Where are they now? Chasing down... Maureen Manley
While many of the world’s top cyclists are able to accomplish athletic feats most normal people could never imagine, it’s no secret that many struggle once their careers end, and they’re no longer able to compete at the highest levels of the sport.
But for Maureen Manley, a silver medalist in the team time trial at the 1990 World Championships, her best work came after she completed her last race. With her professional riding career behind her, Manley’s thoughts are no longer on a career which took her to the brink of being the top female cyclist in the world, and instead are focused on the present and future, where she is currently a highly sought after motivational speaker, life coach and health-care consultant.
Life in 2013 is mostly about appreciating what she currently has, after everything, from cycling to her life, was nearly taken away.
Being the “Best”:
Manley’s passion for biking dates back to a time before women’s cycling was an Olympic sport. Although it wasn’t added to the Olympic docket until 1984, that didn’t stop Manley from fixating on the sport early as a child, where she turned every ride around town into a race, and every visit to a friend’s house into her own personal time trial.
“I didn’t know that women’s cycling was a competitive sport that I could participate in,” Manley told USA Cycling about her experience of watching Connie Carpenter win a gold medal in 1984. “But (when it happened) I stood there in front of the TV and said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”
She then took things one step further.
“Not only do I want to be a competitive cyclist,” Manley explained of her thought process at the time, “I want to be the best female competitive cyclist in the world. It resonated with every ounce of my being that’s what I wanted to do.”
That path began during Manley’s time as an undergraduate student at Chico State University, where she not only played on the school’s soccer team, but also participated in triathlons in her free time. With an endurance athlete’s stamina, a transition to road cycling seemed natural and an opportunity presented itself when Manley began to train with the Chico State men’s cycling team.
Not that those early days were easy.
“I would get my butt kicked!” Manley said, before admitting that things eventually got easier. Within a few months, she was able to keep up with her male counterparts. Then she surpassed them.
And a short time after that, Manley got the big break she’d been waiting for.
There’s an old saying that “Luck comes when preparation meets opportunity,” and now fully prepared, Manley got her opportunity when both the men’s and women’s US cycling teams came to train in Fresno. Fresno is just a few short hours from the Chico State campus, and with easy proximity, Manley and her teammates had the opportunity to compete against the USA’s best in area competitions.
Like in her early days with the Chico State men’s team Manley struggled, but by her second year racing against the team, she was able to keep up with some of the nation’s best riders. Manley was asked to join a USA Cycling development team in 1988 and by 1989 was a member of the U.S. National Team.
“That’s when things took off for me, she said. “I just kept getting better and better and better.”
That’s also when Manley seemingly began to fulfill her personal promise to become one of the world’s best female cyclists. In 1989 Manley was part of an American group which finished in fourth place in the team time trial at the UCI Road World Championships. The team then followed up with a second place finish in the same event a year later. By 1991 Manley had a spot with the team time trial group for the third straight year, and was also selected as the only American woman to participate in the road race.
In theory, 1991 should’ve been Manley’s best year to date, and the World Championships the place where she captured her crown as the best female cyclist in the world.
Instead, it was the same event where her competitive cycling career started to come to an end.
And where a fight to save her life began.
A Cycling Career Comes Crashing to an End:
While Manley’s rise to the top of cycling came quickly, it’s not to say that- like any rider- it didn’t come without slumps along the way. And it was a slump which Manley attributed to a poor performance at the 1991 World Championships.
“I wasn’t on my game,” Manley said. “I felt off. But I just felt like it was something you need to work through.”
There, Manley finished with the pack in the road race, and in the team time trial the United States was unable to match their silver medal performance from the year before, in large part because Manley wasn’t the same rider. Her struggles showed in subtlety at times, like in Manley’s inability to push her body in ways she previously had before. It also showed in much more obvious ways, like in the fact that every time Manley exerted herself at maximum capacity, her vision began to blur.
Still, she chalked up the vision problems to a bad pair of sunglasses, and the rest was nothing more than a slump, one of which she would push her way out of with time.
“Was I in denial?” Manley asked. “No, I was trying to push through. It felt like a slump. I had been in slumps before, and what do you do? You just adjust your training, keep at it and get through it.”
