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VIDEO: Not the Norm Sports: Mountain biking proved invaluable for Sauls

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Photographs by Ben Goff

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.

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

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

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.”

2017 NICA Race Schedule

Date Event

Sept. 10 Sagar Creek Trail, Siloam Springs

Sept. 24 Old Post Trail, Russellville

Oct. 7 Slaughter Pen Slam, Bentonville

Oct. 22 Spring Hill Trail, Barling

Nov. 5 State Championships Lake Leatherwood, Eureka Springs

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 home- schooling, 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.

Happy trails

There are multiple teams in the Arkansas NICA program, which will start its second season in September. There are school-affiliated teams at most larger high schools in Northwest Arkansas, and riders can also compete as independents.

Chip Souza can be reached at csouza@nwadg.com or on Twitter@NWAChip.

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