Back in 1984, Ed Ewing was watching the Los Angeles Summer Olympics on television when he witnessed Nelson Vails win the silver medal in the individual 1,000-meter match sprints. Vails became the first African American to earn an Olympic medal in bicycling. That moment had a tremendous impact on Ewing.
"You know, you talk about what would it be like if there were a woman president?" said Ewing. "What would it be like if there were an African American president? And you can talk about it and you can dream about it, and until you see it. … I mean when you saw Obama become president it was like this hammer, just boom. Wow. It happened. And it was the same thing seeing Nelson race in the '84 Olympics. It had the same effect on me. That was like a catalyst for me."
American cycling legend Vails spoke on Friday, Feb. 22 at REI Seattle to celebrate diversity in bicycling during Black History Month. The event was also held to raise money for the Cascade Bicycle Club Education Foundation's Major Taylor Project.
This project, named for the first African American world champion cyclist, is a year-round youth development program with after-school clubs in South King County.
Produced by the Cascade Bicycle Club Education Foundation, the program seeks to empower young people in underserved communities by combining bicycling, a healthy lifestyle and leadership development.
Marshall "Major" Taylor grew up on a farm in Indiana and started racing professionally in 1896, at the age of 18. He became the first African American to win a world title when he became the world sprint champion in 1899.
"It's more than just bikes," said Ewing, who manages the Major Taylor Project. "It's about where a bike can take you; it's about where the opportunities can open up for you. And it's about the community, and that's what we see here tonight."
Vails, nicknamed "The Cheetah," engaged the crowd with stories from his career and showed video of pivotal races. After winning the silver medal in 1984, Vails spent years living and professionally racing in Europe and Japan.
"I'm gonna take you guys for a trip around the world," said Vails as he began his presentation. He was the only American and the only African American living and racing in Europe full time during his time there.
"There was no color barrier with these guys, we were always treated equally," said Vails. "… I was put on a pedestal, kind of spoiled, being the only American. And speaking the language and being friends with everyone. … So it's kind of nice that I was able to live this kind of life there."
Vails showed footage from various track cycling races, including nighttime European races that ran for six days. Cyclists raced from "around 9 (p.m.) until 3 or 4 (a.m.)" each night during the six-day races, Vails said. The latter events were a spectacle of entertainment, with music, dinner and dancing. Vails described the scene: "Everyone's cheering. Lots of Moet champagne, lots of good red wine."
He talked about the differences between competing in the Olympic games and working as a professional contracted cyclist.
"The team was so fierce," Vails said, that winning a medal almost came easier than making the U.S. Olympic team.
One member of the audience asked Vails what it felt like to stand on the Olympics podium.
"It was such a relief from the pressure to get up there," said Vails. "Mark (Gorski) and I looked at each other like man, aren't you happy this is over? Because there was so much pressure. The TV cameras were at my house with my parents, and everybody's watching."
Racing by contract provided opportunity for teamwork. Vails showed a race where he and his teammates worked together to beat an opponent.
"We traveled the world together year round between Japan and all the European circuits," said Vails. "And it is in our best ability, we have to work together to get the best possible places. (Our opponent) was so strong that year that it would be harder to try and beat him than it is to form an alliance and get a medal."
Vails raced professionally for a decade in France, Belgium and the former East Germany, among other places.
"Imagine being an American, and an African American, living on the other side of the wall," said Vails. "… I had a little flat in East Germany and I was spending American dollars so it was kind of cool to live on the eastern side of the wall and be able to cross through the borders."
Studying the languages of the countries he raced in came naturally to him. He picked up "dinner table" Flemmish while living with a Belgian family in 1988, and mastered Japanese while working in Japan for five years. He added, "My French and Italian were not as good."
Vails continued to race until 1995 and was inducted into the U.S. Bicycle Hall of Fame in 2009. These days, he travels around the world sharing his story.
"I try to reach out to as many youths as I can," said Vails, "and give them the opportunity to hear my story. … Hopefully it at least touches one of them, to go on, to accelerate."
There was a real sense of community at Friday's event. Some attendees had participated in the Cascade Bicycle Club's Major Taylor Project Spinathon the day before.
The Rainier Riders Cycling Club, an African American Major Taylor Cycling group, co-sponsored the event. Rainier Riders president Jawara O'Connor spoke about his hopes for the future of the club.
"We have a mentorship program that's absolutely fantastic," said O'Connor, "and our goal is to kind of extend that. Some of the children have expressed the need to want to extend their cycling careers, into college or et cetera. We have a diverse group of participants. … We're trying to extend not only our cycling network but our business network as well, so that these children and other people in the community reap the benefits of health, fitness and education."
Vails' accomplishments and charisma brightened the room and brought out much laughter. The impact his career has had on others was palpable throughout the evening.
To learn more about the Major Taylor Project, click here. To learn more about Rainier Riders Major Taylor Northwest Cycling Club, click here.
ELLENA BOWEN is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory