During high school in Michigan, Laura Charameda of Santa Rosa enjoyed training with the track team and running with her family. When she went to the University of Oregon, she brought only a bicycle for transportation.
Her life took a sharp turn one weekend, when she came across a bunch of bicyclists riding in the road in Eugene, Oregon.
“It was a bike race, and I didn’t even know it was a sport,” said Charameda, now 52, who would go on to become one of the most successful women pro cyclists in America. “I raced two weeks later, and I thought it was the best thing ever.”
Over the years, Charameda raced at the top level of the sport and garnered more than 250 worldwide victories, including multiple National Championship titles and a World Championship medal.
In 1988, she raced in the Tour de France with her team, landing in nearly last place. But she came back in 1993 and won two stages. That year, she also won the bronze medal in the World Road Race Championships.
“It was eye-opening to see the big world of cycling,” she said. “It made me even more determined.”
But after finishing first in the Giro d’Sicilia and fourth in the World Championship in 1996, her life took another sharp turn. While on vacation, she injured her back picking up a grocery bag. It turned out to be herniated disc.
“I was tired physically from a long season,” she said.
“I had my first surgery in Italy, and they took out the disc.”
Because she hurried back to cycling a little too quickly, she ended up having a second surgery to remove another disc, then a third surgery to fuse the discs.
By that time, she had moved from the Peninsula to Santa Rosa in order to train on Sonoma County’s storied back roads. Alone and discouraged, she realized that her career as a professional athlete — at the relatively young age of 32 — was over.
“I spent time rehabbing, swimming and letting go of being a bike racer,” she said. “It was hard for me to watch other people doing it.”
In 1999, however, Charameda met some cycling supporters who wanted to boost the sport in Sonoma County and enlisted her help with a fledging junior development program called Team Swift.
“They decided to help at the grassroots level, in the 9- to 18-year-old junior category,” she said. “I was able to ride with the team and be part of the sport and give back.” At the end of the season, Charameda was asked if she would take charge of the team, a nonprofit that currently in its 18th year. She jumped in with both bicycle cleats.
“I worked very hard to build this program,” she said. “The energy of the kids brought me back to life.”
Team Swift draws from young talent all over the North Bay, including Sonoma and Marin counties. There are about 30 to 40 kids who currently belong to the club, with a core group of 15 kids who participate in every event.
“We develop them right from the beginning,” she said. “It’s a club for anyone who wants to ride a bike, but you don’t have to race. However, we have the infrastructure for an elite racing team ... with a coach, equipment and a van.”