Leave it to Lea - Kate Courtney Reflects on Lea Davison’s Years-long Mentorship

Oct 17, 2022 at 9:05
by John K Mahaffey  
Photo: Bartek Wolinski / Red Bull Content Pool

Words: Kate Courtney

Lea Davison, an icon in American mountain bike racing, announced her retirement from the World Cup circuit at the beginning of 2022. My career, like so many others, was shaped by Lea as she helped forge a path onto the international race scene for American women. I first met Lea in 2013 at Specialized headquarters when I was a senior in high school. I expected Lea to be serious, a robotic picture of discipline that would match my perception of elite athletes at the time. But from the moment she shook my hand and smiled, I knew saw she was much more than that. Lea was joyful. She laughed and told stories and, though she was clearly seeking mastery in her craft, she made it even more obvious how much she loved it. I wanted to be just like her.

A year later, I was given the opportunity to become Lea’s teammate and jumped at the chance. I signed with Specialized and over the next five years, Lea and I became inseparable. We pre-rode courses together, planned adventure rides between races and slept about six inches apart in tiny European hotel rooms in twin beds we could barely separate. For me, traveling and training with one of my idols was a dream come true. But looking back, I am amazed by how warmly and wholeheartedly Lea invited me in and took me under her wing. The experiences we shared and lessons I learned looking up to Lea have had a profound impact on my life and career.

Of all of the experiences I have shared with Lea, one in particular stands out. It started at the beginning of the 2016 Olympic season when Lea sent me a package in the mail with a little note. It was a Nike T-Shirt with the Olympic Logo on it from her time in London. “2012 Olympic Team” was typed out in a white font inside a red circle around the Olympic rings. “This can be you,” Lea had written in the note. I wore that shirt every day in training, pushing just that little bit harder believing that my extra rep in the gym or interval on the bike might really make the difference. She believed, so maybe I could too.

When it came time for the first race of the season, Lea and I hopped on our flight to Cairns, Australia. It took three connections and an airport transfer to get there, so we swapped snacks, compared notes on the latest Beyoncé album and napped until we finally touched down. When we arrived at the hotel, we were excited to be staying in condos with kitchenettes—until we saw that our condo only had one actual room. Our teammate took the upstairs bedroom, which left Lea and I sleeping in a glorified closet with two roll-away twin beds about a foot apart.

“I guess let the Olympic year begin,” Lea said, breaking into laughter. When people think about professional athletes chasing an Olympic dream, they don’t imagine roll-away beds in a closet halfway around the world.


Davison showing me the ropes, or, in this case, the rocks. Photo: Michal Cerveny


On trips like these, Lea and I complemented each other perfectly. I have always been a planner. I want to know where I am going, how I will get there and preferably one or two places to stop for snacks along the way. Especially as a young athlete, I had a tendency to push too hard and hold on too tight to fixed outcomes and a naive idea of what discipline looked like. I wanted to be in control. Lea, on the other hand, dwells in the mystery of it all. She chooses her own path and trusts it, while always leaving a bit of room for something unexpectedly magical to happen. My parents nicknamed her “free range” because she is the type of person who needs to be able to come and go as she pleases, not one for a strict schedule or rigid plan. In some ways we balanced each other out, which made us great teammates. When we were together, things always seemed to work out.


bigquotesLea was joyful. She laughed and told stories and, though she was clearly seeking mastery in her craft, she made it even more obvious how much she loved it. I wanted to be just like her.


Channeling Lea's joy. Photo: Courtesy Kate Courtney


Over that week in Australia, we spent the days riding to and from the course, analyzing every rock and root to pick our perfect lines for race day. I kept Lea on time and she made sure that in moments when I started to get too rigid or anxious, she would grab me for a walk down to the ocean or to go get ice cream. By the time race day arrived, we were both ready.

After all of these years, the race results seem to be the least important memory of this trip. I won my first U23 World Cup and Lea suffered a few flat tires that made a great result impossible. But what I remember most is our trip back home.


Having absolutely no fun together at an autograph signing. Photo: Ale Di Lullo


Getting home from Cairns is not an easy travel day. No matter how you plan it, you will have a long layover in Sydney, so we decided to embrace it and extended ours overnight. With our focus so squarely on the racing, we hadn’t made any plans for our night in Sydney and when we finally arrived, I pulled out my phone to research the best places to eat, drink, walk—everything. We should have made reservations weeks ago, I concluded after a few moments on the New York Times 36 hours in Sydney guide.

