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Pedaling to her mettle
By Brian Meehan, The Oregonian, July 21, 2005

In the three years since the Portland Fire folded, Jackie Stiles, the franchise's highest-profile player, has not taken a shot in the WNBA.

Instead, the 2001 WNBA rookie of the year has endured 13 surgeries after never missing a game in a historic career at Southwest Missouri State.

Stiles broke her body through years of overuse. Overnight, she became a stranger in the gym -- and a regular in doctors' offices across the country. She lost the thing she loved the most and, for a time, herself.

Stiles, 26, fell into depression and moved home to Claflin, Kan., population 750. She found redemption on the seat of an 18-pound Serotta race bike.

The former basketball star has become a promising cyclist, in part because of her injuries that limited her exercise to cycling and in even larger part because of the stamina and competitive drive that made her great at basketball.

"I was really depressed," said Stiles, the NCAA's all-time leading scorer in women's basketball. "I lost my identity for a while. I couldn't jog. I couldn't play tennis or basketball. Now I have found something I can do, and it is awesome."

First, a stationary bike

Stiles started riding a stationary bike after surgery in January because it was the only activity that would not damage her aching right ankle, which surgeons had cut five times to repair a partly torn Achilles' tendon.

This spring, Stiles bought a road bike. Eight weeks later, she awaited the start of a criterium in Baldwin City, Kan. She would enter her first bicycle race as a Category 4 rider, the lowest level of competition.

The square course cut through the campus of Baker University. Criteriums are shorter and more intense than road races and far more dangerous. Sharp turns amid the hiss of whirling chains portend disaster if a rider veers.

In an earlier race, riders crashed and an ambulance was summoned. That spooked Stiles.

"The crashes made me sick," she said. "The one thing about this sport: I do not want to be injured. I can't deal with that again."

She listened to Nelly's "Heart of a Champion" on her iPod and paced nervously. She had played in the NCAA's Final Four but had never been so nervous before a competition.

Stiles fashioned a strategy to ease her fear: She would just pedal away from the rest.

When the 30-minute race began, Stiles surged ahead. She never looked back and won her first race, wire-to-wire.

The next day, she won the 26-mile road race as well. Jackie Stiles, the athlete, was back.

Focused on basketball

When Stiles was young, her mother worried Jackie was too focused on basketball.

"I took her to dance lessons and horn lessons," Pam Stiles said. "We tried 4H. She had a rabbit. We tried sewing in 4H and that was a major ordeal because she wasn't interested in the least."

Jackie tried the Girl Scouts, but the only camps that interested her involved a leather ball and crossover dribbling drills.

Her dad, Pat, coached the boys team at Claflin High School and began taking his daughter to practice when she was 4. "I just went wild," Stiles said.

Pam Stiles vainly continued to try to interest her daughter in something other than a backdoor pass. Pam suggested cheerleading in junior high. It didn't last long.

"Despite all my efforts," her mother said, "Jackie ended up just with basketball."

That is, until her body rebelled.

In Portland, a wrist problem led to the first of 13 surgeries that dogged her pro career. Doctors said that compensating for the injury led to shoulder problems, which required repeated operations.

"I was hurting so bad at the end of my rookie season," she said.

But she did what she always did, turn the volume down on the pain and play through.

During her second season, her right ankle gave out. She had a partly torn Achilles' tendon. An ankle bone chafed the damaged tendon. Repeatedly, surgeons shaved down the bone. Each operation was supposed to fix the problem, but none did.

After her last surgery in January, Stiles was faced with an awful thought: She might never play basketball again.

"I had so many low points it is hard to pinpoint one," Stiles said. "During my last shoulder surgery, I was not able to dress myself. Other times it was just being on crutches and not being able to walk. I learned never to take your health for granted. If you don't have that, you don't have anything."

Stiles' body is feeling better. She is off anti-inflammatory drugs for the first time since 1997. She hopes to play basketball again, but is not counting on it.

"I will not rule it out," Stiles said. "But you can't set dates for recovery. I am totally giving my body a break on the bike."

