Thorburn's competitive spirit pushes her to pedal for medal in Olympics

Photo: Jeff Tse Photography

Rheumatology fellow Christine Thorburn, MD, is part of the three-member U.S. women’s road cycling team that will compete next month in Athens at the 2004 Summer Olympics.

Some people take their mind off work with a good book, a jog, video games or maybe a bike ride. Few people expect their downtime activity to lead to a spot in the Olympics.

That’s certainly not what Christine Thorburn had in mind when, as a Stanford medical student, she decided to take up cycling. But in June she earned her way to Greece when she won the 24-km national women’s cycling elite time trial championship in Redlands, Calif.

Thorburn said she knew she was fast when she started cycling with fellow medical students. “But I didn’t really have a perspective on that,” she said. She got that perspective in 1998 when she joined Stanford’s club team with some of her cycling friends. That year she qualified for the Collegiate National Championships.

After getting her medical degree in 1999, Thorburn took a break from competitive cycling to do a residency in internal medicine. When she returned to the relatively leisurely schedule of a rheumatology postdoctoral scholar she started riding for the local Webcor Builders team. She’s had a steady series of national successes and rode on the U.S. national team at the world championships last fall.

Thorburn first got a taste for athletic competition in junior high when she started running track and cross-country. She ran through her college years at Grinnell College in Iowa, but said academics always took priority over training. Knee pain eventually ended her running career, though Thorburn said she was never as strong in running as she turned out to be in cycling.

The switch from running to cycling held a few surprises. “When I first started it was frustrating because the fastest person doesn’t always win. It’s a very tactical sport,” she said. Riders jostle for position within the group and rely on teammates for help taking the lead.

In her early years Thorburn said she was only riding 10 to 15 races a year, not enough to learn the tricks. “Now that I have more time I’m enjoying the tactical aspects of it more,” she said.

And then there’s the pain. Cycling is notorious for inducing crippling leg cramps and knee stress. In 2002 Thorburn had knee surgery to repair her old running injury and is now having fewer problems with her knees.

The rest of the pain is a mental hurdle. “I guess I’m one of those crazy athletic types,” Thorburn said. “The thing with racing is that you know there’s a moment of truth and it’s going to hurt a lot but it settles out. I think the thrill of competition kicks in.”

Thorburn’s Stanford collaborator P.J. Utz, MD, said the same qualities that make her a great cyclist shine in her research. “If you want to be successful as a medical researcher, you have to want things more than anyone else and want to be at the top,” said Utz, assistant professor of immunology and rheumatology. At the same time, research, like cycling, is a team endeavor. “She understands that role,” Utz said.

Friends from medical school say Thorburn’s success came as no surprise. “She’s always been really athletic and she has a really competitive side in her personality,” said Allison Grow, MD, who is now a radiation oncology resident and Thorburn’s roommate.

At the same time, Grow said she had no idea how speedy Thorburn was when she started riding. “I knew she was on the Stanford team and I knew she was doing well, but I remember finding out through other people that she helped the team win the national championships.”

Another medical school friend, Heidi Witherell, MD, now an anesthesiology resident, said she’d competed with Thorburn and knew she was training hard this year. But the call from Thorburn saying that she’d made the Olympic team still came as a surprise. “I didn’t realize to what extent she was focused,” Witherell said. Utz was equally surprised, getting the news via a newspaper headline while on the train to a San Francisco Giants game. “I immediately got on the phone and called everybody I could think of,” Utz said.

Thorburn will continue racing and training with teammates Kristin Armstrong and Dede Barry until she heads for Greece Aug. 11. They compete in the women’s road race on Aug. 15 and again on Aug. 18 for the time trial. Thorburn said the slightly flatter road course isn’t ideal for the hill-climbers on her team, but all three women could potentially earn a medal in the time trial.