In its inaugural season, the Owen J. Roberts mountain biking team finished in sixth place in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Cycling League. (Photo courtesy OJR Mountain Biking Team)
When Dagny Palmer’s gymnastics career was cut short by injury a few years ago, she was completely devastated.
Always active and admittedly free-spirited, she suddenly found herself laid up and downtrodden, recovering from a stress fracture in her heel.
Her season — and her 12-year gymnastics career — were over.
“It pretty much wiped out my entire season,” said Palmer. “It was really hard to sit out, especially because I still had all the energy and all the desire to be out there.”
Since that time, she’s completely switched gears.
Palmer, under the guidance of her father and head coach, Todd Palmer, was a key cog in the Owen J. Roberts Mountain Biking Team’s inaugural season this past fall.
“I wanted Dagny to be a founding member of this team,” said Todd Palmer, who has competed in various cyclocross and mountain bike leagues through the years. “We knew that starting up the team, especially with it being a club sport, would be a huge challenge.”
Once the team became official, the Palmers spread the word throughout the OJR community, hanging posters in the hallways, getting it onto the school’s morning TV announcements and even advertising on the school website.
“We wanted to get the word out there,” said Dagny Palmer, “and reach as many people as we could.”
Mountain biking became an official sport in Pennsylvania this past fall as teams from around the state have been competing in the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Cycling League, a branch of the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA). The league consists of five races through the season, with tracks scattered all across the state. Racers are separated into 14 separate divisions based on gender ranging from sixth grade all the way up through junior varsity (high school juniors) and varsity (seniors).
Currently a club sport, Owen J. Roberts is one of 25 teams in the league, and had plenty of success through the program’s first go-round despite boasting a roster of only 16 athletes. For the season, OJR finished in sixth place overall with 9,406 league points, 953 behind league-champion Tredyffrin Easttown Composite. Owen J. racked up 12 Top 3 finishes and 23 Top 5 finishes, with sixth grader Riley Stutzman capturing three gold medals and a pair of silvers in the female sixth grade division. Palmer also posted four Top 3 finishes in the varsity division. By season’s end, she dangled a silver and three bronze medals around her neck.
“Once I gave up on gymnastics, I knew I’d need to find something that I could focus on and dedicate my time to,” said Palmer. “This season, and all the success we had as a team made it all worth it. I found something that I loved again and ran with it.”
Throughout the ride, Palmer also discovered her love for being a mentor to some of her younger teammates. As the team’s lone senior, she found herself called upon several times, whether at practice or before a big race. It was an adjustment early on for Palmer, who had just a year of cyclocross racing experience before this season.
“I try and help the younger kids whenever I can at practice,” she said. “It’s humbling to see how much they’ve grown and to know that you’ve had an impact on them. That’s probably one of my favorite parts — getting to see the smiles on my teammates faces when they do well.”
“Everybody on the team definitely came a long way from the beginning of the season,” said Todd Palmer. “We had a lot of kids who hadn’t done much extreme trail riding with roots and rocks around. It’s amazing how good some of them are now as compared to when we started practicing in July.”
Most of the members of the OJR team had some experience riding competitively prior to this season. Others, like freshman Derek Wittlinger came in new to the sport.
“I’ve always been a pretty good biker,” he said. “I just never raced. I wanted to see what I could do on a real team. It’s good to have people to compare yourself against and people to support you if you fall.”
For the season, Wittlinger finished 24th out of 45 in the male freshman division.
The team practiced at Coventry Woods Preserve, a challenging track filled with hills and plenty of climbs.
In exchange for their use of the preserve, the OJR team spends time outside of practice maintaining the grounds. That includes widening trails, removing weeds and deadfalls, repairing runoff barriers, mending erosion damage and maintaining the trail system.
“That’s a huge part of it,” said Palmer. “They call it ‘Team Trail Corps,’ and it’s a component of this whole thing. They want our bikers to be advocates and stewards of trail systems. We’ve really embraced that.”
Now that her first and final high school season has come to a close, Dagny Palmer and the team hope that the OJR community will embrace the mountain biking team going forward as the program continues to build.
“I know it’s not like lacrosse or basketball or some big sport,” she said, “but we’re hoping that in a few years, this could be something big around here. I can’t wait to come back and see how much it’s grown.”
— Former Mercury staff intern Owen McCue contributed to this story.