The future for MIT students isn’t always just science and tech. MIT alumna Christina Birch PhD ’15 is making waves, qualifying for the shortlist of the Tokyo 2021 Olympics Cycling Long team. Her feat is especially interesting as she was able to utilize the skills and experiences she gained at MIT to help her with her cycling success.
Christina started cycling in the fall of 2008 when she first moved to Cambridge. She would go out on rides with the MIT Cycling Club, regularly cycling rounds of 25–30 miles. She received support and encouragement from the club. “I was new and inexperienced and didn’t know how to eat or drink on the bike. Nick Loomis, club president at the time, stayed behind with me and rode at my pace,” Birch explained. She realized that cycling was not purely meant for exercise and fitness. It was a team sport where she could build a close and supportive community.
At the backbone of her success is a rigorous workout routine. “Leading up to a race, I train with my teammates at the Olympic Training Center velodrome in Colorado Springs, Colorado. We will spend [around] two weeks doing very hard training before travel and tapering before a World Cup.” Birch frequently also does “double-doubles,” or two back-to-back days with two training sessions on the velodrome. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a shift in her routine. Her workout now focuses on foundational fitness. “I’ve been doing some big weeks (20–22 hours of training) that includes some track work for intensity (100% maximum efforts), gym (two times a week), intervals on a road bike (two times a week), and a very long endurance ride (5–6 hours),” Birch described.
She was also able to utilize the skills she learned at MIT to enhance her preparation for races. Birch’s approach to training is extremely data-oriented. “I track my training using power output (watts or looking at time spent at certain kilojoules burned per hour) and monitor trends over short (week) and long (season/year) time periods.” This approach is especially useful in the type of cycling that Birch competes in: track cycling. Track cycling is perhaps the most analytical type of cycling, using aerodynamics and optimization to create the best strategies to minimize time. She also channels her love of teamwork that was fostered in her PhD lab at MIT into her cycling. Both environments allow members to succeed by supporting and relying on others in a community.
Birch’s PhD is in bioengineering, a subject she was able to incorporate into her cycling in various ways, like scientific networking, something she unexpectedly found through cycling events. “During a collegiate road race in Ogden, Utah, I started chatting with another rider from Duke. It turns out she was a grad student working in the lab that had generated a thrombin aptamer I was using in my own research!” Birch was able to form scientific connections and discuss her own work with many cyclists she met across the country. Many students are unsurprisingly conflicted over which of their passions they want to pursue in the future, but Birch combined two seemingly unrelated fields, excelling at both. As she advises, “Moral of the story: if you’re excited to talk about your passions — research and cycling or whatever it may be — you will find interesting people who are interested in what you’re doing too!”
While cycling is an intensive physical sport, for many cyclists, the biggest hurdle is the mental challenge of competition. Birch thrives in competition settings by pushing herself and facing huge challenges during training. Extremely difficult training sessions can build mental strength that allows cyclists to thrive and persevere in a competition setting. She explained, “When I get to a race, I am relaxed, excited, and always looking forward to it because I know I’ve already done all the hard work and preparation to the best of my ability. All that is left is to execute the race plan as best I can.” During the pressure of a race, she assesses each situation calmly and rationalizes the different options she has on the table. She adopts a survivalist mentality and asks herself, “this is my new reality; now what am I going to do about it?”
Birch also left a message for current student athletes who might be struggling to manage intensive workouts along with the rigorous MIT curriculum, as well as any students managing stressful lives. She notes:
“I am definitely what some people might classify as a lifetime ‘high achiever,’ yet I strongly believe that are some things that are more important than achievement. The things even more important than a degree from MIT, more important than sport, more important than the Olympics are you, your happiness, and your relationships. You might not feel that way, now or ever, but I guarantee there are people in your life that believe that you and your well-being are more important than any of the ‘things’ you are doing. My friend and teammate Kelly was an incredibly kind, funny, and humble human being. She was also a Stanford PhD student, author, first-chair violinist, Olympic medalist, World Champion — all at the same time. She died by suicide in March of 2019. She described her life, shortly before her death, as juggling with knives. Instead of Kelly’s knife-juggling, I prefer the glass and rubber ball analogy: you’re jugging 50 (not five) balls in the air, and the key is to be able to identify which ones are rubber (and will bounce if dropped) and which ones are glass. Your health and happiness is the most important glass ball of all. I loved Kelly fiercely as a friend and teammate, and some of my favorite moments of my track cycling journey involve my friendship with her — chats about life and values in our shared hotel room, seeing the School of Rock musical together as a team, riding on her wheel in training. Those memories of connection and shared human experience are the stories I will tell, not the ones about winning a world cup, or setting a power record or personal best time, or whatever. I see the same incredible drive and talent in all the MIT students I know as I did in Kelly, and I worry that MIT students do not view asking for help as the real, all-too-rare strength that it is. Vulnerability is the most courageous act, be it walking to the start line of a race, or reaching out to a friend for help when you’re overwhelmed. There is someone, at home, at MIT, or online, that believes your happiness matters most of all. Let those rubber balls bounce.”
The MIT community is exceptionally proud of Christina Birch and cannot wait to see her excelling in future endeavors and living happily, healthily, and successfully.