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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.”

The racing season runs from February through September. The team takes October off to do fundraising, then each rider begins “base training” on their own in November through the rainy months.

“We do less in the winter,” she said. “But soon we’ll be starting speed workouts once a week. And on weekends, we go to races.”

Last season, kids from Team Swift were invited to race in Mexico, Canada and Holland. Lucianno Lamperti of Sebastopol joined Team Swift at age 9, then went to his first USA Junior National Championships at age 10. Last year, when he was 13 (racing age 14), he won all three events — criterium (laps around a closed circuit), road race, and time trial. So far, he has won a total of eight National Championships.

“Racing my bike is what I love best,” Lucianno said. “Being a part of Team Swift and having Laura as my coach has been invaluable ... excitement on race day and belief in me keeps me wanting more and accomplishing the goals I have set for myself.”

Meanwhile, his brother, Gianni, was selected last year to race in Belgium on a three-week trip with the U.S. development squad. Last fall, he was also selected to go to a training camp held at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado.

“Team Swift has enabled me to experience traveling and visiting places that I may have never had a chance to see,” Gianni saidd. “Coach Laura has taught me so much along the way. Not only on the bike, with her knowledge of racing tactics ... but she has taught me how to stay focussed and balance training, racing and school.”

Self-discipline is one of the big life lessons kids learn when they sign up for Team Swift.

“They get training plans, just like in running: sprints vs. endurance, and working all the different heart rates specific to the kind of races that are coming up,” Charameda said. “But in cycling, you have to be self-disciplined. You make yourself train, eat well, sleep well, do you homework and skip the dance on the weekend.”

Unlike professional cyclists who fly into a town, race and go home, Team Swift teammates spend most of the year together and tend to build strong bonds.

“It’s a real community that we’ve built here, and the kids become lifetime friends,” she said. “It’s a year-round sport, so it becomes a lifestyle.”

Charameda stays active in the elite racing community by directing a few women’s races, too, such as the Tour of California. This year, she is serving as the competition director for the Colorado Classic women’s race in August.

“It keeps me current with what’s going on with the women’s sport,” she said. “It’s fun to be in the middle of all that action. Many people associated with the races are former racers ... so it’s a little bit of a reunion for me.”

She still dons a racing jersey occasionally, though she doesn’t race at the top level any more. And she rides with Team Swift as much as she can.

“It’s a great way to make your body be the best it can be, and it’s everything I like about being outdoors — getting exercise, the pace and the speed of the bicycle,” she said of the sport. “Also, you have to be tactical, not just strong ... you have to have enough energy at the finish to win.”

On weekends, Charameda drives a 15-seat passenger van full of young cyclists to races all over the West. The team recently came back from a race in Arizona and is gearing up for another race in Southern California next month and then in Monterey.

“Our big goals are the U.S. Junior National Championships, which are also qualifying races to go to Europe,” she said.

Along the way, Charameda is proud to be able to teach life lessons to the kids, ranging from teamwork and personal discipline to an appreciation of the outdoors and the motivation to stay fit.

“The kids have to give speeches, meet sponsors and write reports along with budgeting time,” she said. “When they head off into the big, wide world, they can do better in school and at job interviews.”

When she first started coaching Team Swift, there were just five or so kids showing up to each race. Over the years, she has watched the sport of cycling grow in popularity.

“Now there’s hundreds (of kids at the races), and we’ve graduated hundreds through the program,” she said. “In the old days, parents didn’t ride much. Then parents with kids started to help out ... so the cycling population as a whole has grown.”

Charameda also prides herself on assembling a strong core of sponsors, donors and volunteers to help out the team. One Team Swift graduate, Sam Bassetti of Santa Rosa, went on to become a racing professional while studying exercise biology at UC Davis. Now he serves as athletic performance director for Team Swift.

“The early graduates still come back and want to be a part of it,” she said.

And although coaching doesn’t make her rich, Charameda enjoys the challenge of bringing young riders into the sport that has brought her so much joy.

“I love my lifestyle, working with these motivated kids and families,” she said. “And I like how cycling is an equalizer. You can have a 9-year-old and a 90-year-old go on a bike ride together.”

For more information about Team Swift, go to teamswift.org.

Staff writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56.