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Angie Harker, SelectVision
The first race of the season for the Utah High School Cycling League is held at Powder Mountain.

KEARNS — As grueling and challenging as mountain biking is, Nolan Harris saw it as the perfect introduction to high school sports for his daughter.

Abby Harris, a junior at Kearns High, had never played competitive sports when her father, who’d lost 40 pounds riding a bike to and from work, convinced her to join him at a practice for a team made up of several west-side Salt Lake County high schools a year ago.

“It seemed like it would be fun,” said Harris, who is now the coach of the team of students from Taylorsville, Kearns, Cyprus and Granite high schools. “I figured it was a good way to get involved in a sport that didn’t have a tryout process.”

The 16-year-old agreed to go to that first practice with her dad, but it took much longer to convince Abby that mountain biking was the activity to which she wanted to devote any of her precious free time.

“She distinctly did not like it right away,” Nolan Harris said, laughing. “I was concerned she wouldn’t come back to practice after her accident, but she stuck with it.” Her accident was slamming on her brakes at precisely the wrong moment and flying over the handle bars of her bike. She cut her arm — a scar she now views with some pride.

“I told her, ‘If you bleed on a trail, it belongs to you,’” Nolan Harris said.

Abby Harris is one of 2,333 students involved in the Utah High School Cycling League. Now five years old, the Utah league is the largest in the country. In fact, 25 percent of the students who participate in the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (founded in 2009) are Utah teens.

The founder of the Utah league is Lori Harward, a life-long cyclist whose hobby became her passion when she lived in northern California.

“For me personally, it had such an impact on my own life,” Harward said. “It literally saved me in so many ways. With kids, a job, all this stuff, just being able to get that stress out was so helpful. It was my sanity. It’s the thing I do when I’m happy. It’s the thing I do when I am sad. It’s joy and passion and sanity.” When she heard about NICA, she immediately went to work to create a league in Utah.

“I thought, ‘Kids need this; it will make such a difference for so many students who don’t fit into the traditional niches,’” she said. “They need something. They’re looking for something. And this sport is life-long.”

She looked at her own children and realized that competitive team sports only offered opportunities for some children. For the Utah mountain biking league, there are no cuts. Teams are organized by age, and girls and boys race together on the same tracks, although they earn gender-specific awards. The league includes students from seventh to 12th grade, and there are teams from Logan to St. George in just about every high school community in the state.

Harward said she’s heard from student-athletes and their parents about the benefits of the league.

“I knew it would make such a difference in so many people’s lives,” she said. “So few kids who were into mountain biking, and this has brought so many kids into the sport, and it’s also gotten their families involved. It’s become a family sport.”

Instead of dropping their children off at practices, they ride with them, and in some cases, like Nolan Harris, they coach them.

Abby Harris said her father being involved in the league has helped her remain committed despite a busy academic schedule and demanding debate commitments. But it’s the way the league encourages people to learn the sport that she loves most.

“The sport isn’t focused on one person being the best,” she said. “It’s focused on how we can all ride together to get better.”

She said they help each other out, exchange ideas and help with mechanical issues. She’s reaped many benefits from her participation in the league, even if she’s shocked she’s still competing.

“I am kind of surprised I stuck with it,” Abby said. “I do a lot of other things at school. … I think I’ve gotten more leadership skills, more cooperation, and I get out and about more.”

Her dad has noticed a change, as well.

“I think it’s made her a more well-rounded student,” he said. “It’s just given her a little bit of exercise and a sense of competition.”

Abby Harris acknowledges it can be intimidating, but the best way to deal with that is give it a try. She has stopped trying to recruit her friends, and instead just invites them to her races. Once they see and feel the fun and energy, they start asking how they can get started.

Harward and Harris said there are a lot of ways students can get involved, even if they don’t have a bike. The league has “loaners” — which is what Abby started on last season.

“The first year, she ended up with a nice scar,” Nolan Harris said. “She said it was fun, and she came in last in the rankings. The second year, she came in right in the middle.”

Abby isn’t worried about rankings, but she is already looking at how she can continue riding after her high school career ends.

“I’m thinking of making sure when I move,” she said, “that I move to an area that has trails that I can ride on.”

Email: adonaldson@deseretnews.com

Twitter: adonsports