Kate Rau’s hugs and high-fives get students on the right track
October 31, 2014
EAGLE — Hundreds of teenagers are swarming the race course, their weary faces smeared with sweat and dust as they pedal across the finish line.
Kate Rau is right there. She knows each rider's name. She embraces nearly every kid, from the ecstatic winners to the back-of-the-pack stragglers, praising their achievement.
"You are amazing," she says as panting teens wobble through the finish corral.
"She's the amazing one. Everything she does is for the greater good. Kate is probably my biggest role model," said Aaricka Johnson, a 17-year-old mountain biker from Leadville who has raced in the Colorado High School Mountain Bike League since 2011. "She's changing lives. The way our coaches teach us, the way Kate has worked so hard, it makes you want to do the same for other people."
The state's first mountain-bike league, which elevates both elite racers and first-timers, is about so much more than bike racing. And Rau, 52, who forged the country's third mountain-biking league in 2010, is way more than the league's executive director.
She's the force behind a dirt revolution that is delivering bikes to at-risk kids on the edge, pulling them into a world of pedaling. She's the indefatigable organizer who bounds through weekend races with a clipboard and radio, knowing everything and everyone. She cajoles sponsors and venue hosts, maintaining well-oiled races that best most collegiate contests. She's guided the league's explosive growth from 140 that first year to more than 600 this year. She rallies hundreds of volunteers and coaches, deflecting all praise onto her crew and that bike-loving army of passionate instructors.
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And she's got a hug for everyone. No one shakes Rau's hand. It's a bear hug. Thousands of them every race day.
"Man, she is such a giver," said Nat Ross, a four-time world-champion mountain biker who coaches the Aspen Valley Composite team and supported Rau in 2009 and 2010 as she labored to create one of the country's first scholastic bike leagues. "She was certifying coaches, raising money, talking to local riders about organizing teams. She gives it all to the kids. Her enthusiasm is infectious."
Talk to anyone about Rau — parents, athletes, volunteers, many of whom don't have kids racing but help anyway — and you hear about that enthusiasm. She doesn't really walk as much as gallop through the race pit, hollering encouragement throughout the circus-like throng of team tents. Her radio is cackling, kids are calling her name, she's doling out those hugs and she's moving. It's hard to keep up.
"Parking signs are over there." Hug. "Call Charlie Brown at the bike shop, he's waiting for your call." High-five into a hug. "Is your brother racing? I hope he is!" Another hug.
She's been like that since she first organized one-time fall mountain-biking contests for high-schoolers in 1996 and 1998.
"That enthusiasm hasn't waned once. It's been there the whole time," said Gunnison's legendary mountain biker Dave Wiens, who serves on the league's board of directors. "She works so hard, too, night and day. Everyone out here has a personal connection with Kate. Her influence shows throughout every level of this league. She inspires so many people."
A decade ago, Rau was working as a court-appointed advocate for kids. She saw teenagers getting marginalized. She was counseling kids needing help, and she celebrated their potential despite portrayals that connected them with violence, drugs and trouble.
"You were kind of guilty just being a teenager, and I thought that's not true at all," she said.
The at-risk kids she was dealing with had a bad association with the outdoors. Many had been through intensive rehabilitative wilderness programs — the kind that involve practices like marches through the desert. They saw being outside as a sort of punishment, she said.
DEVELOPING A LIFELONG SKILL
She decided to change that perspective with knobby-tired bikes. In those wacky, hormone-deluged high school years when development molds a child into an adult in a mere four years, developing a lifelong skill like mountain biking can be a consistent, reliable source of power and identity, Rau said.
"All you need is to give them an area where they can empower themselves and feel valued and find their value within a healthy, happy tribe," she said.
The singletrack tribe. That's who gets the credit in Rau's view, not her. The biking community is a worldwide collective that embraces all. No one rides the bench in the state mountain-biking league, and nearly every rider can score points for their team just by finishing. That's a principal of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, which formed in 2009 with a league in California and now oversees 15 leagues in 14 states.
At all of the league's four races every fall, the high-speed finishers always return to the final stretch to cheer on their less-speedy teammates. By the end of the day, that last 100 yards of singletrack is lined as deep as a high-profile marathon.
"Everyone scores, if not for their team, then for themselves," Rau said.
Rau likes to talk about the handful of kids who will go on to be professional mountain-bike racers. But she loves to talk about the middle-of-the-pack stories. The college kids coming back to coach at their high school. The one-legged kid who pedaled through a canopy of raised arms in Leadville. The Casper, Wyoming, girl who overcame an asthma attack to finish. The Boulder pom squad that turned to bikes.
Tears fill her eyes when she talks about the oversized impact of coaches. More than 130 league coaches in Colorado have dedicated countless hours to getting kids on bikes, transforming rural communities that suddenly recognize the miles of trails spinning above town as life-changing trophies.
Her latest quest is enlisting schools to honor top athletes with varsity letters acknowledging their labors.
"I'm pretty much on a rampage for that because our athletes need to be recognized," said Rau, who has six Colorado high schools awarding varsity letters to league riders.
Rau talks about notes she gets from parents who describe how their kid was socially awkward, depressed and not fitting in at their high school.
"Then they discovered the mountain-bike team, and it changed their life," she said. "That could be anything. It could be the cross-country team, the chess club, the saxophone, who knows. I do know that if we give kids a passion and guidance they will flourish. That's what this is about."