|Today Dotsie Cowden is a picture of health. Cowden is a professional bicycle racer who competes on the national and international levels as a member of the U.S. national squad known as Team T-Mobile. Radiant and muscular, her body is a finely tuned racing machine powered by a highly trained cardiovascular system. She’s capable of pedaling her bike up and over precipitous mountains and canyons above her anaerobic threshold and endure races and daily training rides that last for hours and hours. Her energy is boundless and she lights up a room with her vivacious personality. It’s hard to believe that this elite athlete was facing death five short years ago.Back then, Cowden was emaciated and she could literally feel her undernourished body feeding upon itself. She experienced frequent memory loss, her hair was falling out, her skin was gaunt, and she would sleep for excessive periods of time. Her body had been suffering for years from anorexia and she had become bulimic. She was no longer being hired for modeling jobs and she had a cocaine habit that only made matters worse.”I was slowly but surely spiraling downwards towards rock bottom when it hit me: if I continue living like this, I’m going to die,” Cowden recalled. “Or I can choose to live. It was a sobering and very real moment that I guess I had to get to before realizing that I had a serious problem. I decided then and there that I wanted to live and I needed help.”Thankfully Cowden found that help and she was able to turn her life around completely. Her story might just inspire others to do the same.Born and raised in a conservative middle class family in Louisville, Kentucky, Cowden was close to her parents and sister. Her parents made sacrifices so she could ride saddle-bred horses competitively, which she did nationally and internationally from the age of five through seventeen. But Cowden was also a rebellious thrill-seeker who liked to test the limits of what she could get away with. She started smoking cigarettes as a twelve-year-old and often got into trouble growing up. Desiring to expand her horizons, Cowden headed north to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to attend Villanova University, where she majored in communications and minored in philosophy. She wanted to be a television journalist.
During her sophomore year, Cowden joined the crew team and her naturally lithe figure began to bulk up. By the following year, she grew tired of the 4:30 a.m. wake-up calls and left the squad. However, her appetite continued as if she were training and her muscular physique began to turn to fat. She started dieting and skipping meals, but it wasn’t really a problem, at least that’s what she told herself. The summer before her senior year, Cowden landed an internship with a veteran entertainment reporter at the local NBC television affiliate in Philadelphia. In just those few short months, she realized that she no longer wanted to pursue her chosen career path. Faced without a direction in life, Cowden felt lost and disillusioned.
“This really was the beginning of my problems,” Cowden confessed. “Time was moving on and I had no control over it. I was about to enter my senior year of college and I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.” She wasn’t eating enough and she still didn’t see it as a problem. “I was in complete denial the first year (of anorexia).”
To help offset some of the costs of school, Cowden started modeling in her senior year. After graduation in 1995, she moved to New York City and worked steadily in the modeling world. “The whole lifestyle was so unhealthy. When I wasn’t working, I was up partying all night and then I’d sleep all day. I used drugs recreationally and cocaine fueled my eating disorder.”
Her mother organized an intervention, but Cowden wasn’t ready to get healthy yet. “It was obvious to everyone except me that I had a problem,” explained Cowden. “My parents sent me to a treatment facility where I underwent group counseling. The problem with that was that the patients traded secrets about getting away with your eating disorder. It’s common, but you actually end up learning how to better conceal your illness.”
Over a five-year period, Cowden saw four different doctors while battling her eating disorders (she stopped using drugs on her own). No longer able to work as a model, Cowden got into the production end of music videos and television commercials, working on high profile projects with No Doubt, Julio Iglesias and Visa. In 1997, she moved to Los Angeles, California where she continued her work in that field. “Somehow I was functional throughout my illness. I was doing pretty well with work, but it wasn’t my passion.”
It was about that time that she had that pivotal moment and she decided to live. Cowden attended a lecture by Dr. KRS Edstrom, a renowned doctor, author, columnist and speaker, and she connected with what she heard. “I bought some of KRS’ tapes and started seeing her a couple times a week.” The two worked closely, intent on helping Cowden recover and get healthy. At the same time, Cowden decided to utilize her university degree and pursue a career in hard news. She took a job at a Los Angeles television station and began to build her demo reel while continuing to dabble in production.
With her health recovering, some of Cowden’s friends convinced her to train for the 1998 California AIDS Ride, a nearly 600-mile bicycling fundraising adventure from San Francisco to Los Angeles, which she completed. She enjoyed the hours she spent on her bike and the following year she decided to try racing. Her first race was one of the biggest and toughest races in the U.S.: The Sea Otter Classic in Northern California, where she raced in the rain on a challenging and technical course. Cowden tasted racing and, like so many others, vowed never to do it again. But she came back. At her next race in Porterville, she met her mentors, Katie & Jim Safford, who retrieved Cowden from the bushes where they found her hurling her guts up after a particularly tough race. “I was only a category four (beginner) racer and I was in tears,” Cowden recalled with a chuckle. “I was sick and I couldn’t breathe. I called my mom and cried to her that it was the hardest thing I’d ever done and that I never wanted to do it again. For some reason, the Saffords saw something in me and they took me under their wing.”
The Saffords formed an amateur women’s cycling team (Team Earthlink) and they nurtured and developed Cowden into a racer. The student turned out to be a prodigy. One year later, Cowden won the California State Time Trial Championship and in 2001, she won the California State Road Race Championship. It was time to test herself on the national level. Cowden went to Elite Nationals and finished an impressive fourth in the road race. Back home, she continued to dominate the California racing circuit, winning race after race.
