Photo: Omar Atallah
This September, 18-year-old Kaia Schmid accomplished a life goal - becoming a World Champion. Kaia won the Elimination race at Junior World Track Championships in Cairo, Egypt. Standing in the shadows of the Great Pyramids, Kaia donned what we’re sure is the first of many rainbow stripe jerseys. Kaia’s been competing on her Fuji Track Elite throughout her illustrious junior track racing career. We caught up with Kaia while she is racing and training in Europe in preparation for the Junior Road World Championships to reflect on her big win.
How long have you been racing track? How did you get started?
I got my start on the track when I was 9 years old at the Northeast Velodrome in Londonderry, New Hampshire. To most, it would not be considered a velodrome, formally being a Go Karting track with only 14-degree banking and a lot of eroded pavement. The Northeast Velodrome had an awesome program in 2012 run by Kurt Begemann that put on weekly training races for juniors like myself and taught them the fundamentals of track cycling. Unfortunately, after 2012 the track was shut down due to leasing issues and that left me without a velodrome to train on. For the next few years, I would go to a running track on my cyclocross bike and ride around in circles aimlessly. When I showed up at the VeloSports Center in Carson, California in 2014 I was definitely not prepared for a 45-degree 250 meter international velodrome, but my 11-year-old self picked it up quickly to earn my first National podium later that week. On a good year, I probably make it to the velodrome about two times, but despite the lack of track training, I still show up to Track Nationals every year to compete. (Check out how 12-year-old Kaia used to train)
You’ve had an outstanding season so far. Can you highlight some of your road and track results?
I am definitely stoked on my results thus far. I actually just returned from Ras Na mBan in Ireland where I got 2 stage wins, a podium on the QOM stage, and took home the points jersey. Earlier this summer on the road, I won Junior Criterium National Championships, finished second at the Junior National Championships Road Race, podiumed at three stages of Intelligentsia Cup and two stages of Speedweek. On the track, I earned three new Junior National titles in the Elimination race, Scratch race, and International Omnium. I even doubled up some of the days at Track Nationals and hopped in the Elite Fields earning second place in the Elimination race and third place in the Scratch race. I took that momentum from Track Nationals right into World Championships to earn my first World Title in the Elimination race, a silver in the International Omnium, a bronze in the Scratch race, and a 4th place in the Scratch race.
How did you qualify for Junior Worlds?
That's actually a funny story. I showed up to Track Nationals with no intent to qualify for or compete at Track World Championships because I didn't think USA Cycling was sending a team. While I was competing there, I found out USA Cycling was planning on sending a team. I applied to be a part of that team based off of my National results and was chosen to compete.
What was it like traveling to Egypt? That’s such a unique location. Did you get to do any sightseeing?
It was such a cool experience getting to meet and see how all the Egyptian people live. Traveling to Egypt is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience and I feel very fortunate to have been invited on the trip. One day, we got to go see the Egyptian pyramids which were absolutely insane, I definitely took a few too many photos. Besides the trip to the pyramids, the only time we left the hotel was to get transported in a bus to the velodrome. All the athletes were in a huge bubble; getting transported in athlete-specific buses, getting covid tested together every 2 days, and eating at the athlete-specific buffet. I get a lot of questions about the food on the trip, and I love getting asked this because I literally could not stop raving about how good it was the whole trip. All the food was so clean and delicious. By the end of my trip there, I started saying that I could see myself living and training out of the velodrome in Cairo for a month. I really took a liking to the people, facilities, city, and food there.
Going into the event, did you think winning a World Championship title was possible?
I honestly had no idea what to expect. I had never competed internationally on the road or track prior to Track Worlds, so I had no idea where I stood against the girls from other nations. The scratch race was my first event and I definitely rode conservatively not knowing how my competition raced. I still pulled off 4th place, but it wasn’t until after that result that I knew I was capable of more.
Tell us how the Elimination played out.
After 4th place in the scratch race, I was determined to get on the podium in the elimination race. I started at the back of the race due to my lack of International points which made it difficult to get to the front, but I did everything I could to get to the front early on and put the other girls under pressure. I made sure that I rode front the whole race, and whenever I got shuffled back, I stepped on the pedals to get back to the front. As the group started getting smaller I kept ramping up the pace, so the other girls could not come over me. Before I knew it, the team coach, Joanne Kiesanowski was yelling at me from the sidelines saying that only four girls were left. Once Joanne said that I was not backing down until I was on the podium. I ramped up the pace even more so that it was just me and two others left on the track. Once I was in a medal position, I realized that I could win this event. It was just me, a Czech girl, and a German girl left on the track. The three of us all sprinted and the Czech girl got eliminated, leaving me and the German girl on track racing for the rainbow jersey. I looked back immediately after that sprint and I could tell she was hurting, so with a lap and a half to go, I rode down the tack and dropped her to ride into the finish solo.
What did it feel like to pull on the rainbow stripes?
It was truly a special day to win my first world title in Cairo, Egypt, and represent team USA at the highest level of racing, It felt unbelievable to pull on the rainbow stripes, I really have no words to describe the feeling. I knew that I was capable of winning a world title but when it actually happened I couldn't believe it. "I just won;" I told myself multiple times, in awe that I actually did it. I knew I was prepared and well trained to compete against the world’s best, but at this level, everything is so close between you and your competition, so the fact that I was able to execute my plan and things came together perfectly to grab the rainbow jersey felt unreal. Before I even got off the velodrome, my phone was blowing up from friends and family back at home. On the podium, I was still starstruck by what had just happened. I don't think I let it sink in until after I got back to the hotel that night. I laid in bed awake for hours still pumping with adrenaline and replaying every detail from that race in my head.
What drew you to the Track Elite?
I was drawn to the Track Elite because of its excellent reputation on the track that proved to be true. It is very stiff for when I need to unleash the power on the velodrome, has an outstanding carbon design making it very aero, and has a great geometry that puts me in a low, fast, aggressive position.
What’s next for you? Short term and long term?
Next for me on the calendar is Road World Championships in Flanders, Belgium with team USA. After that, I will be living and training out of Girona for a month to finish off the season. In terms of next year, there are still a lot of unknowns at this point but definitely some exciting things in store on the road and track. Beyond that, I am setting some long-term goals to make it to Elite Track Worlds, Elite Road Worlds, and hopefully the Olympics someday. As of right now, I am taking everything day by day.