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‘We were taking on that pain together’: Alpha Chi Omega cherishes Little 500 memories



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Alpha Chi Omega bike team seniors pose for a photo. The 2020 Little 500 was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Courtesy Photo

There was silence, only silence. 

About 30 members of the Little 500 community gathered outside a house in Bloomington. Lively conversations trailed off into a hush. There was a strange energy in the air. Everyone’s attention turned to the luminous screens of their phones. 

On Sunday March 15, an email was sent at 8:31 p.m. by race director Andrea Balzano. “Riders and Coaches,” it started off. Then came the line that ended the race.

For the first time in its existence, there would be no race. Little 500 day in Bloomington was no more.

Among the group were three seniors from Alpha Chi Omega. This year would have been their third Little 500 together. They placed fourth in the last three races.

This would have been their last chance to make it onto the podium.

Rylee Ollearis didn't know what to say. Neither did Jackie Mooney. Kaitlyn Paris cried.

They looked at each other and hugged. They told each other they would get through it together. Everything was fuzzy.

Ollearis still won’t let herself read the full email. Paris said it won’t sink in until April 24 – when the women should've been gripping the handlebars at the starting line.

On April 24 and 25, the seats at Bill Armstrong Stadium will be empty. Balloons won’t be released. The checkered flag will be in storage.

***

When Ollearis arrived on campus her freshman year, she didn’t know about the Little 500. She only heard about the wild parties surrounding the event.

After joining Alpha Chi Omega as a freshman, Ollearis, along with Mooney and Paris, decided to join the sorority’s Little 500 team. None of them had biked competitively before. They yearned for a team atmosphere.

They were welcomed into the team by the older riders. In the spring, Rookie Week became an opportunity to master Little 500 techniques.

It was important to understand how to properly vault onto the seat or complete hand offs. A senior rider instructed Paris.

“Just run and jump on it,” she told Paris.

“How?” Paris asked.

“It’s hard to explain,” the senior replied. “Just run and jump.”

Paris listened and started to run. She jumped on the bike just like she was told. But, she overestimated how high she could leap and belly flopped on top of the seat. Paris tumbled to the ground.

Paris finished Rookie Week covered in bruises. She had to scrub the cinders out of her knees with a toothbrush.

Ollearis had similar troubles. When she would hop onto the bike, she would land with her stomach on the seat. She had no idea how it happened.

Through all the scrapes, Rookie Week was when the three started to bond.

Over spring break, the team stayed in Bloomington to train. The three freshmen wanted to hang with the upperclassmen and continue to ride.

They worked out twice a day and went hiking. Their adventures took them to different parts of Bloomington. They dined on veggie burgers on an apartment floor. They got to know their coach, David Harstad, who was a Little 500 winner himself.

“My body was made out of hummus by the end of it,” Ollearis said.

Ollearis and Paris watched the Little 500 from the sideline as freshmen. They helped count laps and hand out food for the team. They saw the colorful balloon release, heard the IU fight song and heard the raucous crowd.

Mooney earned a spot on the four-person roster as a freshman. She was tasked with mostly riding short spurts so she didn’t feel too much pressure.

During the race, Mooney was preparing for her eight-lap set. The mechanic had previously marked her seat to accommodate her long long legs. When the mechanic handed her the bike, the seat was two or three inches too short. She heard some shouting and had to take off.

She completed the laps with her legs squeezed into the frame, bumping the handlebars.

***

Ollearis could tell you what her best friends ate for breakfast. Paris loved healthy cereal. For Mooney, it was oatmeal with almond butter.

The women talked about life during their three-hour cycling sessions. They bonded through their similar mentality.

“I spend more time with them than I do with my family,” Ollearis said.

During their rides, they’d follow the same route over and over, but Paris and Mooney knew Ollearis would always ask the same question.

“Which way do we go?”

“How do you not know where to go?” They would laugh back.

Paris and Mooney would tease Ollearis too. Sometimes, they would come up to a stop sign and not say which way to turn, just because they knew what was coming. 

On the last day of spring practices at the track, it was a tradition to dress up. One year, the trio arrived in Hawaiian beachwear. They were the only team to wear a costume. They paraded around the track.

“Find your beach,” they said. “This is our beach: the track.”

***

Their first Little 500 with all three competing came in 2018. 

Everything was quick. Pedal fast. Hand off. Rest. Pedal fast. Hand off. Rest.

Ollearis would sometimes forget to breathe, but there was always a wide grin on her face.

“My pain face is also a smile," she said.

Alpha Chi Omega placed fourth for the second year in a row. 

