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Connor O’Leary, earning his ride in the biggest race of his life

August 10, 2012

Connor O’Leary

On Stage 1 of the Tour of Utah Connor O’Leary on the Bontrager-Livestrong team netted the Best Utah Rider jersey by crossing the finish line ahead of the three other riders contending for that prize. It was a one in four shot to win the jersey. But that measure doesn’t take into account the long odds he recently faced and the hard work O’Leary put in just to make it to the start line.

O’Leary, who is now 21 years-old, learned two years ago that he had testicular cancer. He turned his attention immediately to fighting the disease, canceling plans to leave the next day for the U.S. national championship race, a special event for him. He placed third in the juniors 13 – 14 national championship time trial not long after he started racing.

Connor O’Leary (left) on Little Mountain

Then just when it seemed like he was turning a corner in December 2010, two and a half weeks before the end of cancer treatments he experienced chest pain that progressed down his back. Emboli (blood clots) had lodged in his lungs and heart. A different round of treatment began.

“I was really worried after those pulmonary embolisms because obviously it scarred my lungs…I really didn’t know, they didn’t know if I was going to be able to get back to the top of the sport,” O’Leary said.

The doctors knew one thing, and so did O’Leary. “The doctors told me if I didn’t have a strong heart I would have died. I guess cycling kind of saved my life.”

Beginnings

O’Leary’s heart had already grown super strong by the age of nine. That year he became the youngest rider to complete the 550 mile Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, a popular event he rode with his dad over seven days.

Riding and training in his own fashion, O’Leary began racing at age 13. As he grew he paid for his bikes with earnings from his own small lawn mowing business and jobs at Golsan Cycles and Highlander Bike, local bicycle shops.

In 2007 he won the Utah State time trial championships in the junior 15 – 16 category. His talent secured him the opportunity to race in Europe with the U.S. national team in 2009 and 2010.

O’Leary marks the beginning of his professional cycling career in 2010 when he raced with the Waste Management U23 team. The upward trajectory of his cycling career seemed unstoppable until the cancer diagnosis in June 2010.

The fight

At first he probably wouldn’t have called dealing with cancer a battle. “It was way harder than I thought it was going to be,” O’Leary said. “I think I was a little arrogant going into it just because I’m young, bulletproof, nothing can break me down. But it was humbling.” Five foot ten inches tall, he now weighs 144 pounds. During cancer treatment he dropped to 128 pounds.

Connor O’Leary (second from left) warming-up with his Bontrager-Livestrong team for the team time trial)

O’Leary described 2011 as a rebuilding year, starting from ground zero. He said, “I lost all my muscle. I got back on the bike, and it really took quite a long time, longer than I thought…I really forgot how hard the sport is.”

He entered the East Canyon Road Race in April, a race he won as a category 3 rider in 2007. “It was a race where the previous year I probably could have won it fairly easy, and I got dropped in 15 minutes…I remember turning around on the course, getting in my car and just bawling, [feeling] like I’m done.”

At about the same time he discontinued the blood thinner medication doctors prescribed after the embolism diagnosis. He’d been taking them for three months; the doctors wanted twelve.

“I couldn’t do it for a year,” O’Leary said. “I couldn’t really race on blood thinners…I just could not ride or race for that long. I just wanted to get back.” It seemed like a low risk decision; he thought the port inserted into his chest for cancer treatments had caused the blood clots. There seemed to be no reason to continue the blood thinners since the port had been removed.

The devastating experience in the East Canyon Road Race motivated him to rebuild. He had a lot of work ahead of him.

Recovery

To rebuild his fitness O’Leary started Nordic ski skating which improved his core and upper body strength. He cycled while on blood thinner medication, building up to 10 to 12 hours a week in the spring of 2011. He used a half-dome-shaped tool, the Bosu Ball, as well as a full ball for core training. “I was doing a lot of core off the bike but the main thing I was doing was just riding.”

All the hard work paid off when the Bontrager-Livestrong team signed him in October 2011 and O’Leary joined many of his former U.S. national teammates. He quickly demonstrated he had returned to form by winning stages in the Tour of Walla Walla and Tour of the Depot in April 2012.

O’Leary reflects constantly on how he’s achieved the restored health and fitness he yearned for when he lay in a hospital bed two years ago. It’s as if he has gained a new appreciation for his talent and possibilities. “I really want to push it harder,” he said. “…going through something that hard, it [cancer] made me realize after doing this I can ride a bike hard. I definitely think mentally it made me a lot stronger.”

Connor O’Leary wore the Miller Lite Best Utah Rider jersey for two days

Utah’s big

The Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah is the biggest race O’Leary has ever participated in. He watched from the sidelines for the past two years and now he’s inside the peloton, doing his job. Because his Bontrager-Livestrong team at the Tour of Utah includes riders who can place high in the General Classification, the race provides him the perfect opportunity to do what he loves most, which is to ride in a support role to help a teammate win. “It sounds weird,” he said, “but I love going back to the car to get bottles, and riding in the front.”

For O’Leary, racing in and around his hometown of Salt Lake City is “big for me and my family to get to see me race, because they can’t always come over to Europe and see me in the bigger races over there that I do…I’m just happy that my family gets to see it.” His parents plan to watch all six days of racing. O’Leary called them a “huge support.”

To get ready for the Tour of Utah, O’Leary trained locally. After his teammates competed in the Cascade Cycling Classic they joined him in the mountains around Park City, in Midway, Utah, where his family owns a home. They spent two weeks training together, reconning stages, and for those from sea level, adjusting to the altitude.

O’Leary labeled the last two days of the event as pivotal, including the Guardsman Pass climb on the final day. His family’s Midway home is located at the base of that climb. When asked how many times he’s been up and down that pass, O’Leary said, “I don’t like to go up it, but yea, I’ve done it quite a bit. Especially when the courses came out I started riding it quite a bit.”

Guardsman Pass is important because according to O’Leary riders can lose more than five minutes there. “You can just blow up, that thing is so steep,” he said.

Connor O’Leary

As O’Leary approaches that climb on Sunday he will probably consider how hard he can ride to pace a teammate to the top of it. He fought to restore his future and succeeded, so he knows he can fight to help a teammate achieve a high placing by the end of the race.

“It’s pretty crazy. I love cycling but I never thought it would save my life like it did,” he said. “Being dedicated to something like cycling that’s such a hard sport, it made it that much easier to fight through [cancer] because you fight through stuff on the bike all the time.”

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One Comment
  1. What a cool story and a neat young man. All the best to him in his cycling career!

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