Photos by Alex Knight Photography
It’s 8am on a snowy February morning, and Erica Tingey is on top of a mountain, surrounded in part, by frozen exhales, old mines, and the scattered company of those who, like her, find relief in the rebellion of skiing uphill. Behind her, the sun peeks between a wintery outline of leafless aspens as she peels the skins from her skis, pulls a windbreaker from her pack, rotates her bindings, and carves effortlessly down fresh corduroy on a warm 25-degree morning in Park City, Utah.
It's almost ceremonial, from the single ski boot she drives in, to the layers she pairs, to the quick change at 8,000’. There’s a ritual to her mornings, a rhythm to the sound of her skis on the snow and the beat of her breath as it quickens. It’s obvious, of this former professional mountain biker and owner/founder of the aptly named, women-centered, mountain biking clinics – Women in the Mountains (which have welcomed more than 2,000 riders) that despite the snow, and hard work of climbing 1300’ in under 45 minutes, there’s a huge piece of Erica that doesn’t ask to be here, it begs.
In 2010, at 33 years old with an 18-month-old baby boy at home, Erica Tingey competed in, and won, her first mountain bike race in St. George, Utah, crossing the finish line with an eight-minute gap between her and the second-place rider. From 2011-2016, Erica won podium placements both nationally and internationally, giving birth to a career, and motherhood, simultaneously. "During those earlier years, I was the only mother on the pro racing circuit from the USA. I remember lining up, looking around, and realizing, ‘I’m the only mother on this start line.'"
Four years later, Erica was ranked 9th in the nation with an eye on the Olympic Long List as one of nine hopeful riders making a bid for Rio. And yet, for all she’d accomplished, there were those who viewed her professional success as personal failure. “There was a time when I was competing, a time when I relied heavily on my husband and family to care for my son as I
traveled, when the subject of an Olympic bid came up. And... there was a general sense from some of the women close to me, women of a different time and beliefs, who made it clear that this, competing and coaching, was not where they wanted my life to go. That this was not what they wanted for me, to have a career and a business, and that they would have rather I retired and stayed home to have more children."
There are moments in life, more often than I’d like to admit, when I think I’ve got someone
figured out. Moments when I assume, because I’ve heard the height of a woman's success, that I know the depth of her struggle. Erica has been one of those women in my life, someone I've
watched from a distance, on social media, and from the dropper-seat of my mountain bike in an afternoon clinic. Someone whose journey, I assumed, was linear. But sitting across from her, watching her eyes widen and her posture stiffen as she remembers the pain of having her purpose and humanity reduced, I understand a little more about why she climbs mountains, and where she finds the fuel to summit, while the rest of us sleep.
“When Kirkham was born it was magical, and I loved him, I immediately was in love with him, and I also knew, almost immediately, that he was going to be an only child. I was on bedrest the last three months and the delivery was really awful, and painful, and in hindsight I would definitely say I had PTSD around all of it. I just knew I couldn't do it again. I also knew I needed to have my own identity and my own life, separate from being a mother and wife. My son has memories of his mom ‘always’ leaving him to go race her bike, and I want to pull the calendar out and be like, ‘Look at all of these days we were together! I only left a handful of times each summer!' But I loved racing so much that I was willing to leave him every once in a while, and there was for sure some guilt, but I also knew that being with him 100% of the time wasn't necessarily healthy. I saw a lot of women when I was growing up, just being sucked into the role of motherhood so deeply. They didn't have a career, they didn't have a hobby, they just identified as mom and nothing else. And for me, I know I can't lose myself in motherhood, because it's so short. I only have four and a half years before my son leaves the house, it's such a short time. He is my number one priority, I just love him, and I would do anything for him, even 14 years later he’s my everyday life and the center of my decisions, I love being a mom. And, I also need to make sure I have a life waiting for me when he leaves.”