But despite Manley’s mentally tough attitude, she wouldn’t be able to push through her problems at the Tour de France Feminine. It was at that race where in Manley’s own words, things went from feeling “off… to wrong” and where her health problems continued. Every time Manley pushed her body, her vision only got worse and worse.
Over time that vision went from foggy to near-blindness.
“By the time we reached the top of the climb my vision had blurred so badly I’d lost my sight,” Manley said. “I couldn’t see. And at that point I didn’t realize it, but I was moving right and my tires hit the gravel along the side of the road. That’s when they slid out from underneath me and I crashed to the ground. And that’s when I knew there is something very, very wrong here.”
Indeed it was, and although she finished the race, Manley threw her bicycle to the ground in frustration, with an understanding amongst everyone there that she needed to return to the United States and undergo medical testing. Multiple tests confirmed that something was indeed wrong; Manley had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
At the time of Manley’s diagnosis there were no treatments for MS, a disease which disrupts communication between the brain and spinal cord. Despite it, the super-competitive Manley wasn’t worried about her long-term prognosis, just her short-term ability to get back on her bike.
“The first thing I asked the doctor was, ‘Can I race my bicycle again?’” Manley said.
While the doctor diplomatically responded “probably not,” the answer became much clearer a short time later.
Within 18 months of her diagnosis, Manley was unable to walk without a cane.
A Fight for Her Life:
Although there were no treatments for MS at the time of Manley’s diagnosis, over the next few years several came to market. Yet as modern medicine evolved, Manley’s thinking did not. As an athlete she had been taught that taking drugs was cheating, and she believed that using them in her recovery would be no different.
Finally, something happened that would change Manley’s thought process. It came while Manley was sitting down one day, and her vision once again began to fade. Unlike previous instances of blurry vision, there was no physical exertion or raised heart rate causing the incident; in theory nothing should’ve caused it at all. Yet it happened, and Manley knew that if she didn’t take ahold of her life right then and there, she’d never get it back.
“When I lost my vision at rest I said, ‘this is it,’” Manley explained. “You need to stop fighting against this condition, and fighting for what you want. This isn’t cycling any longer.”
And while it didn’t happen overnight, Manley slowly began to get the pieces to her life back together after beginning treatment. Physically she was able to walk again, and mentally she got clarity by finally putting her professional cycling career in the rearview mirror.
Still, Manley’s most significant realization came on the same day she decided to take the steroid treatment. It was at that moment that Manley decided to stop focusing on what MS had taken away from her and instead chose to channel her energy into what she was still capable of doing.
She had a chance to put that thought process to work one day while recovering.
“I went to this little park near my home,” Manley began to explain. “I walked down to this lake and my legs got heavy and my vision blurred. I sat down on a park bench kind of overwhelmed in what had happened in my life.”
Then, she remembered the commitment she’d made to herself.
“I said to myself ‘Focus on what you can see and not what you can’t,” she said.
“’So what can you do?’” Manley asked herself. “I looked through the park and I realized I couldn’t walk through the park but I could walk to the next bench. And then I moved to the next bench. It was those choices that culminated into the life I have now.”
That life started when Manley became healthy enough to attend school, where she put her newfound approach to life in use with a custom-designed Master’s program called “Integrated Wellness.” And it is through her schooling that Manley’s education eventually became a lifestyle; she is now a consultant, life coach and motivational speaker, and travels preaching all of the things she’s been practiced through the years.
“When I said to myself ‘What do I want to fight for?’ I felt like the things I had been learning would be helpful for other people.” Manley said. “So I wanted to share it with other people.”
Specifically, the biggest point Manley tries to get across in her speeches is how to face crisis. Through personal trials and tribulations, Manley had to learn to remain focused on the positive, and channel out the things out of her control. Manley emphasizes that approach with everyone she works with now, although as an ex-athlete, she can’t help but give things a sports’ twist.
“When are you playing to survive or playing not to lose versus playing to win?” Manley asks her clients.
She then continued.“For me I’m lucky that I always aspired to win. I didn’t aspire to place. I didn’t aspire to participate.”
She also always aspired to be the best in what she did.
Although she never quite got there in cycling, Maureen Manley is on her way to getting there anyway.
And getting there in an entirely different career path.by Aaron Torres
This Article Published June 12, 2013 For more information contact: