“I’VE ALWAYS RIDDEN A BIKE,” says professional downhill mountain biker and Spokane native Jaime Rees. She’s not exaggerating: Jaime has been racing bikes competitively since she was just past toddlerhood. Her parents, former motocross racers who gave up the sport after having two daughters, got their girls involved in BMX when they were very young. “I was on, and racing, a BMX bike at three years old,” Jaime says.
Jaime, whose day job is teaching at Rogers High School (ninth grade world history and eleventh grade American studies), is currently ranked second in USA Pro Women’s Cycling and 92nd in UCI World. (Seattle rider Jill Kintner is ranked #1 and fellow Spokane rider Chelsey Stevens is ranked #19). She’s entering her third year as a pro and will compete in her first World Cup event this June at the Mont-Sainte-Anne ski resort in Quebec.
Her remarkable success as a downhiller was foreshadowed by how well the self-described “super competitive” Jaime has done in sports since her BMX days, when she won the Washington State BMX championship titles in 1988, 1989 and 1990 and raced in nationals. Her past is full of major athletic accomplishments—including placing in State for track and field when she was a student at University High School, and winning the GSL in 2006 when she was head track coach at Shadle High School (she was named Coach of the Year for the GSL the same year).
Last season was a major one for Jaime. She and her husband, Jeff (her high school sweetheart and an expert-level downhiller) raced almost every weekend between April and August. “I actually lost count of how many races we did this year,” she says. The biggest highlight was when she placed third at the U.S. National Gravity Championships at Beech Mountain, North Carolina, where she found herself on the podium with Olympian, World Cup racer and fellow Washingtonian Jill Kintner, who took first. Kintner “is probably my favorite racer, my motivation,” says Jaime. “It’s really fun to race against her. She kicks my ass.”
As a kid, Jaime competed with Kintner in BMX. “I probably beat her when I was little,” she says. “I can’t say for sure. My dad likes to say that I did.”
In a sport where most of the competitors are male (“more and more women are getting into it, but it’s a pretty small field,” Jaime says), it’s not surprising that she sees Kintner as an inspiration. Not that Jaime has ever hesitated to compete against or train with men. “It’s what I’ve done my whole life. I’d almost rather be with the guys,” she says. “I really like hanging out with them, racing them…it’s really fun to beat them.”
At the same time, Jaime considers competing in male-dominated sports to be one of her greatest challenges. “I’ve had to work really hard to make myself a place in the middle of it,” she says.
She remembers back in her BMX days when her family traveled to Hawaii, where her grandparents lived. She was six or seven years old at the time. “We took my BMX bike one year because we knew there was a track there,” she says. “We were on the starting gate and all of the boys went to one side and left a big space. They didn’t want to be near me. They were older. They were quite appalled that there was a girl
“I beat them, and I became the talk of the town,” Jaime says. “They were all pretty impressed that a girl beat them at their home track.”
“She was used to racing boys, but not ones that wouldn’t even be by her at the starting gate,” remembers Jaime’s mother. Jaime says her parents, Mark and Cheryl Miller, have always been her biggest supporters and fans. “She was in her swimming suit and race pants…she had really long, really blond curly hair,” Cheryl says. “Cars were pulling over on the side of the road to watch.
“Two women pulled over and they were cheering and shouting ‘Woman power!’” Cheryl says, laughing. After it was over, “all of the little boys were around her, asking if she was going to come back the next Wednesday.”
Though decades have passed (Jaime will be 32 in April), preconceived notions of which sports women can or should succeed in create ongoing issues. “Sometimes it’s kind of hard to get recognition, being a pro woman. The girls aren’t recognized as much as the guys, and I think that’s too bad,” she says.
She doesn’t complain about it—that’s not Jaime’s style—but she knows the added difficulties women face within her sport. Women earn less than men do for wins—the pool of men competing is bigger, making men’s pot for winnings bigger, too. But the unfair part, Jaime says, is that “we still pay as much to race as they do. The entry fees don’t change.”
Women also receive fewer sponsorship opportunities. “Bike companies aren’t after women like they are men,” Jaime says. “If you notice the big bike teams, it’s rare to see a lady.” Downhill in general is not a highly-recognized sport, and with relatively few women in it, “when downhillers make the articles, it’s usually the guys.”
Since her BMX days, male competition has been Jaime’s normal. Today, she rides and trains with the downhill community that’s centered around local bike shops like The Bike Hub, and puts in lots of hours with Jeff.
She has strived to do “everything that the guys were doing,” a goal that has sharpened her skills and pushed her in the sport. It has also presented challenges. “When you ride with a group of guys, if you’re riding with someone new they think, ‘It’s a girl,’ and jump in front of you,” she says. “You get kind of slowed down by them…Although one of my biggest thrills is when a guy has to pull over on a trail to let me by. When they see me pass and I hear them say, ‘Dude, that was a chick,’ I smile!”
A helpful amount of ego gets involved when you’re training with the opposite sex. In high school, “I used to practice with the top runners on the boys JV [team] and it made me run faster, as it did [for] them,” Jaime says. “I think my coaches did that on purpose.”
She credits training with her husband as the reason she’s as fast as she is—plus “it makes him ride faster because he doesn’t want to get beat by me—we do have to go home together!
“I’ve been really lucky because the guys I ride with and the guys I ran with have all been really accepting of me,” Jaime says. When she ran track and cross country in high school, Jaime was bothered by the cliquishness she sometimes found among her female peers. “I had great girl teams but I liked hanging out with the guys’ teams a lot better,” she says. This preference presented its own tensions, Jaime’s mother notes. “The women or girls didn’t understand it—‘why is she over there?’” Cheryl says they’d wonder. But there was something about the added difficulty that she thinks Jaime needed. “It was harder, so it challenged her and made her faster. She just needed that challenge.”
Competitive downhill mountain biking is not for the faint of heart. The sport, which a writer for Outside magazine characterized as “rough and tumble,” has its participants hurtling down mountainsides as quickly as possible, making split-second decisions as they encounter roots, drop-offs and other obstacles. The more you can address those obstacles head-on and avoid “go-arounds,” the faster you finish—if you stay on your bike. Downhilling takes a lot of skill and a lot of guts.
Jaime’s got both. She is “very, very determined,” says Chris Andreasen of The Bike Hub, the Spokane Valley bike shop that’s one of Jaime’s sponsors, along with women’s clothing company Loeka (she’s also on a grassroots team for Yeti Cycles). “She understands the hard work and practice it takes to get to the level she’s at. She always has a good attitude. You never see her with a bad day on the bike.”
“Not a lot scares her, and I think that’s kind of obvious,” Cheryl says. “They go pretty fast and they jump over some incredible things and it’s sort of surprising. I’ve seen her on a BMX bike and do that, but to watch her do this downhill is kind of amazing to me.
“It worries me, because it’s a rough sport,” Cheryl adds—perhaps an ironic statement coming from a former motocross racer, but true nonetheless.
Though Jaime’s had some injuries—a broken metacarpal in her hand, a broken elbow on her 30th birthday, and lots of bruises—“I don’t crash all that often,” she says. “I do everything I can to stay on my bike. I stay pretty injury free. I’ve been pretty lucky.”
Jaime didn’t start downhill racing until she was in her late 20s. After her BMX years, she played softball and ran cross country and track. She went to University High School, where in 1998 she broke the two-mile record and went on to finish 5th in the two-mile and 3rd in the mile at State. She earned a track and cross country scholarship to WSU, where she attended for two years before transferring to the University of Montana.
“I’m a Cougar, my family’s a Cougar family, but WSU wasn’t a good fit for me,” Jaime says. “It was a lot of pressure. I didn’t get along with the coaches well. I’m competitive, but it was really competitive. I was getting kind of tired of so much stress, and I missed Jeff, too.” (Jeff ran cross country for the University of Montana.) “He made it easy to move to Montana. He told me about the places that he got to run, the people he was running with.
“Once I transferred to Montana we started riding bikes again. In Montana everybody commuted to school on bikes. Missoula is absolutely fabulous, and it made it easy to ride there,” Jaime says. She and Jeff are big skiers, and when Silver Mountain started a mountain bike program they gradually got into the sport. That’s when their bikes started growing bigger. Over a period of time “we went from cross country to 5-inch bikes,” she says, referring to the size of the shocks. Since both Jeff and Jaime (who met when they ran track and cross country in high school) have backgrounds in riding bikes, it became “the things we did together after college,” Jaime says.
In 2004, they got married and went to Whistler for their honeymoon so they could mountain bike. (Their trip culminated in Oregon, where Jaime raced on an all-woman’s team for the Hood to Coast running relay. Her first leg of the race was “four miles straight downhill, no variation. It pretty much blew out my hip. It was quite a honeymoon,” she says with a laugh. “Silly us—we always schedule everything around our little adventures.”)
Over the years their interest in the sport grew. In 2008 they started racing. From there, Jaime says, “I just kept getting better and better, so we just kept doing it.”
Aside from the success she has had, camaraderie is a big part of the appeal of downhill mountain biking. “We just became really close friends with a lot of the groups around here,” Jaime says. “It’s a pretty tight community. We’ve got teams from Wheel Sport, The Bike Hub, Bicycle Butler, yet we’re all friends, go to the same events, support the same things.” Compared to road bike and cross country bike riders, Jaime says downhillers are “more of a social community,” a bit more laid back. “We do like our beer,” she says, laughing.