I hate to say it, and moreover I hate to admit it, given the almost 200 years since the Women’s Rights Movement began, but even in 2023 there continue to be communities and cultures in America that view womanhood as synonymous with motherhood, and motherhood synonymous with submission. “Growing up we were taught to listen to men, they tell you what to do, they help you make decisions, or they make the decision for you, and they tell you if you've made a wrong decision. There's nothing about you having your own power, your own intuition, any of that. It's all about, if you do something wrong, you go tell them and then they help you repair yourself. I was never taught to trust myself, but... I always knew that I was independent in that way. I really want to give credit to my husband because he's gone through this journey of independence with me, and he's like, ‘You are your own person, you can seek your own guidance, and find your own intuition.’ Women are so smart, and so good at teaching each other, and I believe it’s so powerful to have a woman teaching a woman how to ride mountain bikes, ski moguls, or run a successful business. I have so many female mentors in my life, that is who I really turn to for guidance. There are women holding up a light, saying “here's how we do this!” And... I want to go that way. And then, I want to hold up my light for the other woman and be like, 'I can teach you! I've got this! And I've got you, I understand you, and I can communicate with you in a way that only a woman can. I know what I'm doing, I know how to help you manage your brain, and I know how to help you manage your mountain biking. I know I can do it.'”
By 2016, with her hopes for an Olympic Bid behind her, Erica was now 39 years old and finishing her races mid-pack. “Sometime, at the end of the summer, I was leaving to go for a race and my son said, ‘Are you going to win?’ And I said, ‘Oh, no, I'm not going to win.’ And that's when I knew it was over. When he asked me that, I thought, there’s no point anymore. Because for me, it was all about winning, I’m not going to pretend it was anything besides that. So when he asked if I was going to win, and I knew for sure I wasn’t, the scales tipped. My love of racing no longer outweighed the cost of leaving my child.”
This summer, Women in the Mountains will celebrate its eighth season, bringing a
predominantly male sport to the women of Utah with more than 100 different clinics hosted by 5 different coaches (Erica included), across beginner, intermediate, and advanced skill levels from April through September.
For anyone living out-of-state or looking for a well-packaged and professionally developed online education, Erica launched her online training program, The Women’s Mountain Bike Mastery Course, which includes 6 months of access to more than 45 different training modules across 9 core categories, including hour-long coaching calls, personalized feedback, and nervous system training. “I love teaching women to feel safe, because that's what was important to me, and that's what's important to almost every woman over 30, they want to feel safe.”
The afternoon following our conversation over a warm Americano and Early Grey, Erica sent me a message that read, “I loved chatting with you this morning! I was super raw, saying things I
normally don’t share publicly, can we sit down again?”
I realized, in that moment, it was my turn to walk her up a mountain. To invite her to step
nervously through looming opinions, to walk beside her as she hiked uncomfortably in the
heaviness of her past, to make sure she felt safe to share her story, and to tell her story as it
should be told, as utter courage and inspiration to other women who feel their humanity has
been reduced and their womanhood stolen.
So much of who we are is embedded in the women who raised us, women whose lives were
dictated down to the pants they could wear, the college they could attend, the job they could
hold, the money they could earn, and the number of kids they could bear. Women whose intuition and confidence were put into question. Women who were afraid to stand against what men expected of them. Women who were told how and what to think, and who to ask for advice.
For a woman like Erica, to emerge from her past as both an elite athlete and thriving business owner inspiring other women through mountain biking, and teaching her clients to trust in themselves despite the terrain, their experience, and the fear, requires an enormous act of self- belief. But to forge a trail that extends beyond the finish line of motherhood, is the ultimate act of rebellion.
In the quiet of a cold winter morning, while the sun stretches, and the wind yawns, Erica Tingey climbs a mountain, pausing at the peak to plant her flag, subtly, and consistently, reminding other mothers to train for the day when we'll peel off our snack stained clothes, pull the banana-clip from our hair, rotate our bindings from mommy to mom, and carve our way back into womanhood, knowing a life, our life, will be waiting for us when we do.