Crowell, teammates unite against toughest opponent
Though she has hardly touched her bike in months, Jackie Crowell is in the midst of the most challenging race of her life.
Jackie Crowell is analytical. Aside from being a professional cyclist, a title she earned in 2009 when she started racing with Team Type 1, she would most likely describe herself as logical, reasoned and studious. Though she excelled as a cyclist at the University of Florida, her sights were primarily set on earning her degree in mechanical engineering.
“School was pretty much my primary concern,” she says.
After graduating, though, Crowell took to the road where she became noticeably faster and began to gain notoriety in the professional cycling community. She rode for Team Type 1, Exergy TWENTY16, and eventually signed with the newly created UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team in mid-September 2013.
“I knew that they were going to have a great team,” recalls Crowell. “I knew I wanted to be on UHC because I really enjoyed working with Mara (Abbott) and Alison (Powers) in past years, and I knew it was going to be a great opportunity.”
Says Powers, “We have such a strong team. We have Mara, who can climb, we have Hannah (Barnes) and Coryn (Rivera), who can sprint. It allows riders to grow individually, but then those individual strengths help grow the team.”
Crowell, blessed with an all-around arsenal of skills, was brought on to serve in a utility role.
“She is a very versatile rider,” says Women’s Team Sporting Director Rachel Heal. “When you look at some riders, it’s very clear and obvious what their role is. Jackie wasn’t pigeonholed; she’s a good leadout rider, but then she climbs decently well, she’s a rider that you could put in a break and she could win a race in a break, and you could use her to chase things back in a road race. She came to us as a very dynamic and versatile rider that we could use for several different things.”
Crowell’s career was taking off faster than she could have imagined. Nothing more than a self-described optimist on her bike who simply took the approach of Let’s see how I do, the accolades and personal records kept rolling in, and in October 2013, she found herself in Colorado Springs, Colo., where she had made the final cut for the team pursuit program looking forward to Rio.
“I had actually just done stellar times that day on the track,” she says. “But when I came home to the showers, that’s when I just started having seizure symptoms.”
Crowell didn’t think much of the tingling feelings in her arm, a numbness that popped up sporadically for a few minutes at a time only to go away completely—she wrote them off as complications from a spinal injury suffered a few years before. When the three-minute tingling episodes, which were later discovered to be mild seizures, and movement-related indications did not subside, a litany of tests were ordered to determine the cause. Initially, the greatest fear was multiple sclerosis. A scan quickly revealed that the diagnosis was much more grave: cancer.
The prognosis is not good for Crowell. She has a grade IV gliosarcoma, an aggressive tumor in her brain that stacks the odds against most of its victims. Though she is only 26 and in excellent physical condition, the deadly disease is not picky.
“The type of cancer I have has no cure and very minimal treatment,” Crowell says. “Cancer is not something that just sick old people get; it’s something that I got and that millions of other people get who are perfectly healthy. Something needs to be done about that.”
Crowell underwent immediate brain surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible. Though the surgeons were able to remove much of the visible tumor without compromising many surrounding healthy cells, Crowell was left needing to re-learn how to walk, ride a bike and get dressed on her own, not to mention the hours of chemotherapy and treatment still to come.
The hill seemed insurmountable, but her track record shows that despite the tallest of peaks, Crowell can climb.
It is nearly impossible to win without a team. Even with the strongest individual attributes, a single rider will struggle greatly without the help of teammates to relieve them from their grueling burdens during the heat of competition.
Crowell had been a UnitedHealtcare teammate for less than a month when the life-changing news came, and she was not sure how her new teammates would react.
“I had to tell my teammates first before I shouted it out to the whole world. They are my friends,” Crowell recalls. “I think about cycling all the time. I always did it for the love of the sport, and I still love the sport. What keeps me in it are my teammates from UHC and my coaching clients.”
Crowell broke the news at a team meeting during a training camp last fall.
“It’s a strange situation to be in a team meeting at training camp, you’re looking forward to getting to know your new teammates and you have one of your teammates sit in a meeting with you and say, ‘I’m now fighting for my life,’” says Heal. “There weren’t very many dry eyes in the room during that situation, but Jackie was incredibly positive about it. That meeting could have been incredibly difficult, but she came with it from a really positive point of view. She said, ‘I’m fighting and I want you guys to fight with me.’”
That day, Team UnitedHealthcare went all in. Newly informed of the difficult news of Crowell’s health, the UHC women had a season of competition ahead and the knowledge that one of their teammates was undergoing chemotherapy, seeing doctors and facing the daily challenges of battling an aggressive brain tumor.