“Let’s just wing it,” Lea said as I pored over my Google searches.

“But we only have one night! How will we know if we picked right?” I answered back.

“Okay my little planner. This will be good for you,” she said.

And just like that, we were on the subway heading toward the Sydney Harbor with no clue where we would be going once we got there. Lea knew she wanted to see the Opera house so we hopped off and went there first. I spent the walk peeking at menus and trying to find the best place to eat. Lea spent the walk telling me to relax and look at the view.

The Opera house was beautiful, unlike any building I had ever seen before. We walked around and looked out at the lights of the city and the boats out in the water. Yes, this was worth seeing, I thought. We went around to the front of the building to see who was playing and, to our surprise, saw the name of one of our favorite artists in flashing lights: Vance Joy. Vance freaking Joy was playing!

“See Lea this is why we have to plan ahead! It’s probably been sold out for months,” I said.

“Yeah man that’s a bummer,” Lea replied.

I thought I might as well see if there were any tickets up for resale. I got on the wifi and started searching. Ten minutes later, I was down an internet rabbit hole on a website called GumTree, which I believe to be the Australian equivalent of Craigslist. There were a few tickets listed and I started to message the sellers. A couple had decided not to go last minute and posted two tickets.

“Find anything?” Lea asked impatiently.

“I got this Lea, hold on,” I said. “I’m offering them all of my prize money.”

“Okay Kate,” she replied, “work your millennial magic!”

I messaged them, offering all of the cash I had been handed on the World Cup podium the day before and, to my surprise, they said yes.

“We are IN!” I shouted excitedly. “We are meeting them in the roundabout at the front of the theatre in 10 minutes.”

We ran down the steps and toward the circle, nearly sprinting with excitement. We found their car, handed them the cash and walked away with two golden tickets. We looked like little kids who had just stolen from the cookie jar and promptly went to the Opera House bar to sip cocktails and celebrate. It was surreal.


Photo: Courtesy Kate Courtney


Even more surreal was the concert itself. Vance Joy was as funny and talented as I had always imagined and when he started playing “Fire and The Flood,” the crowd erupted into song. Joy stopped playing and it was just us. I swear with the acoustics in that building, the crowd sounded like a choir. It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard.

Lea and I were being given the opportunity to travel the world and fill our lives with incredible experiences, not just as athletes but as human beings. We just had to choose to value those moments alongside the results, to hold the hard work and the joy in balance rather than in opposition. That night, as we sat in the Sydney Opera House and felt the vibrations of Vance Joy’s music moving through us, my heart sang. I wasn’t planning my next step or thinking about what was on my training schedule the next day. I just sat and savored every note.


I’ve carried lessons from Lea with me long after we were no longer teammates. Photo: Bartek Wolinski / Red Bull Content Pool


This experience remains one of my favorite memories with Lea. In a world where so many elite athletes seem to preach sacrifice and suffering, Lea showed me how joy and adventure can be your secret weapon. Yes, of course she wanted to win and was willing to be disciplined and serious to reach her goals. As her teammate, I watched her win National Championships, World Championship medals and qualify for the U.S. Olympic Team. I saw her come back from injuries and heartbreak with grit and belief and never give up on ferociously chasing her dreams. Those results have had a huge impact on the trajectory of mountain biking in America, particularly for women.


Davison leading Catharine Pendrel at the UCI World Tour in Lenzerheide on July 5th, 2015, one performance in a long career of World Cup and Olympic races. Bartek Wolinski / Red Bull Content Pool Photo: Bartek Wolinski / Red Bull Content Pool


But her legacy and impact go far beyond her desire to stand on the top step of the podium. Lea taught me that in the long run, your character will define you far more than your race results ever could. It isn’t just what she achieved, but how she achieved it that makes her the incredible mentor, friend, teammate, partner, sister and daughter that she is and will continue to be long after her time on the World Cup circuit comes to a close.

To know Lea is to know joy. She loves riding her bike so much that she can’t help but share that enthusiasm with the people around her. And, if there is anything she has taught me, it is that joy can be the unexpected ingredient to the best performances— and what makes chasing those good days on the bike, with people you love and admire, an unforgettable adventure.


