Oona Nelson, 18, has played nearly every sport in the book. Throughout middle school and high school, she participated in soccer, volleyball, cross country, track and basketball.
The Bishop Seabury Academy student started playing soccer when she was just 4 years old. She doubled up in middle school, often playing two sports per season.
Ryan Gutierrez, a teacher at Seabury and Nelson’s basketball coach, described Nelson as “super energetic, resilient and full of life.”
“Every game, everyone in the gym is aware that Oona’s the hardest working kid on the floor at all times,” Gutierrez said. “The first thing you notice is just the amount of heart that she plays with. That translates into almost everything she does.”
This coming fall, Nelson will head off on an athletic scholarship to Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado to pursue her favorite sport of all: cycling.
“It was really fun to go through the recruiting process. I’ve always dreamed about being a college athlete and doing a sport … I just didn’t really know which one I wanted to do,” Nelson said with a laugh.
Nelson’s dad introduced her to cycling on the Lawrence River Trails downtown. But Nelson said the moment she fell in love with the sport was on her first gravel ride with the women’s Free State Racing team.
Women’s Free State Racing is an all-women cross-country, gravel, mountain and road cycling team based in Kansas City. Oona’s mom, Sarah Hill-Nelson, joined the team in 2018.
Karen Pritchard, a real estate agent who joined the team in 2016, said Hill-Nelson brought Nelson along for a ride one day — a 50-mile gravel outing expected to last hours. Nelson was 14 at the time.
“I was like, ‘Oh man, this could be bad,’” Pritchard said, laughing at the memory. “But we had a support vehicle, so I figured that if she petered out, the vehicle could take her home.”
That day was the first time Pritchard had met Nelson, and despite her initial worries, she was blown away by Nelson’s strength and positive attitude — spirits were high, even when Nelson got a flat tire. Members of the Free State team asked her to join shortly after, and Pritchard even gave Nelson her first gravel bike.
Nelson says the day Free State asked her to join the team was a turning point in her athletic career.
“That’s the moment where I was like, ‘Oh, this is really cool. I want to keep doing this,’” Nelson said.
About a year later, the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA) partnered with Sunflower Outdoor & Bike Shop to create Sunflower Devo, one of 10 youth-oriented teams in Kansas geared toward mountain biking. Nelson joined during her sophomore year.
Nelson said that when she started, the cycling, gravel racing and mountain biking scenes in Lawrence and beyond were extremely male-dominated. According to a PeopleForBikes study and the 2019 American Community Survey census data, women make up about 44% of recreational riders and only about a quarter of bicycle commuters in the U.S.
NICA’s involvement in the Kansas cycling community has paved the way for female cyclists and coaches by creating leagues like Girls Riding Together (GRiT) and hosting women-only rides, and athletes like Nelson have helped make the sport more inclusive by showing up.
“I’ve gotten really good advice from both men and women, but sometimes — especially for younger girls — it’s easier to take advice from women,” Nelson said. “But I think sometimes women feel like they need to be polite towards men who like to try to mansplain. I’m like, a man wouldn’t take that from a woman. I’m all about equalling the playing field. I’m not going to be polite to you if you’re trying to act like you’re better than me.”
Nelson’s cycling career has grown alongside Lawrence’s biking scene, and it’s likely that both will continue to flourish in the coming years.
“When women show up, it shows other women, ‘Hey, we’re in this too,’” Nelson said.
For more information on NICA’s Kansas Interscholastic Cycling League, visit this link. Click here to check out Sunflower Devo’s Facebook page. Follow Women’s Free State Racing on Facebook for updates.
A few other local cycling groups include the Lawrence Mountain Bike Club, Black Girls Do Bike and Friends of Lawrence Area Trails.
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Chloe Anderson (she/her), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a freelance photojournalist with work also published in Climbing magazine, Kansas Reflector and Sharp End Publishing. As a recent graduate of the University of Kansas, Chloe hopes to continue her career in photography, rock climbing and writing somewhere out West.
You can view her portfolio, articles and commissioned work here. Check out more of her work for the Times here.