|White Squirrel team.|
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But first, where did White Squirrels come from? Perhaps you have seen the white squirrel in Tower Park over near the Trail Shark. It’s unique and uncommon. That’s a proper and fun mascot. The team even has a White Squirrel mascot suit and the image shows up on the team uniform. It’s quirky and it’s fun.
The sport is now a nationally sanctioned school sport. This is the first year for the sport in Kentucky and Ohio. “It’s cool. People are finding out about it and they say ‘What? There’s a team? I want to do that,’” says Head Coach Brian Bozeman. The team has only been around for about a dozen weeks but they have participated in two races now. The interest is high and as word spreads, more people want to join.
According to Olivia Birkenhauer, President of the Cincinnati Off Road Alliance (CORA) and one of the coaches of the White Squirrels, the team is sanctioned by “National Interscholastic Cycling Association (NICA). We are a composite team so that means all these kids are from all over Northern Kentucky. We have one that come out from Union [and] a lot of Fort Thomas residents.” Even as we spoke a family from Boone County showed up for the first time to enroll their son. So the sport is steadily growing in awareness and popularity.
|Head Coach Brian Bozeman|
Birkenhauer says that, “We have kids of all different skill and ability levels. We have some who came in not mountain biking ever and never been in a race and some of them have never even been on a trail. And others who have parents who have been doing it awhile.” She explained that “a lot of our first practices were the foundational skills of mountain biking like bike-body separation, terrain awareness, and then we just tweak it from there.”
Birkenhauer is also the President of CORA. That 501(c)3 is involved in developing and maintaining mountain bike trails in the Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky region. They currently maintain about 100 miles of trails. They partner with local organizations to expand current trail networks as well as develop a sense of community through organizing social events, group rides, trail runs, skills clinics, and regular trail maintenance events. And a number of their members are the coaches of the White Squirrels.
CORA, in cooperation with the City of Fort Thomas and the Fort Thomas Forest Conservancy, cut a new trail and did upgrades to another trail. Tower Park is a challenging trail so the team is being well-prepared for their races. Birkenhauer says that, “This year we are competing in Ohio because the venues are actually closer. The Kentucky venues were like five hours away. Our first race was at John Bryant State Park two weeks ago.” The most recent race was held in Athens, Ohio about three hours away. After that they will race in Columbus and then the fourth race will be in Toledo.
Coach Bozeman says of their race in Athens. "Everyone did amazing and came across the finish line with smiles! As I tell them, I'd rather see smiles at the finish line than first place, although those are nice too! We did have a few podiums too. The 7th grade boys took 3rd place, the 8th grade boys took 5th place, the freshman girls took second place, and the sophomore girls took 4th and 1st place."
I watched the team run the Tower Park course during their practice and they navigated the new trail with speed, power, and respect for the other cyclists. I enjoyed seeing such a range of ages and body types eagerly attack the trails with grit and determination. There was much cooperation and competition as team members pushed themselves to be better than before. It was fun.
There are currently five girls on the team. Coach Birkenhauer says, ”There is a program we are doing with them, GriT (Girls Riding Together). We want to get that program going too to get more girls on bikes.” The NICA website says that “Without GRiT, we are missing a significant opportunity to offer girls and women the amazing experiences and empowerment that mountain biking provides. To empower all our participants to seek inclusivity and equality.” And the girls I saw were powering through the rough and challenging trails in Tower Park and they had that determined focus in their eyes.
Bike sales skyrocketed as a result of the pandemic lockdown and the benefit is obvious but the attraction is that many have come to enjoy the fun, challenging, and exhilarating sport of mountain biking. And the excitement is contagious. I asked Jason Clark, father of Noah, what he thinks about his son participating in the sport. He says, “I think it’s great. It gets the kids outside and keeps them active out in the open exercising and it teaches them problem solving very fast. He has to figure it out on his own.”
He’s not terribly worried about accidents, either. “He’s had a few but none too serious,” he says. Then he adds, “I bought a bike to ride with him now. I just got it Tuesday so we haven’t done anything too exciting yet.” But that is about to change.
For more information, you can contact Coach Brian Bozeman at firstname.lastname@example.org or