Amber Neben—Finding Your Own Champion Within

Amber Neben

By Senta Scarborough
Above, Neben at the World Cycling Championships 2016. Photo by Sean Rowe.

It's one of Fierce Hazel's favorite seasons again—race season. Isn't is always?

One thing every premier athlete faces is adversity. Accidents and injuries come either off or on the field, slope, rink, or road. It's just what happens when people are putting it all out there.

We recently caught up with three-time Olympian, three-time world champion, and six-time national champion Velocious and BaseCamp coach Amber Neben to ask about her journey in pursuit of the podium and her attitudes about facing adversity.

Neben isn't the typical Olympic story. She found her passion for cycling while pursuing a Ph.D. in molecular biology. Finishing 10th in the collegiate national championships, Neben chose to become a professional cyclist.

Facing hardships started long before cycling for Neben. At four years old, she spent three days in a coma from spinal meningitis. The doctor told her family if she survived, she likely would have brain damage and lost hearing. It didn't stop her. In fact, adversity has never stopped her.

"Adversity is such a part of life. There's no way around it," Neben says. "We can't control what happens to us, but we can control how we respond to it."  

In November 2007, Neben, then 33 years old, discovered she had melanoma. She caught the cancer in the early stages, and doctors were able to completely remove it. 

"Adversity is such a powerful story and such an important part of life," Neben says. "It starts with small, little things that we face every day. You build character and those habits in responding to little things. It's just like you are in training."

Amber Neben Giro Rosa
Amber Neben during the 7th stage of Giro Rosa 2016 in Stella San Martino. 
Photo by Claudio Martino

What stands out most about 46-year-old Neben is her longevity competing at the top. She has raced at the elite level of the sport for 20 years. In fact, Neben has competed in 17 world championships, including 4 times in the Giro d'Italia Femminiles, and won the La Route de France in 2016. Held in summer 2021 due to Covid-19, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics saw Neben place just shy of the podium—fifth.

In August 2021, Neben faced yet another huge challenge. While training on her bike just before the world championships, she broke her pelvis in a car accident. However, because of her training and facing all those challenges or bumps in the road, Neben feels she was more prepared to handle whatever came her way.

"If you think about the spectrum of life, the pathway of life walking down this road and having faced a lot of adversity along the way, I was sort of prepared for that," she says. "I think if the accident was the first thing I faced in my career, I probably would've struggled way more. But, having faced that when I did, I was equipped with some skills and tools to be able to respond the way I did."

With only four weeks and six days before the event and a pelvis broken in three places, Neben somehow found a way to get back on her bike.

Amber Neben and Tim CusickAbove, Amber with her coach, Tim Cusick. Photo courtesy Nate Murray.

"As soon as I slammed into the car, I was in a whole different world. I could not compare the way my body was performing to the Olympics, which were just a few weeks before.” In the course of recovery, I couldn't compare myself back to my peak moment. Instead, I had to compare back to that point of impact. I had to make sure I stayed with the right perspective," she says.

I think we always have a choice in how we’re going to respond. And, for me, getting back up is always the goal—never to give up. I didn’t want to just let the pavement have the last word. I couldn’t worry about the result. I just wanted to try to get through it.

 

Neben says she focused on what she could control rather than what her body couldn’t do.

"I chose to just step forward and take advantage of all the little things my body was allowing me to do and just be patient with that process," Neben says.  

Faith is an essential foundation for Neben. She loves to ride listening to Christian hip-hop music because "it's fun hip-hop without the expletives."

 "It was one of those things where, you know, God's hand was on me. I look back on that (accident), and I just feel like it was such a miracle in number one, what did not happen to me and number two, how I recovered, and number three, just how the race went," she says.

Ultimately, Neben succeeded. She competed and came in fourth.

"It makes you wonder what could have been if I had been able to train. At age 46, it's two things—amazing and a huge disappointment because ultimately you're trying to win or you're trying to win a medal," she says. It's this balance of keeping the right perspective and just seeing what I accomplished and trusting God had a plan for all of it. So yeah, it was pretty cool."

Fierce Hazel products aspire to have a few of the same qualities that Neben exhibits on and off the road: ready to tackle whatever the day gives you, strength in the face of harsh conditions ahead, and, always, ethics and respect for all people. 

Senta Scarborough is an award-winning journalist and Emmy-nominated producer.  She is the founder of Sentamatic Media focusing primarily on screenwriting, journalism and non-fiction projects. Her work has appeared in Adweek, Into, USA Today, E! News, US Weekly Magazine and Asheville Poetry Review, among others. She is a lifetime member of the National Gay and Lesbian Journalist’s Association where she served as a board director for two terms. She holds her MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California Riverside/Palm Desert. 
Find her on social media @sentascar

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