Lea the legend. Photo: Bartek Wolinski / Red Bull Content Pool



40 Comments

  • 54 3
 I have a feeling some young rider will be telling a similar story about Kate in a decade or two.
  • 11 0
 I doubt it would even take that long.
  • 5 1
 Gwendalyn Gibson
  • 48 0
 Besides being a total badass on a bike, Lea and her sister also started an organization 12 years ago that has empowered hundreds (thousands?) of girls to get into mountain biking. littlebellas.com Total class act! Props to Kate for the props.
  • 12 0
 All donations to Little Bellas this week will be matched 100% by Nuun Hydration, for those of you considering giving...
  • 16 0
 Now I would really like to go on a bike ride with Lea.
Great writing @katecourtney!
  • 12 0
 is this a recycled Outside article from Spring of this year? Not trying to diminish the article in any way, just having a moment of deja vu.
  • 67 1
 Yep you're not in the matrix, this was a paywalled article on Beta in the spring. With Beta getting rolled up, I wanted to make sure some of these stories got the visibility they deserve. We've been working with the authors to bring some of our favourite pieces over to Pinkbike where more people can see them for free.
  • 9 0
 It may have trickled down to the unwashed masses, gratis.
  • 1 0
 @brianpark: ok whew, glad to know I haven't lost it.
  • 15 10
 @brianpark: This is a strong argument for Outside+. If I knew there were more XC coverage telling these stories (and maybe doing some tech too), I'd be happy to pay.

I'm far less interested in EWS/Redbull riding, and feel my PB clicks have plummeted lately as your content seems to be shifting more to that side (though using the comments section as a popularity scale certainly seems to support such a shift). As such, I find much of my content consumption is European these days vs North American, as the coverage just isn't here.
  • 4 1
 @brianpark: by "rolled up" you mean discontinued? Props to you for getting some of those articles out-hope the Beta writers land on their feet.
  • 15 5
 @jspier: I completely agree. I am on PB much less now due to the main focus of gravity and the unfavorable comments toward XC, Gravel, Ebike, Road. When I do find an interesting XC article there is always some insult waiting in the comment section.
  • 6 1
 @GreyJay: PB has always been more gravity focused.
  • 3 0
 @brianpark: "you're not in the matrix" sounds like something an agent would say
  • 24 0
 @GreyJay @jspier thanks for the feedback. A little surprised that you're seeing less XC stuff than before. I'd have to do some digging to validate, but historically Pinkbike has been gravity-focused and I've been consciously upping our XC content over the past few years. I've also seen way less whining about gravel/ebikes/XC in the comments than when I first came on board (2017? oh god).

PS. we've got an XC/downcountry Field Test that starts rolling out next week. Smile
  • 6 1
 @GreyJay: Pinkbike is definitely more gravity focused (always has been) but I don't really see the hate toward XC on here. Road and Ebike negativity for sure. But that's because its a mountain bike site so road articles don't belong, and ebikes are ebikes.
  • 2 0
 @sino428: Kate Courtney could have done more laps if she had an ebike
  • 4 2
 @GreyJay: Most of us are on PB for the gravity and sometimes are pleasantly surprised by compelling XC races and racers like Kate. There are plenty of dirt-roadie sites for your ilk.
  • 3 2
 @brianpark: glad to hear. I only really come to pb for xc related content or sort of... Normal trail content. Imo enduro and downhill only strongly applies to a small portion of folks who have those types of trails in their backyard which sadly is few of us.

I have been feeling lately like there are few articles of interest - so much red bull rampage, crankworx, etc... The article the other day suggesting everyone just ride more suspension to "simplify" things when most mountain bikers need less suspension to enjoy their local trails... Poor coverage of US xc championships.
  • 3 1
 @brianpark: would be cool to see some more training/bike fitness related content. Maybe thats not PB's thing but that's a huge part of my mountain biking. Id also love to read articles from pros or coaches on training. Skills articles too.
  • 7 0
 Kate - that was a wonderful story. Thank you so much for sharing!
  • 4 0
 That was a beautiful read. Thank you.
  • 3 0
 The MTB national team is so incredibly positive!
  • 1 0
 Lea is still the best. Still cheering on those who won't fix their issues before it's too late. This reads like Amber Heard wrote it.
  • 1 0
 Nice article, and really enjoy following the women's and men's XC scene. More pictures of Kate than Leah?
  • 1 0
 There's one pic of kate by herself. the rest are of her with leah or leah by herself, and a rando with pendrell. whats your point?
  • 1 0
 Rob Warner will miss hearing Leah's mom at the races...
  • 1 0
 Love a good testimonial
  • 7 9
 alot of "I"''s in that screed. hm
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