By Stiles' standards anyway.

Two-day fitness test

When Stiles joined Cleo's Racing Team in Wichita, team founder Beth Hartman McGilley put Stiles through a fitness test.

McGilley, 45, a veteran racer herself, knew Stiles had been an extraordinary track athlete in high school, setting a Kansas record with 14 gold medals at the state meet.

Track athletes make the best cyclists because they learn how to suffer; few disciplines push cardiovascular limits as ruthlessly as cycling.

But McGilley was unprepared for Stiles' staying power.

The two-day test involved spinning two-minute intervals at different speeds on a stationary bike. Stiles would go faster until she couldn't hold a speed for two minutes. The first day, the novice Stiles finished at 22 mph, which compares favorably to the speeds veteran women cyclists can sustain.

Day 2 of the test was straightforward. Stiles would pedal up to 22 mph and hold it as long as possible. Most elite cyclists can sustain their top speed for about four minutes, McGilley said. Stiles punished herself for 14.

"Jackie is an athlete who is incomparable next to the rest of us mortals," said McGilley, a psychologist who works with elite athletes.

Stiles' idea of giving her body a rest hatched this schedule:

Tuesdays, a 38-mile ride. Wednesdays, a 32-mile practice race. Thursdays, another 38 miles, and 40 more on Friday.

Saturday is the killer. She rides a cruel 60 miles with a hard-core group of racers and triathletes. The group averages about 22 mph and mixes in sprints where they sustain speeds of 30 mph.

"I am the only girl in that ride and they punish me for sure," Stiles said. "For most of the three hours, my heart rate is 170. I played basketball and ran track but I have never been so exhausted as in this sport."

Sparks own her rights

Stiles' rights are owned by the Los Angeles Sparks but she hasn't been paid in three years because she can't pass a physical. In Wichita, she gives basketball lessons to kids and works as a personal trainer. Pity the client she puts through her traces.

Over this past July 4 weekend, she returned to Portland to coach at a skills camp at Nike, her former sponsor. The shoe giant had brought in 20 of the top prep girl players in the country. Stiles was thrilled to be around the game and back in Portland.

"I was so glad to be back," she said. "I love Portland. Who knows -- I may move back. That is definitely a possibility. I'd go in a heartbeat."

When Nike employees learned of her fledging cycling career, they outfitted her with top gear.

"Jackie speaks to what Nike athletes are about," said Rodney Knox, a Nike spokesman. "She is an inspiration to other athletes."

After her first surgery in 2001, a depressed Stiles got a boost from another Nike athlete, her hero, cyclist Lance Armstrong. A Nike contact had told Armstrong of Stiles' operation and how she admired Armstrong's triumph over cancer.

The Tour de France champion left a long message on Stiles' cell phone.

Stiles and Armstrong share traits. They are both physiological marvels. And they both have not always been kind to their bodies. Early in his career, Armstrong would fly to the lead and pedal at a suicide pace until his body collapsed. When he learned to race smarter, he began to win.

Must learn from pain

McGilley says Stiles must learn tactics, but more important, she must learn when to ride and when to rest.

"Jackie will have to fight her own nature," McGilley said. "More is not necessarily better in cycling.

"Usually the mind shuts down before the body, but not with Jackie. She has the ability to turn it off and fight through pain. But pain is there as a messenger and she has to learn to listen."

Stiles never listened to the messenger. Her motor lacked a governor; her body was no match for her will.

She vows not to repeat the mistake.

"My high pain tolerance has gotten me into trouble in the past," she said. "I will take a day off now. I learned the hard way about taking care of my body."

Cycling has changed her body. The 5-foot-8 Stiles is 15 pounds lighter than her WNBA weight of 143. She dreams of joining one of the six or seven elite women's pro racing teams in this country. But already bike racing has revived her competitive spirit.

"It sounds crazy and I am so far from it," she said of her pro dreams. "But I will see how far I can take this."

Don't bet she won't pedal all the way.