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Tales from the peloton November 17, 2007

Velo Bella - When Duty Calls

Many of the women competing at a high level in cycling have full-time careers, but in the case of a few special riders, those careers offer very unique challenges. For a few, their jobs include serving in the United States military in Iraq and other sites. Surface Warfare Officer for the US Navy and Velo Bella racer Nicole Shue spoke with Cyclingnews' Kirsten Robbins about her life on the bike while serving in the military.

Nicole Shue
Photo ©: Nicole Shue
(Click for larger image)

The Velo Bella team is a diverse group of women from across the United States. With riders from beginner to world class, the team has fun while taking racing seriously. It's a perfect environment for some special athletes like Nicole Shue and Nicole Messinger, who both work in the US Navy, and with Rebecca Gross and Beth Boyer, who work for the US Air Force. Team manager Alex Burgess regards the careers of these women cyclists as nothing short of heroic.

All of them are currently serving in the US military and have been relocated to Iraq, and Burgess thinks they have courageous stories that need to be shared. "The fact that these women split their lives amongst their family and careers as officers while continuing to achieve to be elite level athletes is a statement on their ability and talent," said Burgess.

Nicole Shue (Velo Bella)
Photo ©: Nicole Shue
(Click for larger image)

Surface Warfare Officer Nicole Shue is a just one of several Velo Bella cyclists who balances the life of an athlete with a career in the US Navy. Shue is out to sea nearly half of every month and though she finds it difficult to train full time, being attached to a ship, she noted that her chain of command is supportive of her passion as a cyclist.

Shue admitted that officers are nurtured to have type-A personalities, a competitive personality that translates well into cycling. "We are extremely organized, methodical and display a strict execution of schedules, plans and missions," explained Shue who tapped into these qualities when training for her latest half-Ironman.

When long work days start in the early morning, finding training time is very precious for anyone, let alone someone living on a ship, but Shue found a way to fit training into her life at sea with limited resources. "I received a lot of strange looks when I first brought my bike and trainer aboard the ship. I would set up my bike on the flight deck of the ship during dinnertime, and ride with the sun setting behind the ocean as my scenery."

Rigorous training and strict time management skills are essential qualities of sport and military life, and more often than not, being an athlete can mean having a somewhat selfish existence. However, the responsibilities of an officer extend beyond a single person and into the many lives they are linked to. According to Shue being a Naval Officer is a higher calling. "I'm placed in charge of the sons and daughters of the United States and am expected to mould them into capable sailors, leaders, and citizens - anything less is a failure," said Shue. "There aren't too many CEO's of companies who'd be fired because an employee got a DUI or committed a crime. But Naval Officers are held responsible for the actions of those we lead. It is a direct reflection of our leadership when our people fail to succeed."

Drawing Parallels

Nicole Shue
Photo ©: Nicole Shue
(Click for larger image)

To better understand the lifestyle to which women need to adapt as officers, Shue focused on the similarities between her life as a cyclist and applied it to her daily routine in the Navy. Not only because both careers are physically demanding but because both military and sport are traditionally considered to be male dominant activities.

"For starters, I'm definitely the minority!" said Shue. "It doesn't faze me when I show up for the weekly road ride and I'm the only woman there. I realize I'm going to have to work hard to keep up, but as long as I'm not complaining or asking for special allowances, the guys recognize that I'm doing my best and they are supportive and encouraging."

"The same goes for the Navy," added Shue. "My first ship had a crew of a thousand men and six women. That was a scary experience at twenty-three years of age. But once the men realized that I could pull my weight and was a capable officer, we were able to work together to accomplish the mission. And it's great to be part of a team, whether it be a peloton screaming down the road and working as one organism to tackle the miles, or as a ship's crew and sailing together into harm's way, ready to carry out the mission my country depends on us to accomplish."

A typical day

Combat Systems Officer Nicole Shue
Photo ©: Nicole Shue
(Click for larger image)

Shue, like many other officers, can be deployed for months along the Persian Gulf. She described a typical day as beginning at six in the morning for breakfast along with all the officers onboard the ship, followed by morning meetings and then physical training until noon. "There are more meetings after lunch and more training all the while the ship is operating in the Gulf, protecting the coast of Iraq and its oil platforms from terrorist/insurgent attack," said Shue. "The workday continues after dinner where the officers have an opportunity to catch up on the administrative work and day's events until it's my turn to go operate the ship, either in the pilot house or down in the Combat Information Center."

Officers routinely get about four hours of sleep each night during their six months deployment at sea. The captain is always close at hand and fellow officers are always in sight, so Shue admitted that though life on the ship can become cramped, but it brings "team-mates" closer together and makes the camaraderie unbreakable. "I've met people in the Navy whom I wouldn't think twice to lend them my car, my house, whatever they needed in a tight spot, no questions asked," said Shue.

"The Navy is an extended family," Shue added. "They have to be because so much of my time is spent far away from my real family. But there is definitely a fun side to it too. I have been to countless countries from Australia to Pakistan to Tonga, and have had priceless experiences, seen beautiful places and met some truly amazing people. It has opened my eyes to the cultures of the world, how all of us are so different, yet at the heart of it, we all just want to lead happy, fulfilling and peaceful lives."


For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here

Images by Nicole Shue

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