Kelly Crowley ’99 medaled twice in cycling at the 2012 Paralympics. Add that to winning gold in Athens in swimming in 2004—and being valedictorian of SCU.
When cyclist Kelly Crowley crashed on July 22, it could have been the end of her Olympic dreams—at least for this year. On the final day of Oregon’s Cascade Cycling Classic—a five-day race that attracts top racers and teams in North America—Crowley’s bike went down, and she broke her collarbone.
Two days after the hard tumble in Oregon, she underwent surgery. A small titanium plate was inserted over the broken bone. A few days later, she was back in training, determined to compete in the big event she’d been preparing for during the last several years: the Paralympic Games in London, Aug. 29–Sept. 9, an International Olympic Committee-sanctioned competition for athletes with disabilities.
When Crowley arrived at the Olympic training camp in Wales though, racing in London wasn’t a given. “I couldn’t do a standing start for the pursuit because the pain was so bad,” she told Elliott Almond of the San Jose Mercury News.
With rehab and care, she was soon feeling strong enough to compete before the cheering throngs at the London Velodrome. As she posted on Twitter at the end of August, “I am ready to race at the #ParalympicGames 4.5 weeks after breaking my clavicle!”
Tickets for the cycling events sold out weeks in advance. Crowley’s parents, Lee R. Crowley ’69 and James D. Crowley ’69, nearly weren’t able to get in. In the end, they did secure seats, and they brought a banner with signatures from lots of other relatives who couldn’t make it. “It felt like the whole family was there,” Crowley says.
Members of the royal family were there, too: Prince William and Kate Middleton—no doubt there to cheer on British darling Sarah Storey. The arena is nicknamed “the Pringle” for its swooping design. In it, the roar of the crowd was like that at a rock concert. One British daily dubbed the place a “cauldron of sound.”
"It was transcendent. I had some really good races where I just got into the zone."
The road course was the most challenging Crowley had faced in a Paralympic race because of the amount of climbing required. But that was OK because climbing is Crowley’s strength.
In the qualification race on Aug. 30, she raced her best time ever and placed sixth.
For the women’s individual time trials on Sept. 5, she won her first Olympic medal in cycling: a bronze. She finished behind Britain’s Storey and Polish racer Anna Harkowska.
The next day in the women’s road race finals, Crowley medaled once more, earning another bronze with Storey and Harkowska taking the gold and silver.
“It was transcendent,” Crowley says of the games. “I had some really good races where I just got into the zone ... where everything just kind of clicks.”
Team USA won 12 medals in cycling—the most of any team. Fresh back from London, the Olympic and Paralympic athletes were hosted by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama for a celebration at the White House. Less than a week later, Crowley and other present and past Olympians were honored with a pre-game ceremony by the San Francisco Giants.
Olympic gold in Athens
The Olympic medals Crowley won in London are not her first, and cycling is not the first sport in which she’s competed internationally. She won a pair of gold medals in swimming at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens in the 100-meter freestyle and the 100-meter medley relay—a remarkable achievement for someone born without an elbow and only three fingers on her right arm.
Like many Olympic athletes, Crowley started young. But she faced physical challenges that other kids didn’t.
“I was just born like this—I don’t know anything different,” Crowley explains. “My wrist moves, but my fingers hold stiff. They can’t really curl around things.” Of her childhood, she says she often felt the odd girl out—especially as she began to hit adolescence: “Nobody wants to hang out with the girl with the funny little arm when you’re in seventh grade.”
Nevertheless, she participated in athletics as often as she could. She began swimming competitively in the second grade. Over the years, she added other sports, including basketball, volleyball, and softball. She aspired to swim in college and was good enough to be offered a spot on the swim team at one school. But she had bigger dreams: the Olympic Games. “If they just put me in the flume to analyze strokes, tell me how much propulsion I’m missing because of my arm, and then handicap me against the best swimmers in the world, I’ll bet you I’m competitive," Crowley recalls thinking.
A friend offered Crowley a reality check: That’s not how things worked with the Olympics. With her arm, Crowley could never compete head-to-head against the fastest swimmers in the world.
Crowley grudgingly acknowledged that her friend was right. But that meant, in her mind, that the world was not fair.
“There’s no room for someone like me to do what I want to do,” was what she decided. “My parents always said if you worked hard enough, you could have whatever you want. I thought, this is an example where they are clearly wrong. … For some reason I am being punished for having a funny, little arm, which I didn’t ask for. How can I possibly win in life?"
In coming to Santa Clara, she was following in the footsteps of several family members; on campus, she lived across the hall from her cousin Laura Napier ’99, who is more like a sister to her, Crowley says. She turned from focusing on athletics to academics, but that wasn’t all.
“I had a transformative experience at Santa Clara,” she says. “I got sucked into Campus Ministry, which was an amazing gift because it taught me that there was something loveable about myself … I’ve drawn on that heavily as a cyclist because the challenges that I’ve faced aren’t necessarily physical; it’s all mental—and it’s going back to the team environment where I have to be teammates with people whom I, for a long time, blamed for all of the trouble that I faced with my career and my life.”