In 2019, it was more of the same.

Ollearis was in the pit looking at coach Harstad, waiting her turn to take the bike.

“Dave, Dave,” she called. “What lap is it? Is it time for me to go in yet?”

Ollearis figured it was only around the 25 lap mark. But, her sense of time is warped during the race.

“Rylee,” Harstad said. “It’s lap 70.”

SKI led for most of the race, but Alpha Chi Omega wasn’t far behind. Near the end, it became a four team race between SKI, Alpha Chi Omega, Teter and Delta Gamma. With ten laps left, Alpha Chi Omega fell back. In the end, Teter outsprinted Delta Gamma. 

Alpha Chi Omega ended in fourth, again. One spot from the podium, again.

They didn’t know it at the time, but that would be their last race.

***

The Alpha Chi Omega cycling team has a tradition of practicing in Florida over winter break. Harstad owns a place in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and the team rents an Airbnb. The gentle winter sun provides some relief to Bloomington’s bitter chill.

The team ventured out on strenuous rides in the morning and then lounged at the beach.

One day this winter break, they set out for a training session in Naples. Harstad planned for the team to do a 62-mile ride. As they neared the end, Ollearis was still feeling strong. At the beginning of her career, her legs were sore after a 20-mile loop. 

She turned to Harstad.

“Can we please do eight more and get to 70?” Ollearis asked.

They had never completed 70 miles as a group.

“Are you serious?” Harstad said.

Paris and Mooney scoffed at the thought.

They finished the last eight miles — just the three of them.

It was also in Florida when Mooney first defeated Harstad in a sprint. She had been working on her short bursts all summer. They would always point out a spot to race to, but he always won. Mooney’s confidence rose after her victory, even jabbing at Harstad when she started to outdo him regularly.

“C’mon Dave,” Mooney would say. “Are you going to beat me this time?”.

The team made gains throughout the winter and into the spring, setting them up to peak on April 24. It was rare for a team to have three seniors. They all handled the captain responsibilities.

Once the track opened this spring, they trained at the the stadium like usual.

On March 11 during practice, there was an eerie feel throughout the Little 500 community. Anxiety about the coronavirus was spreading around the country. That night, the NBA decided to postpone its season after Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert tested positive. 

Ollearis tried to lift everyone’s mood.

“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon,” she said. “Smile, smile, smile.”

Paris was annoyed. But she smiled.

The energy came back and the team went through its normal sets. They felt fast. 

Mooney and Ollearis stayed late that night. The two of them wanted to enjoy it. Almost everyone had left.

They joked around at the end, enjoying their time with each other as they swung around the track. Mooney came around the finish line with her hands in the air. 

***

The three women did everything together during spring break. On March 15, the race had been cancelled, but they didn't want it accept that it was over.

They biked all over Bloomington, into Martinsville and stopped by the track. They did sprint work at the Cascades and made loops at the Oliver Winery. They went grocery shopping, completed puzzles and watched romantic-comedy movies on Netflix.

Harstad showed the team a video a collection to the team from fans, alumni and family voicing their support. Usually, it's revealed before the race.

“I think there were more videos that came in this year in just about 24 hours than have ever come in,” Harstad said.

Since the race cancellation, IU and academic institutions around the country have transferred all classes online for the rest of the semester in response to the coronavirus. Graduations have been delayed. Students have been forced off of campus early.

It became clear this was bigger than education. Larger than a bike race.

The death toll in the U.S. surged to more than 11,000.

Paris still had many activities she wanted to cross off of her IU bucket list with her friends before she graduated. She wanted to jump into Showalter Fountain, feed squirrels on campus and go to the fire tower with Ollearis and Mooney.

They’ve already vowed to come back for the next decade and cheer on Alpha Chi Omega for their missed race. They’ve talked about traveling around the country to do triathlons. They just need to improve their swimming.

“Hopefully we’ll be the fun alumni and tell the story of the infamous race that never occurred in 2020,” Paris said.

The coronavirus has forced the team to look inward. Ollearis has learned to take a step back. Focus on now and not yesterday or tomorrow. Take things one lap at a time.

“It's OK to slow down, it’s OK to look up, to look at the trees, to listen to the birds,” Ollearis said. “Take a big breath in.”

During spring break, they took out their Little 500 race bikes for a spin. They weren’t going unused.

They rode out into the countryside east of Bloomington where there weren’t any cars. They pulled off to the side of the road and looked out over the cornfields. The sun was starting to set, extending warm rays. An occasional bird chirped. 

The three women looked at each other and smiled.

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