Thursday, June 26, 2014

From the Edge of My Comfort Zone

In the last week I have traveled almost 20,000 miles, covering three continents, three states, Las Vegas, Kansas City, Overland Park and 30 years.  I went "home" for my 30th High School Reunion.  The time far eclipsed the miles.  

I grew up in a nice, clean, safe suburb of Kansas City.  In 1983-1984, Shawnee Mission South, the high school I graduated from was awarded a National School of Excellence.  Life was easy, I see that now.  Of course, when you're 17, nothing in life is easy.  How time and distance and life in Africa significantly alters one's perspective.

I was not the popular kid, the homecoming queen, surrounded by an entourage of compatriots who ruled the school.  I was the nerdy, band geek, sporty girl who had a few close friends in her class but mostly ran with others.  High school was brutal at times.  All I wanted to do was "fit in", be like all the pretty people. After 30 years I am thankful I never did.  I needed to be just different enough to not be afraid to live a very different life....although it took me almost 25 years to begin that life.

30 years changes many things....suddenly my different life seemed interesting.  In high school the last thing you wanted to be was different.  People were older, grayer, bigger and nicer.  One girl who was so nasty to me in high school was now the girl who was interested in what I did and who I had become.  She was always the prettiest girl in school, now she was still this gorgeous woman who was still so both inside and out.  My close friends are still my close friends even though I hadn't spoken to one in almost 30 years.  The conversation picked up right where it left off..."Bitch Kitty...were have you been?"

I was not the most likely person to attend a 30 year reunion.  I did so because I had the inner voice tugging at me to go.  When that voice will not subside I need to listen to it.  I am so thankful I did.  It was a ridiculous amount of travel with an even more ridiculous price tag, but this week was priceless.

My friend who I hadn't seen in almost 30 years hugged me so tightly and said, "You were the ONLY reason I came tonight.  I just wanted to see you."

That was enough.

We never know the impact we have on one another.  I did not set out to impact anyone when I went to Rwanda.  I was just trying to still my restless soul.  It was purely personal and private.  

The guy who organized the reunion and I were talking the last night of the event and he kept telling me I needed to tell my story.  I'm not the limelight girl.  I'm the behind the scenes girl.  It feels strange to tell my story, funny as I write this very public blog I know.  He said to me that although it is about me, my story, it's really about all the others who want to step out and don't.  

Really....I'm a girl from Kansas who lives in Rwanda and works in countries like Eritrea, most people have never heard of.  

"How does that happen?" he asked.

Simply....I just wanted to not suck air and die.  I wanted to live fully and completely and with that comes a life that really is not that easy, it's rampant with struggle, obstacles and frustrations and there was a nano second that life in Overland Park, Kansas looked appealing this weekend.  

But that's not me.  As I listened to friends who live 5 miles from where they grew up, talking about retiring from a job they've had for the past 20+ years and then starting their life I wondered how they did it.  There is nothing wrong with that life, these are great people, salt of the earth, hard working classmates.  But that life?  To me that is as foreign as people thinking about living and working in a 3rd world African country.  

One thing I know to the core of my soul after this week is I have no regrets, there are still hundreds of things I want to do, but if it all ended tomorrow, I would have no regrets, nothing left undone.  I don't wonder about a different life.  I live a different life.

Paul is right.....perhaps it's time to tell more of my story, step out from the shadows a bit.  If my story can impact others to live their authentic life then it needs to be told.

After all....I'll always be just a girl from Kansas.

If you're able to treat what seems like despair, what
seems like hardship as an opportunity
to reinvent yourself and to transcend your own limitations,
as David Johnson says, "the world is full of clues,
and you can read your way though it."
If you're able to turn your life into an art piece,
if you're able to turn your narrative into THE narrative,
then you become that hero.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

How Strong Must You Be?

“In order to be a cyclist, you must go through incredible amounts of pain, nobody escapes it.” – Jonathan Boyer

Cycling is a difficult sport not for the physically or mentally weak.  The best cyclists in the world have generally been European.  There was a time when we thought Americans had a great cyclist.  The Colombians have risen once again thanks to a young phenom, Nairo Quintana, who recently became the first Colombian to win the Giro d’ Italia. 

But, the world has not seen the true potential for greatness in cycling….the Africans.

Two weeks ago, while in Eritrea for the National Championships of Cycling, I witnessed yet again, how much the Eritreans, Rwandans and Ethiopians have to go through just to reach 10 steps below a level playing field with the rest of the first world.

