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Jacke Van Woerkom, founder and president of the Trail Angels, was honored in 2010 by MTBChick.com as one of the "Five Most Influential Women in SoCal Cycling."
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Women's cycling club founder packs energy

Women's cycling club thrives after lion attack


It's quiet at the end of a line of expo booths during a local mountain bike race as riders focus on getting ready for gun time.

But the Trail Angels tent is bristling with energy – although at this moment there's only one person in it.

"Hi, David!" Jacke Van Woerkom practically shouts, inviting me over.

We catch up, and by the time I leave I feel like I've won the race.

Van Woerkom carries with her a shining aura of positive vibes, excitement and infectious enthusiasm.

Perhaps it's no surprise that she's a certified life coach, expert cyclist and founder of one of the largest and most active women's mountain biking clubs in the nation.

You'd never know she's had her own ups and downs.

And you sure as heck would never believe she's a grandmother.

"And I saw my reflection in the snow covered hills

"Till the landslide brought me down."

Listen to one of Van Woerkom's favorite songs, "Landslide" by former Fleetwood Mac singer Stevie Nicks, and you get a glimpse of her journey.

Born in South Euclid, Ohio, she married her husband, Larry, 28 years ago. Together, the Lake Forest couple raised three sons, Randy, 25, Ryan, 22, and Mitch, 19.

But in the early '90s, Van Woerkom, now 48, discovered she had Graves disease. It's an autoimmune disease which causes the thyroid to become overactive. While there is no cure, it can be controlled with medication. For most, fatigue is common.

But Van Woerkom's not the type of person who would let something like Graves disease get in her way.

She looked at the top of Saddleback Mountain, a place she'd never been, and decided she would show Graves disease what's what.

Never having really cycled, she decided she would learn to mountain bike and pedal to the top of the 5,600-foot peak. She did that and more.

By the mid-1990s, she was training nearly every day. And on days when she wasn't training, she was racing. She also discovered a special talent.

Soon, she found herself driving all over California to race, going faster and faster, standing on podiums and winning trophies.

Then she realized something. Her passion had become an obsession.

"I took my love, I took it down

"Climbed a mountain and I turned around."

Van Woerkom decided to tone down the competition and bring more balance into her life.

An admitted adrenaline junkie, she gave up hard-core cross-country and downhill racing. Now she focuses on endurance challenges, albeit monster endurance challenges such as the Warrior Society's Vision Quest, a 56.5-mile distance with 11,000 feet of gain.

She also decided to pay her passion forward.

"Too much training makes Jacke a dull girl," she jokes. Turning serious she explains, "It's more fun to share the knowledge and watch others blossom."

She decided to found a club she called the Trail Angels. The goal was to help other women discover mountain biking as well as discover the confidence and camaraderie that goes with riding.

Why a women's club?

The point was to avoid the macho posturing that sometimes accompanies rides with men.

The Trail Angels' vision statement reads: "To grow and develop a group of women mountain biking enthusiasts and create a symphony of characters that come together and strengthen one another spiritually and physically."

It's mission statement: "To create an atmosphere of fun, encouragement, adventure and strength through mountain biking for women of all ages."

But on Jan. 8, 2004, something happened that changed the Trail Angels and everyone in it forever.

A 2-year-old mountain lion killed expert mountain biker Mark Reynolds in Whiting Ranch and hid the body in the brush. No one knew. Hours later, Trail Angel Anne Hjelle, 30, happened to be on the same trail. Hjelle was attacked by the same lion.

Her riding partner, Debi Nichols, arrived within minutes. Horrified, she jumped off her bike and pulled her bloody friend from the lion's jaws, saving Hjelle's life.

Several minutes later, other Trail Angels arrived at the scene; Van Woerkom was among them.

The tragedy could have ended the club. But instead it did just the opposite. It bound everyone together.

Overnight, membership doubled to more than 100 riders.

Then the next tragedy hit.

"But time makes you bolder

"Even children get older and I'm getting older too."

On Nov. 28, 2006, Trail Angel Christy Kirkwood wrapped up a ride with fellow member Debbie Brown. The pair was in the bicycle lane on Santiago Canyon Road. A car veered and killed Kirkwood, a Garden Grove school teacher.

Again, with the help of Van Woerkom, the Trail Angels banded together. And, again, membership doubled, this time to nearly 250 riders.

For most of us, the saying "what doesn't kill you, will make you stronger" is just a cliché. But for Van Woerkom and the Trail Angels you could say the saying is a code. Today, the club's logo includes the paw print of a mountain lion.

Last year MTBChick.com (mountain bike chick), honored Van Woerkom as one of the "Five Most Influential Women in SoCal Cycling." In the citation, MTBChick.com stated. "Jacke has the energy of an army of women."

Van Woerkom also rides horses, sky dives and surfs. But, always, she returns to the Trail Angles and her family for sustenance, never forgetting the lesson she learned in the '90s. Balance.

During a recent talk at REI, she discussed the importance of including one's self in the equation, along with career and family.

It's also is a theme she talks about on her website, changinggearscoach.com.

"If you find a place to release stress and relish in what you are passionate about for a few hours," she says, "you have so much more of yourself to give back to everyone."

"I've been afraid of changing."

The Stevie Nicks' lyric might have once applied to Van Woerkom.

But that was another life.

Now we all can learn following Van Woerkom wheel.

David Whiting's column appears News One Wednesdays, Fridays, Sundays; dwhiting@ocregister.com.

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