UA alumna aims for gold in 2021: Her journey to becoming an Olympic athlete
University of Arizona alumna Christina Birch sits on her family’s cattle ranch in Montana preparing for the day where she finally lives out her dream of becoming an Olympic track cyclist representing Team USA on the biggest stage possible.
Birch is one of nine women to be named to the countries’ Track Cycling Long Team in the upcoming Summer Olympics and her journey is unlike any other.
Birch graduated from the UA in 2008 with a bachelor's in Biochemistry and Mathematics. But during that time, cycling was just a hobby, as she had only competed in a few events with the Arizona TriCats before graduating.
That hobby grew into something bigger when she joined the cycling team at Massachusetts Institute of Technology with Cyclocross as her primary discipline. Birch was pursuing a Ph.D. in Biological Engineering when she realized that her dreams were simply beyond the classroom.
“I got hooked,” Birch said. “Here’s all these people gallivanting around in the mud in the middle of the New England winter. I was like ‘Yes, I wanna do that.’ It was such a good community. I fell in love with it and kept going.”
Birch would graduate from MIT with that Ph.D. in 2015 before moving across the country to California to train on a velodrome, a cycling arena designed specifically for track cycling. She also decided to put her degrees to use by getting a job teaching bioengineering at the University of California, Riverside to pay for her training. But creating a new lesson plan three days a week while also preparing for the Olympics is no easy task as Birch was soon faced with one of the most difficult decisions of her life.
“I was fitting in training sessions in the parking lot on a trainer next to my car,” she said. “Having full command of a full set of classes and having 90 students in the class expecting you to give them something worth their time every Monday, Wednesday, Friday … that’s really challenging.”
Birch was racing in Europe when she made her decision to take a sabbatical in 2018 and walk away from teaching to pursue her passions full-time.
“It was definitely a difficult decision,” Birch said. “Nothing is guaranteed in sports. Accidents happen all the time. Crashes happen all the time. I was faced with this biological reality that I’m going to be at my peak now and I’m only going to get slower. If I had not tried, I would have regretted it forever.”
And so her journey began. Birch would travel all across the world competing in the World Cup series making stops in Germany, Portugal, Belarus, New Zealand and Majorca. The list goes on.
She created a ton of memories along the way such as getting her first tattoo in Poland after the World Championships and winning a Gold Medal in the Team Pursuit at the Pan-Am Track Championships in Mexico.
“Starting at a place of going to a collegiate nationals and winning fourth in the individual pursuit to standing on a podium at the top with some of the best team pursuiters in the world. It’s absolutely incredible,” Birch said.
But none of those moments compared to the ones in Brisbane, Australia when she won the bronze medal in the Madison in December of 2019. Birch had already qualified for Team USA after winning her Gold Medal but remembers the moment being so special because she got to do it in front of her dad, Bill Birch.
“It was one of the most special moments in my cycling career because my dad was there to see it,” she said. “He was shouting at one of the turns in the velodrome and I got to wave at him as I went by. It was really cool.”
Bill has been Christina’s “number one fan” since the beginning of her career as a member of the Arizona TriCats. She even still has a photo of the two of them together at her first triathlon at the UA.
“He’s supported me from that level of competition all the way up to traveling all around the world to watch me race,” Christina said. “His support has been everything.”
Birch will be 34 years old by the time she sets foot in Tokyo for the next Summer Olympics after the original dates were postponed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She will be the oldest member of the Long Team, surrounded by her teammates who have had an opposite journey to hers, having almost all been cycling since they were teenagers. Birch sees the age gap as an added advantage to the team, bringing a ton of experience to pair with her leadership skills.
She recalled a time in Brisbane when her team’s road bikes were left at the hotel causing them to miss warmups. The bikes didn’t arrive until eight minutes before they had to report to the starting line. A situation like that would cause anyone to panic — but not Birch.
“I think I come to these race situations with a little more of a level head,” Birch said. “Having a little bit of chaos actually gives me something to center on so I tend to do really well with that.”
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