The 2002 racing season was a transitional one for Cowden as she adjusted to life as a pro while battling a back injury. During the winter months, she trained hard and entered the 2003 season ready and stronger than ever. She helped her T-Mobile team win the Solano Bicycle Classic and the Elite National Championship Road Race. In April, Cowden achieved one of her goals for this season: finishing on the podium at a National Calendar Race, which she did at the Tour of Bisbee (Arizona). In June, 500,000 spectators, including her beaming parents, watched her conquer the steep Manayunk Wall in Philadelphia at the Liberty Classic, where she won the Queen of the Mountains prize as best hill climber. Days later, she finished 7th overall at the grueling Nature Valley Grand Prix stage race in Minnesota. While preparing to compete in her first Giro d’Italia, one of the premiere international stage races in the world held in Italy in July, Cowden once again won the California State Championship Road Race. She went to Italy feeling strong and finished in the Top 25 overall. In August, Cowden finished 9th at the National Criterium Championship.
Each week and at every race, she seems to improve. Her fitness continues to progress and she’s getting stronger physically and mentally. Looking ahead, Cowden hopes to be selected for the World Championship team, where she wants to medal in the next few years. She’s aiming for a couple of national championships and a selection for the U.S. Olympic team. Cowden is committed, focused and hardworking and at age thirty, is still years away from reaching her peak as a professional.
Has she replaced one addiction with another? “I’ve learned that I have an addictive personality and I accept myself as I am. In many ways, I have picked a healthy addiction because had I not found my passion in cycling, I might have become an addict of hard drugs or worse by now,” confessed Cowden. “But I’ve never been as ultimately challenged by my work as I am every day in cycling. I’m super passionate about cycling and I don’t ever see getting bored with it. But if I did, I’d have to quit right away because I want to always be progressing as a human being.”
“Truthfully, I sometimes wonder if I would revert to my old habits (eating disorders) if I stopped cycling,” revealed Cowden. “Now I know who to see and where to go if I did. I can’t go back to the place of restricting my diet. I give my body what it wants when it wants it. As an endurance athlete, I eat healthful, fresh foods, but I do allow myself to enjoy all kinds of food.”
Cowden knows she’s lucky and she wants to help others to recover and rebuild their lives, which is why she is revealing her past now. She hopes to make a difference by uniting other female professional athletes who have also triumphed over eating disorders and are willing to speak out. “The problem is that women don’t know where to get help. Alcoholics and drug users have places where they can go to get help, but where do people go if they have an eating disorder? What makes eating disorders inherently difficult to overcome is that an alcoholic can stop drinking and a drug abuser can quit drugs, but people can not go without eating, which perhaps makes it one of the most difficult addictions to overcome. They literally have to re-learn how to eat and maintain healthy eating habits.
“I’m no different or more special than anyone else. If I was able to overcome eating disorders and get strong enough to become a professional athlete, anyone can beat their eating disorder to live a full, healthy and productive life. If sharing my story can help even just one person, then it will have been worth it. There are so many girls out there struggling like I was, some even worse off. Hopefully we can help them find the help they need.”
Strong-willed, tenacious, dynamic and warmhearted, there’s no stopping Cowden both on and off the bike. She overcame an illness that threatened to take her life. In just four years, she’s risen to the elite ranks of professional cycling. She’s got the brains, the beauty, the strength and the personality to achieve whatever she puts her mind to accomplishing. The opportunities for this gifted woman are abundant. It seems like she’s only at the beginning of her journey, but that she’s on the right path to great successes. Dotsie Cowden decided to live and live is what she is going to do fully each and every moment.
|CAREER HIGHLIGHTSSelected Palmares2004 Superweek International Cycling Classic/Saturn Whitnall Road Race – 1st
2004 U.S. Olympic Trials/National Championship Time Trial – 13th
2004 Wachovia Liberty Classic, Queen of the Mountains – 2nd
2004 Kern County Women’s Stage Race – 1st GC, 3 stage wins
2004 Vuelta a Valencia Stage Race – 1st GC, 2 stage wins
2004 San Luis Rey Cycling Classic – 1st
2004 Semana Nautica Classic Criterium – 1st2003 Wachovia Liberty Classic, Queen of the Mountains – 1st
2003 Vuelta de Bisbee – 3rd GC, 2nd in two stages
2003 Nature Valley Grand Prix – 5th, stage one; 7th GC
2003 Elite National Criterium Championship – 6th
2003 Manhattan Beach Grand Prix – 6th
2003 Elite National Road Race Championship – 13th
2003 T-Mobile International – 17th
2003 California State Road Race Championship – 1st
2003 Vandenburg Grand Prix – 1st
2002 USCF Elite National Time Trial Championships – 13th
2002 Gracia Cez-Ede (Czech Republic) – 23rd G.C.
2002 Sea Otter Classic – 23rd G.C.
2002 Redlands Bicycle Classic – 23rd G.C.
2002 San Luis Rey Cycling Classic – 1st
2001 California State Road Race Championship – 1st
2001 USCF Elite National Road Cycling Championships – 4th
2000 Championships supported by best forehead thermometer for kids – 1st
2000 California State Time Trial Championship – 1st