"I almost gave up I don’t know how many times."
Crowley didn’t swim competitively at Santa Clara. She majored in political science—though she jokes that she tried to major in Professor Jane Curry, taking every class that Curry taught.
“She was a superbly good student, a real leader,” Curry says. “She was always thinking beyond what I expected the class to know.”
She also says that Crowley always showed drive and curiosity. When Curry brought Mieczyslaw Rakowski, the last Communist prime minister of Poland and the last head of the Communist Party, to the Santa Clara campus for two weeks, “Kelly was so engaged in drawing from him and asking questions. He was quite taken by what an amazing intellect and person she was.”
That intellect earned Crowley honors as valedictorian for the Class of 1999. Her interest in political science then took her to Indiana University for graduate work in public policy.
After graduate school, Crowley was trying to decide what to do next with her life. She was watching television one night and happened to flip to a broadcast of the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney. Until then, Crowley didn’t even know the Paralympics existed—nor did she realize that disabled swimmers competed at that level, and not only in the Paralympics. Watching the games rekindled her desire to compete. Within days, she found a coach and began working out a training program for a Paralympic bid. Along with swimming, she went to work for Santa Clara’s Environmental Studies Institute, on habitat-restoration of the Ulistac natural area.
In 2002 she won three gold medals and five silver medals at the USA Disability Championships. At the World Championships in Argentina that December, she won a silver.
Then came the Paralympic games in Athens. She competed in five individual swimming events and took fourth in two. She swam the 100-meter medley and the anchor leg in the 100-meter freestyle. She brought home gold in both.
Along with garnering gold, Crowley realized that she’d hit a plateau. To win a medal in an individual freestyle event, she would have to get significantly faster. And, having swum for 17 years, the water had lost a little of its charm. She found herself cycling with friends on weekends for fun—beating them when they were climbing hills.
That offered a realization: “You know what—I don’t stink at this.”
Crowley’s husband, Justin Lucke, is a chef and attorney—and a category 1 cyclist, the fastest amateur category. Soon after he and Crowley met, he told her, “No woman has been able to ride with me when I ride like that. You’re really strong, you should switch sports.”
Lucke fitted her cycle with a power tap wheel, which measures the force a rider puts into the pedals, to show her just how good she was. Completely untrained, Crowley performed on par with a category 2 or, at the minimum, a category 3 cyclist. “You’re going to get so much stronger,” Lucke told her.
Crowley understood that this was her shot: “With the right equipment, I could be a professional cyclist.”
That equipment includes special handlebars, since Crowley can’t shift with both hands. She also has one brake lever that pulls the front and rear brakes at the same time.
“That does something to your braking ability in a bike race,” she concedes. “There are situations where you would like to pull just the front, or just the rear, or adjust the pressure on the brakes independently. I don’t have that luxury.” But that’s also not at the forefront of her mind. “I’m just out there racing. Cycling presents a unique opportunity that way, where I’ve found ways to overcome my ‘disability’ to create a level playing field.”
Back in the saddle
Crowley started racing competitively in 2007 as a category 4 racer. Within her first season, she had moved up to category 2. She won the world championship paracycling time trial.
Cycling also carried Crowley into work with Project Rwanda, a non-profit started by childhood neighbor and cycling icon Tom Ritchey—who designed Crowley’s special handlebars. Project Rwanda raises awareness and resources to build bikes for coffee growers and to help develop the Rwandan national cycling team. Crowley’s visit in 2007 was the beginning of a journey that brought Rwanda to send its first cyclist to the 2012 Olympic Games in London, a story told in the feature-length documentary Rising from the Ashes.
As for Crowley and the London Olympics, before those were on the horizon there were the 2008 Beijing games. But two bad accidents derailed those ambitions. In March 2007, she was riding on Highway 1 and was hit by a car while returning from a training ride in San Francisco. Less than a year later, she suffered a bad crash in the Home Depot Center velodrome. She broke a rib, punctured a lung, and sustained a severe concussion. Symptoms lasted six months: panic and anxiety attacks that were diagnosed as post-traumatic stress from the pair of crashes.
“I almost gave up I don’t know how many times,” Crowley says. But lessons in persistence—which propelled her through years of swimming—got her back in the saddle.
She returned to her training with her sights on London. When she crashed in July 2012 and broke her collarbone, there was no way she was going to let that stop her from racing.
“All the injuries and all the setbacks I’ve had over the past two years, I’ve never really had a chance to compete healthy—I still don’t think I am,” she says. “There’s just this part in your brain that asks, ‘What if I could do this and be a little better, how good could I be?’"
She was good enough to win a pair of bronze medals in London. But she also knows that some days during the competition she struggled mentally. “I learned a ton,” she says, “and I came away from the games going, ‘Whoa, I want to do this again with the knowledge that I just gained.’”
Clay Hamilton, Danae Stahlnecker ’15, and Erin Ryan '03 contributed to this report.
Read more: A profile of Kelly Crowley '99 in SCM from 2004.