Now that Jeff and Jaime are in their 30s, she says they consider themselves “veteran riders” in a sport where most of the “really top people” are in their 20s. The group they hang out with has a couple of people their age, but a lot who are way younger. Ultimately she thinks that age difference doesn’t really matter. At the same time, though, “I really wish we would have gotten into it earlier than we did,” Jaime says, noting that some of the younger downhillers are “maybe a little bit gutsier, willing to go big…when we’re in our 30s we’re more worried about injuries and what it would do to us.”
Having fun with the sport is key. “I love what I do so I take it serious in the sense that I like to be on top, but I also have a lot of fun with it, so it doesn’t control me,” she says. “I’m excited when I have a good day and I’m fine when I have a bad day.”
Any athlete, professional or otherwise, knows it can be tricky to balance a day job with a training and racing agenda. Jaime feels fortunate to have the opportunities a teacher’s schedule allows.
“I think I’m pretty lucky, being a teacher and riding a bike, because I do have good vacation. Having the summers off really helps,” she says, noting that training is more difficult for many of the others she rides with, whose work schedules aren’t quite as conducive to the sport. She gets off work at 3:00 and can ride in the afternoons (some downhill, but mostly road bikes and cross country bikes on weekdays). When she’s planning to ride after school she’ll bring her bike in to her classroom, where her students, who often ask about her weekend races, “sit and stare at it.”
In the evenings, it’s time to finish any work she brought home. “I usually wait until dark to plan my lessons and grade my papers,” she says. “And I do everything I can to get my work done before the weekend because most likely I won’t touch it until late Sunday night.”
When she talks about teaching and downhilling, Jaime makes it sound almost easy to do both, but it’s got to be tough. She says she’s off at 3:00, but then casually mentions a recent night when she was at work until 6:30, went home, took a 2-hour power nap, then started prepping for the next day, which kicked off with a 6:45 a.m. meeting at school. Anyone at all familiar with the realities of teaching knows it can actually be incredibly consuming of time and energy.
To Jaime, downhilling and teaching complement each other well.
“Teaching is actually really stressful,” she says. “They’re two very different things. Downhilling gives me the opportunity to de-stress, be out in the open air, away from the school setting. It’s a good balance…to have—the structure and the freedom.”
The World Cup race in June is easily the biggest highlight in the very full season ahead of Jaime. “Going to the World Cup race is a pretty big deal,” she says. “If I have any major accomplishment it’s doing that. It’s like going to the NCAA for track or the state championships in high school.”
Chris Andreasen of The Bike Hub echoes that sentiment. Now that Jaime’s competing on an international level, “there’s no higher place that she can go,” he says.
In addition to the World Cup, in the coming months she’ll race in the local All Gravity Series and will do the NW Cup Series in the Seattle area, as well as some B.C. Cup races, which she and Jeff have been traveling to more frequently. She’ll return to Monterey, California, for the Sea Otter Classic, where she placed fifth last year. She’ll probably go back to the U.S. Nationals in North Carolina. “I really liked racing that course,” she says. Jeff will travel to and compete in all of the same races, except the World Cup.
Most free weekends, Jaime and Jeff will head to Silver Mountain, her favorite place to ride. “If I could live there I would,” she says. “Being on a bike up in the mountains makes me the most happy.”
Silver has a “flowy” course that Jaime loves. You take the gondola up and, “on a casual day,” the ride down is 25-30 minutes.
In Spokane, Jeff and Jaime are often at Beacon Hill, known among local downhillers for fantastic, almost year-round riding. Here it’s a 12-15 minute hike up (carrying your bike) and a jumpy two-minute ride back down.
Jaime’s parents, her “biggest cheerleaders,” will go to all of the upcoming races they can drive to, even though spectators can’t see a whole lot. “I’m where I am today because of my mom and dad,” Jaime says. Though she’s had great coaches over the years, “my dad has always been and still is my best coach,” she says. “He to this day could tell you all my PRs from middle school, high school, college and as a coach!” Over the years, her family has been “very patient” in planning vacations around downhilling. Her parents often babysit Jeff and Jaime’s yellow lab, Kona (named, of course, for the bike brand), when they travel out of town.
Jaime’s success in the sport “doesn’t surprise me at all,” Cheryl says. “She’s just a very focused individual. She is determined and she has just always been that way. She sets her mind to something and she does it 125 percent. When she takes something on, she goes for the gusto.”
Earlier this spring, Cheryl went up to Beacon to see where Jeff and Jaime ride. She was impressed with the obstacles that Jaime’s already clearing. “I was like, really, you do this?” she says. There were also obstacles that Jaime has yet to conquer. True to form, she sees those as motivation for the future. Pointing out what she has not yet done, Cheryl says, Jaime simply told her, “I haven’t tackled that one yet, but I will.”