When Lauren Stephens ('10) first began cycling as a hobby in 2009 as a student at UNT, she never knew what kind of journey those two wheels would take her on.
Today, she represents her country by professionally racing in competitions all over the globe as a member of the USA Cycling road team.
"Looking back, I wish I had known that cycling could be a career," she says. "I think I would have started a lot sooner."
Stephens fell in love with the sport while she was on the triathlon club team during her junior year at UNT. Stephens also enrolled in UNT's Teach North Texas program for math and science majors who wanted to be secondary education teachers, but soon found that finding a steady balance between cycling, studying and training for triathlon competitions was a tough challenge.
"I would come to class so tired from all the training, and sometimes I would fall asleep," she says.
It wasn't until her math professor reached out to her when she finally felt she could open up about her intense cycling life and a race that she competed in just that past weekend.
"Going into education made me realize there's more to learning than just sitting in the classroom," she says. "I started doing much better once that professor took a personal interest in my outside life."
After earning her certification to teach secondary education, she began teaching math at Bryan Adams High School in Dallas while also juggling training and racing on the side. Her husband Mat, who she met at a local bike shop, was also an avid cyclist and her strongest supporter in helping her find the perfect work-life balance between being a passionate teacher and professional cyclist.
"He's my coach, he's my best friend, he's everything," Stephens says.
With her husband at her side, she left her teaching job behind and began pursuing racing full-time in 2013. Quicker than she anticipated, she won big cycling races in the U.S. and teams eagerly reached out for her to join them. Stephens began racing with EF Education-TIBCO-Silicon Valley Bank, a sponsored women's cycling team, to kickstart her professional cycling journey.
"At that point I started to realize my hobby could be a career," she says.
Since the start of her cycling career Stephens says that she has witnessed an impressive increase in equal opportunities for women in professional cycling. In addition to the increased funding, salaries and support, "the races have gotten much harder, much more exciting and it's really encouraging," she says.
In 2018 she faced the biggest roadblock of her career -- an early season crash during the final stage of Santos Tour Down Under that resulted in a painful hip injury.
"A lot of people didn't realize that I had such a bad crash because I was able to finish the race," she says.
Stephens managed to complete the stage second overall in the general classification of the race, despite discovering four months later in an MRI that she sheared the fascial layer in her hip from the accident.
"I thought my cycling career was over," she says. "I thought there was no way I was going to be able to find a team."
It wasn't until her team owner, Linda Jackson, took a chance on Stephens' raw talent and brought her back onto the EF Education-TIBCO-Silicon Valley Bank team. Stephens says that she was grateful to have such good support with people like her team owner and her husband, who was a crucial help during the physical and mental challenges of her recovery.
"I had to figure out if I wanted to keep pursuing this, or if I wanted to be done," she says.
A couple of months of physical therapy and intense training later, she made it onto the shortlist for the 2021 U.S. team for the Tokyo Olympics and was devastated that she fell short of being selected.
But Stephens describes herself as someone who is internally motivated and to keep her head high, she adamantly reminded herself to keep resting and that more opportunities would come. Exploring new approaches to training, Stephens says she worked to become more adaptable, taking a step back and began listening more to her body and its needs.
Just within that same year, new opportunities did come her way. She took first place at the U.S. National Professional Road Race Championship.
"A lot of people were saying talk with your legs, so that was my opportunity to talk with my legs," Stephens says.
"Train harder than you race" was a motto Stephens lived by, but after a journey of setbacks and success it's now "race, race and race some more, that's how you're going to get better and learn things."