Olympic cycling star Amber Neben got her start by bicycling between classes at UC Irvine.
A gifted distance runner who had attended the University of Nebraska on an athletic scholarship, she had been forced to surrender her dream of a career in track after suffering a series of debilitating stress fractures. In 1997, she enrolled in a UCI doctoral program in molecular biology, planning to find work in lab research.
She hadn’t considered competitive cycling until a bike-shop salesman brought it up in his efforts to entice her to buy a more expensive bike. But once she did, she says, “I knew it was in my DNA.”
In short order, Neben joined the UCI cycling team, found a coach, and began to explore Irvine’s more than 300 miles of bike trails and lanes. Determined to go pro in cycling, she cut short her doctoral studies in favor of a master’s degree and settled in Irvine with her husband, Jason, the executive director of innovative instruction and eLearning at Concordia University.
Neben went on to compete in three Olympic Games and win six national championship titles and three Pan Am titles. She also won the Tour de l’Aude Cycliste Féminin in France in 2005 and again in 2006.
At 46, she works as a coach and public speaker, while still frequently competing. During the summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, she fell just 11 seconds short of breaking a record as the oldest women’s cyclist to win a medal.
Her Olympic career began 13 years earlier, at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.
“I remember walking into the Opening Ceremonies and a chant of ‘USA’ broke out, and I almost cried,” she says. “You walk into the stadium, and the lightbulbs are just flashing like crazy, and it’s ‘USA, USA!’ You’re just like, ‘Oh, I’m an Olympian,’ you know? You’re representing your nation.”
Neben says that the respect she earned as an Olympic athlete has helped carry her through challenging times.
“Walking into the Olympic Village is one of the coolest things because you see every body type – wrestlers, runners, powerlifters, basketball players. There’s mutual respect because everybody understands how hard it is to get there, all the time and energy and dedication. Making the Olympic team is one of the most special things I’ve ever done.”
Neben often talks about the value of perseverance, something she has learned through exceptional trials. At age 4, she spent three days in a coma as a complication of spinal meningitis. Doctors erroneously predicted she would emerge with brain damage.
In 2007, at 33, she survived a bout with melanoma, which she says was luckily detected early. Then in 2013, a crash during the Tour of California time trial threatened to end Neben’s career. She dislocated her shoulder, broke a hip and cracked two ribs, requiring two years of rehab. During that time, she wrote a book about adversity, titled “When Shmack Happens: The Making of a Spiritual Champion.”
“Life is hard,” Neben says. “But these challenges we face – I call them ‘shmack’ – are really valuable. We shouldn’t be afraid of them. They give us the opportunity to grow and forge our championship qualities. I believe that the way I have responded to adversity is what has made me a champion.”
Today, she appreciates all that life has handed her.
“My rides are all 80 to 100 miles long, but every ride I go on, I ride through Irvine,” she says. “It’s comfortable, and I know all the trails so well. And the weather is always so great.”
Few mortals could realistically hope to match Neben’s endurance, but for those who want to try, she recommends following her practice of “taking really good care of my body.” She makes sure to eat three to five different colors of vegetables every day, along with lean proteins and healthy fats, while listening to her body’s “whispers.”
“Your body will whisper at you before it talks or yells,” she warns.