We stopped by the National mechanic’s local shop in Asmara the Thursday morning before the races (ITT—Individual Time Trial and Road Race).  Mahari looked distraught.  He had been washing Natnael Berhane’s TT bicycle, a $15,000+ Colnago with EPS Campagnolo gruppo and when he was finished it wouldn’t shift.  EPS is the new electronic shifting components from Campy.  This bicycle with these components is as good as you get, however, Natnael was not going anywhere without the ability to shift.  Mahari is a good mechanic, diligent and always wanting to learn, however, prospects for training and equipment are limited in the capital city of Asmara.  Jock told Mahari he would look at it.

Later that afternoon Mahari, Jock, Natnael and a couple of others stood in the dimly lit back room of a jewelry store, the store was owned by Natnael’s father. 

Jock is not familiar with the new electronic shifting so the first attempts were futile.  He needed to know how to reset the shifting and the sequence to reestablish the gears.  First he tried to call Natnael’s mechanic at Team Europcar in France.  His phone cannot call out as it is blocked.  Natnael then calls Steven.  Steven answers but the connection is poor, the voices delayed.  Another call, Jock and Steven talk and then the line goes dead.  Another call, a few more steps then phone runs out of minutes.  The friend runs out and comes back with three 110 Nakfa cards to recharge the phone.  The calls do not go through.  Steven calls back.  Another few steps relayed, the phone dies.  Jock calls back.  Steven tells him he will send him a video on the reset sequence.  We all laugh.  Eritrea essentially does not have Internet.  Throughout the week we were able to send off and receive a few emails but that was it.  A video?  Never happening. 

People have no idea, no concept of life in Africa, unless they have experienced it.  Most haven’t.

More 110 Nakfa airtime cards, a few more calls and Jock gets the bike shifting….4 gears out of 22.  Not good, but better.  Steven tells Jock he will send the file via email.  The first email is 5MB.  Jock responds to reduce the file and he sends it 786kb.  No chance of opening it. 

Throughout the entire ordeal, Natnael is calm, relaxed and simply going with the events.  Mahari was silent, most likely contemplating he was possibly going to be responsible for Natnael’s loss on Saturday’s ITT.  I’m nervously watching, playing solitaire on my phone trying not to think about the what ifs and biting through the inside of my cheek.   

Natnael looks at Jock and says, “Can you call Louis Garneau (the clothing sponsor for Team Europcar) and tell him I need more National Championship jerseys because I will be racing the Dauphine next week?”

Jock just looked at him and said, “Yes, I will call Louis, but we need to get the bike fixed, let’s call him after Saturday.”

Why was this bike so important?  The ITT is often decided on tenths of a second.  A TT bike gives a cyclist a 3mile/hr advantage.  Natnael’s biggest competitor, Daniel Teklehaymanot, also from Eritrea and now riding for Team MTN Qhubeka, had his TT bike.  Daniel is also one of the best cyclists in Africa and moving up the ranks of professional cycling. 

If we didn’t get this bike operating, the chances of Natnael winning were slim, slim to none.  Natnael kept insisting we call Louis Garneau.  His quiet confidence was impressive especially considering the lack of the majority of the gears working.

Friday we decided to go to the US Embassy.  We had meetings there in the morning and we hoped to use their Internet as we had heard it might be faster.  When we finished our meetings around 10:00am the electricity was still off.  The electricity in Asmara was generally non-existent between 6:00am and 1:00pm daily.  We made an appointment to come back at 1:30 to be safe.

We arrived at 1:30…the electricity didn’t arrive until almost 2:30.

As soon as we got on the computer we tried to download the link.  The computer could not open pdf files.  There were two other computers left which could open pdf AND print.  Jock and I both worked furiously trying to open the files.  The electricity surged mid download and the back up batteries died and the computers with them.  The Italian and Japanese portion of the file had printed but not the English.  Jock speaks Italian.  The electricity comes back up and we start printing everything we can find on the Campagnolo website relating to resetting the EPS.  We were allowed 2 pages of printing each.  We printed over 50 pages.  The toner ran out, we printed some more.  Luckily the Eritrean at the Embassy knew the story and let us print away.  He got a pair of Team Eritrea socks as a HUGE thank you.

An hour later we had what we thought we needed.  We called Natnael and met him and Mahari back at the jewelry store.  Another two hours and Jock had the rear derailleur working (11 gears) but not the front.  Luckily the course was relatively flat so Natnael would not need the front derailleur.  He just had to make sure not to touch it at any point or the gearing would not work. 

Two days, six hours and it still wasn’t 100%. 

In the US or Europe it would have taken 10 minutes at your local mechanics and it would have been 100%. 

