of cycling.

“I told him, ‘Anybody can ride a bike,'” she said. “I kind of got really into it.”

The passion for cycling was temporary. The couple married before relocating to the Chicago area in 1995. The bicycles were stored in the garage, the newlyweds had three children, and she began to focus on her career.

Thompson describes her husband as “sort of a geeky guy” who had been interested in researching human-generated power output. In 2007, his technical curiosity led them to a Vision QuestCoaching training facility, where Thompson said she had a “life-changing encounter.”

She met the founder of Vision Quest, professional cyclist Robbie Ventura, who talked Thompson into taking a physical performance test.

“She had by far one of the highest aerobically developed systems I’ve ever seen,” Ventura said. “When you put together that kind of physical power and her level of motivation, you get the kind of person it takes to be a real champ.”

Ventura shared his optimistic diagnosis with Thompson, who took the news with a fair amount of skepticism.

“I thought maybe he just told everyone that,” she said. “But I thought, ‘You know, I’m going treat it as though it were true.'”

In late 2007, Thompson began training with her coach, John Hughes. She tested herself with a few time trials before trying her luck in July 2008 with a national championship race in Kentucky, where she surprised herself with a gold medal finish. She continued training while the idea of success on the global stage became a possibility.

Thompson said she did some research but was still hesitant about competing in a world championship time trial in Austria. A few more words of wisdom from her mentor Ventura was all the confidence she needed, she said.

She said the competition in 2009 left her scared out of her wits and gave her the feeling she was in completely over her head. The result, however, was a confidence-boosting fifth place finish and a certain level of experience that prepared her for future attempts.

Before her flight to Austria last August, Thompson consulted once again with Ventura.

“Leigh put an excruciating amount of pressure on herself, but I told her, ‘Go to Austria and enjoy yourself,” Ventura said. “At her age and amount of experience coming in, she had already far exceeded my expectations.”

Thompson focused on the mechanics of the race, and upon crossing the finish line, felt satisfied with her performance. Thompson said she had not realized her feat as she pedaled lightly around the finish area. She remembered noticing her husband glancing at the scoreboard excitedly, she said.

“He came up to me and said, ‘Congrats, you’re a world champion,'” Thompson said. “And at that point I broke down in a completely positive way. It was the best day of my life.”

Ventura credits Thompson’s fiery personality for the success she has seen in the cycling world.

“She has a lot of passion,” he said. “She’s excited when she does well and pissed when she has a bad day. You need that emotional swing to get to the heights to be very good in this sport.”

The only emotion Thompson acknowledges right now is happiness, she said. She is not sure where she will take her cycling career next, but for now, she is enjoying the moment, she said.

“I want to stop time now,” she said. “I feel like I’m in the perfect place.”

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