Not the norm

North­west Arkansas ath­letes ex­cel in non­tra­di­tional sports.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - CHIP SOUZA

BEN­TONVILLE — Jor­dan Sauls was headed down the wrong path un­til moun­tain bik­ing put her on the right one.

As an eighth-grader, grind­ing down a rocky trail and catch­ing air off a 15-foot jump were not on the spunky Sauls’ radar. She in­stead wanted to hang out with school friends, which led to poor choices and a huge life de­ci­sion.

“I got in­volved with the wrong crowd,” Sauls said. “So me and my par­ents thought the best thing was to home-school. Be­ing away from those peo­ple re­ally helped.”

The more flex­i­ble home-school sched­ule al­lowed her to have more free time, and Sauls soon joined her fa­ther, Jamie Parker, out on the moun­tain bike trails that have spread across the re­gion.

“Moun­tain bik­ing kept me busy,” she said dur­ing a re­cent morn­ing prac­tice at Ben­tonville’s Slaugh­ter Pen trail. “I fi­nally re­al­ized what I re­ally liked to do.”

Sauls said she first tried moun­tain bik­ing around the age of 9 with her par­ents but did not en­joy it. She ad­mits the fear of fall­ing or an in­jury were big rea­sons she shied away from the trails.

As she got older, the pull of friends took her even far­ther away. And trou­ble soon fol­lowed, said her fa­ther, Jamie Parker.

“When we took her out of school and into home-school, she started rid­ing more with me and got more and more into it,” Parker said. “And the more she got into it the more pos­i­tive she be­came. She started meet­ing dif­fer­ent peo­ple, started meet­ing bet­ter peo­ple.

“It’s helped her dra­mat­i­cally.” Sauls soon re­al­ized she was get­ting the hang of ped­al­ing down nar­row, rocky moun­tain bike trails, and she soon em­braced the adren­a­line rush

of fly­ing past steep drop-offs and tight turns against the side of a moun­tain.

“I’m not sure how long it took to get over the fear of fall­ing,” she said. “But last year when I got back into it, it just felt nat­u­ral.”

There were a few bumps on the trail at first, like a bro­ken wrist when she pulled the wrong brake lever and flipped over the han­dle­bar of her bike.

“Now, just know­ing that you’re go­ing to wreck, it hap­pens,” she said mat­ter-of-factly. “You just get back up and do it again.”

Af­ter a year of home­school­ing, Sauls and her par­ents de­cided to re-en­ter the pub­lic school sys­tem last fall as a ninth-grader at Ben­tonville West High School. The an­nounce­ment of a new moun­tain bik­ing pro­gram in North­west Arkansas schools just hap­pened to co­in­cide with her de­ci­sion.

The Arkansas In­ter­scholas­tic Cy­cling League, a mem­ber of the Na­tional In­ter­scholas­tic Cy­cling As­so­ci­a­tion

(NICA) was cre­ated last year. There were 15 teams and more than 165 rid­ers across the state in the first year, which cul­mi­nated with a state cham­pi­onship race at Slaugh­ter Pen.

“She’d been rid­ing so much, she re­ally wanted to get into that, so that was just an­other thing that helped out,” Parker said. “NICA has been great. Get­ting to­gether as a team, meet­ing new peo­ple, just the ex­pe­ri­ence you get out of it.”

Kyla Tem­ple­ton is the league di­rec­tor for the Arkansas NICA pro­gram, which will be­gin its sec­ond sea­son in Septem­ber with a five-race sched­ule that will end in Novem­ber.

Tem­ple­ton said she ex­pects the league to in­crease to around 22 teams and more than 225 rid­ers this sea­son with new teams in Rus­sel­lville, Fort Smith and other schools in the state.

Stu­dents like Sauls, who are of­ten search­ing for a place to fit in, have found it with NICA, Tem­ple­ton said.

“The stu­dents who par­tic­i­pate in NICA may not fit in with the main­stream crowd,” Tem­ple­ton said. “Now they have peo­ple who they can go and hang out with on the week­end and dur­ing the off­sea­son. They ride their bikes around town all the time to­gether, so I love that com­mu­nity as­pect of it.”

Once Sauls started com­pet­ing in the NICA races, she soon re­al­ized that moun­tain bik­ing was more than just a hobby to keep her busy.

Com­pet­ing in the ninth­grade di­vi­sion for West, she won both the over­all state se­ries ti­tle and the fi­nal rac­ing event last Novem­ber.

“I think when I started win­ning the NICA races, I re­al­ized I was a pretty good rider, and I felt good about ev­ery­thing I was do­ing,” she said. “I was pretty con­fi­dent.”

Since last sea­son, Sauls has taken her bik­ing to a new level. She has earned a spon­sor­ship from MOJO Cy­cling and Spank Com­po­nents. She is hop­ing her con­tin­ued suc­cess leads to big­ger spon­sor­ships and her ul­ti­mate goal — com­pet­ing as a pro­fes­sional.

In ad­di­tion to com­pet­ing in NICA races, she has added down­hill and en­duro rac­ing to her sched­ule for MOJO. She re­cently trav­eled to An­gel Fire, N.M., where she prac­ticed on down­hill and en­duro tracks, and was sched­uled to race those events last week for the first time. Down­hill and en­duro are dif­fer­ent types of races from con­ven­tional moun­tain bike rac­ing. NICA is a “wheels on the ground” pro­gram, while down­hill and en­duro rac­ing fea­ture jumps and more tech­ni­cal as­pects.

She still has the oc­ca­sional wreck on the trail, like one re­cently where she came off a rock jump and her front

tire bounced off a smaller rock, fling­ing her head-over­heels over the han­dle­bar of her cus­tom blue and orange bike.

“I hurt my shoul­der, and I got re­ally bad dirt rash on my chest,” she said with a laugh. “It hurt pretty bad, but I got back up there, and I did it again. I landed it, and it was all good.”

A wreck like that a few years ago likely would have kept her off the bike for good. But Sauls’ ded­i­ca­tion to moun­tain bik­ing, like her per­sonal life, are in this for the long run.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/BEN GOFF • @NWABENGOFF

Jor­dan Sauls of Cen­ter­ton rides the Rock Solid trail July 20 at Coler Pre­serve in Ben­tonville. Sauls is one of the top young fe­male moun­tain bik­ers in North­west Arkansas and a mem­ber of the Ben­tonville West NICA team.

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/SPENCER TIREY

Team mem­bers of the Ben­tonville NICA, Na­tional In­ter­scholas­tic Cy­cle As­so­ci­a­tion, prac­tice July 13 at Slaugh­ter Pin moun­tain bik­ing trail in Ben­tonville.

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