This is just one of the dozens of life issues African cyclists face day in and day out.  They do not have electricity to charge, phone service to call all over the world, credit cards if they get in a bind, parents at home to bail them out in a jam, a first world education, clean water, a good diet, access to parts, expertise, nutrition, coaching….they have none of it.

When an Eritrean hits the starting line at a major European race, physically and mentally they have had to overcome dozens, hundreds of obstacles a western cyclist would not even have to consider.  When they hit the line they are already the strongest young men in the group. 

Saturday Natnael rolled up to the start house already facing a strong time by Daniel who currently held 1st place by over 3 seconds.

As he left the start house I hit the stopwatch on my iPhone and waiting.  Daniel’s time based on my stopwatch was 21:05.  As the time approached 20 minutes I started watching.  There he was….the time was ticking by.  The crowd started cheering.  I stopped the iPhone at 21:04.  I knew it was close but from where I was standing I couldn’t be 100%. 

Natnael won by .8 seconds.  He was the ITT Eritrean National Champion.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Women's Cycling in Africa

Mosanna Debesay, a young twenty-one year old woman from Asmara, Eritrea, comes from a long line of cyclists, heroes of the sport of cycling in Eritrea.  Her older brothers are FrekalsiDebesay, who currently rides for MTN Qhubeka and recently won a stage at this year’s Tour of Amissa Bongo (Gabon) and Mekseb Debesay who took 2nd in the recent Eritrean National Championship ITT and 4th in the Road Race in Asmara.  Mosanna is from a cycling family dynasty in this country whose number one sport is cycling.  Mosanna finished 2nd in the ITT at the Eritrean National Championships and 3rd in the Road Race.  Mosanna’s journey through the sport of cycling has been much different than Rigat Tekle’s

Rigat Tekle is head of Women’s Cycling in Eritrea.  She is in her early 30’s and has always loved racing bicycles.  Rigat is passionate about helping these young women have opportunities not afforded to her just a short decade ago.  When Rigat began cycling her mother did not support her decision to ride a bicycle.  Her mother believed riding a bicycle would damage her opportunity to marry.  Rigat stated, “it was like I was no longer a virgin”. 

Rigat rode anyway.

Today Rigat is married and the mother of a young child.  Her mother is now supportive.  Rigat now helps woman have the chance she never had.  She helps grow the sport of cycling in Eritrea via the Federation.  Mosanna can thank her brothers and Rigat.

There are 62 registered female road cyclists in Eritrea with countless more on mountain bikes.  Recently, all six regions of Eritrea received 10 new Giant bicycles for their women’s programs.  I met two of the regional federation employees…both women, one Muslim.  There is a women’s cycling movement in Eritrea, which is overcoming the cultural and religious obstacles to women cycling. 

The Eritrean Cycling Federation recently organized the first ever CycloFemme ride in Eritrea.  It was launched by men for women in Eritrea.  We are making progress.

The women’s national championship road race down the main street in the capital city of Asmara was held immediately after the juniors and before the elite/U23 race.  The streets were already packed with fans.  The women’s race fielded 33 cyclists from the various six regions.  One thing, which glaringly stood out, was the lack of women spectators.  Rigat said it was just the way it is.  The older generation of women simply does not understand why girls ride.  As I walked through the crowds what I did notice was the younger generation watching.  There were girls watching.  These girls want to be the next Mosanna.

We are working to make their dreams a reality.  One of the biggest obstacles, not only in Africa, but worldwide, is the scarcity of women’s races.  This year there will be a one day race for women in conjunction with the Tour de France after a 5 year absence.  It’s not the 10 day stage races of the 80’s and 90’s but it is a start.  

The UCI is committed to women’s cycling, it is on their radar and they are working to add more races and Africa is an exciting venue for them.  Africa is a developing continent for cycling and women’s cycling is an integral part of that plan.

We have already begun working on the logistics, sponsorship and funding to launch a 2015 Women’s Tour of Rwanda 4 day stage race.  We will also look to do the same with the Tour of Eritrea in the early months of 2015.  These two events would be the premiere women’s cycling races in Africa.  In February 2015, the African Continental Championships near Durban, South Africa will most likely host the largest contingency of women cyclists in African history.

For the first time, two junior Rwandan women will be racing at the Youth Olympics in Beijing in August 2014.  Clementine and Benithea recently qualified after racing in the African Youth Games in Botswana in May.

Women’s cycling in Rwanda and Eritrea is on the move.  It is time to give these women the support they need to own Half the Road in cycling worldwide.