Looking for ways to honor Crowell’s fight, an opportunity arose at the 2014 Volkswagen USA Cycling Professional Road & Time Trial National Championships in Chattanooga, Tenn., where the winners of the men’s and women’s road races on Memorial Day would win a one-year lease on a 2015 Volkswagen GTI.
“It’s funny, because cycling is a team sport, so as soon as that announcement was made, people were saying, ‘If you guys win, what are you going to do with (the car)?’” says Abbott. “If there is one person who could use a little extra enjoyment and a little extra ease in her life, it would be Jackie. It’s special because there is not a lot that we can do for her, but this was something that we would be able to do.”
The UHC women decided that if any of their three riders would cross first in the women’s professional road race on May 26, the keys of the car would go to Crowell.
Two hours, 55 minutes and 25 seconds after the gun, Powers posted up as she crossed the finish line a full 42 seconds ahead of the field.
“We definitely had her on our mind for the road race, knowing that we were going to give the car to her,” says Powers. “It was just a little extra incentive and motivation. None of us fought about it, saying, ‘Well, what if I won the car? What if you win the car?’ It was a cohesive decision that Jackie is going to win the car and let’s go win it for her. She was almost an added teammate that day for us.”
Back in Georgia, a melancholy Crowell was unaware of the enormous gesture her teammates were making 118 miles northwest of her suburban Atlanta home.
“I was completely unaware,” she says. “The morning of the road race, I had woken up and I was in a horrible mood because I knew the race was going on and I had done so well there last year, and going into this season, I had such high hopes of racing it myself. Not being able to race it and not being able to be there because I was on chemo those days, it was just tragic. I was not in a good mood.
“I was down in the dumps that day because my team was there and I couldn’t be there. I was sitting at home in bed with cancer. I didn’t even watch most of the race, and then I got phone calls from basically everyone. Alison called me, Mara called me, Rachel, our mechanic, Adrian (Hedderman), they all called me. I was shocked, I was floored. The fact that they remember me and think of me is such a huge motivator. You never want to be forgotten. I don’t want the things that I’ve done in the sport to be forgotten.”
Earlier in the month, eight ribbons with ‘J’ on them were made in honor of Crowell for the Giro d’Italia. Teammates wore the ribbons on their wrists, jerseys and on their bikes.
“They knew Jackie was back home sending them positive vibes,” recalls Heal.
Against all odds
The probability of one individual coming out of the pack to win is small, but with determination, good fortune and a team to help lift them, that person can defy the odds and come out on top.
Crowell has been able to find some normalcy in a highly irregular circumstance, and she has remained close to the sport through coaching and riding in local events.
“I’m only feeling now, nine months later, that my life has a routine,” she says.
The best news of all: the cancer has not come back.
“It seems as though the one kind of chemo that I’m on has been working, at least it’s been working so far,” says Crowell. “With this type of disease, no news is good news.”
As Crowell’s fight wages on, she has a team of exceptional people behind her to motivate, support and allow her to live vicariously.
“Because we think of her so often and various people talk with her so much, I think she’ll fit in with no problem when she’s able to come back,” says Powers. “Jackie is a very positive person, and that positive energy is what’s helping her deal with all of this.”
Says Abbott, “She’s always been a great teammate and is really positive. I’ve been really impressed with the mature outlook she’s had on everything. The way she takes the day-to-day setbacks, struggles and opportunities has been really inspirational. For me, it really serves to remind me that there’s bigger stuff out there than just racing bikes, and perhaps that the most important part of us as bikers is that we can use that as an opportunity to inspire others and a way to tell much more common human stories. I think that having Jackie is really just sort of to keep all of us on a good line and remember what’s important.”
Calculated and aware of odds, it would be easy for a mechanical engineer battling a deadly form of cancer to throw up her hands and quit, but as Crowell said in her address at the 2014 Tour of California, the odds were also against her to become a professional cyclist and an engineer.
Like in cycling, Crowell and her team know that beating the odds is far from unlikely.
“When you look at the numbers, the chances of us winning a race are slim, but when you’ve got a positive attitude like Jackie’s within the team, she’s proving that you can throw away the numbers and the statistics, and you can look at things differently,” Heal says. “Just because the numbers might say you aren’t going to win, it doesn’t mean you aren’t.
“I’m sure there are some statistics that suggest that she shouldn’t still be here, but she is. She’s continuing to fight. That positive attitude does huge things. The fact that she’s not letting the numbers and what supposedly should happen affect her, she’s charting her own path and saying, ‘I’m going to fight this and I don’t care what statistics say.’”
“Positive attitude is something that you choose to have,” she says. “Yeah, I have cancer, but I have to wake up every morning and be happy that I’m alive.”
Follow Jackie on Twitter @jacrowell88
This Article Updated August 13, 2014 @ 10:17 PM For more information contact: