App State professors help young people through mountain biking


Courtesy of Kyle Kimball

The Watauga County National Interscholastic Cycling Association team, founded in 2016, allows local kids to benefit from being part of a cycling team. Thirty five kids are currently on the team. “Through NICA, athletes can learn how to work hard for a goal and build skills to reach that goal,” first-year NICA coach Melissa Weddell said.

Dan Davidson, Former Sports Editor

Several members of the App State community volunteer their time outside of work to help young people grow as individuals and athletes through the National Interscholastic Cycling Association. 

“App has always been very closely connected to and invested in the local Boone community,” member of Student Affairs at App State and team director Jeff Cathey said. “Several students, faculty and staff who are volunteering as coaches for local youth are another manifestation of that tradition.”

In 2008, NICA was founded upon the vision of empowering youth to be part of a thriving and engaged cycling community. The North Carolina NICA League started in 2015 and Watauga County started its team one year later. At its core, NICA develops interscholastic mountain biking programs for student athletes across the United States.

“Cycling provides a community of people that learn to ride with, on your good and bad days,” recreation management department chair at App State and first-year NICA coach Melissa Weddell said. “Learning to support one another teaches resiliency, a critical skill to navigating everyday life. Through NICA, athletes can learn how to work hard for a goal and build skills to reach that goal.”

NICA is offered specifically to middle and high school students. Over the past year, the Watauga NICA program has grown from 29 student athletes to 35, in spite of the ongoing pandemic. In a sport that continues to be male-dominated, the team is proud that 15 of their 35 student athletes are females. 

“When I started mountain biking in the ‘90s, it was predominantly a male activity,” Weddell said. “While there is still much work to do, there have been women-specific programs aimed at changing this, NICA being one.”

This season, the team’s activities have been altered entirely by the COVID-19 pandemic. The team has been divided into pods of up to nine student athletes, and those pods practice two days per week, separate from the rest of the team. Also, the entire NICA race series was canceled for the year. 

“This year, there are no races, which is a bummer because the race atmosphere is a really cool part of NICA,” second-year coach and App State junior Kenzie Schmidt said. “Being at every race, everyone’s so supportive and everyone’s there to have a good time. Everyone there is just stoked that people are riding bikes.”

The mission of NICA is not to build elite cyclers, but rather to build strong minds, bodies, characters, and communities through cycling. The organization uses the sport of cycling as a vehicle to teach young students and help them grow as individuals. 

“Student athletes are able to challenge themselves to develop skills and overcome fears in a supportive environment,” Cathey said. “They also benefit from the attention and investment they receive from other adults who are not immediate family or a teacher.”

Not only does NICA teach valuable life lessons to young kids, but it promotes inclusivity and diversity. In a historically male-dominated sport, NICA offers young girls the opportunity to participate in cycling in a welcoming environment. 

“Often, girls/women are unaware of opportunities, especially outdoors, or don’t think they belong since they don’t see others like them participating,” Weddell said. “Through many grassroots efforts, we are working to change this and feel NICA has been especially successful in our region. I’m grateful to have so many women coaches leading the way.”

Ten of the team’s 22 volunteer coaches are part of the App State community. These individuals, both professors and students, volunteer their limited time outside of work and school to teach and spend time with local kids on bikes.

“The community of folks from Appalachian State University that volunteer for NICA have a common thread of stewardship, not only for the development of athletes but also for the love of the outdoors,” Weddell said. “Sharing our love of recreating outdoors with the next generation is extremely rewarding.”

NICA provides a wide range of benefits for coaches and athletes alike. From physical skills and growth to a sense of community and belonging, all who get involved with the program seem to gain something. 

“As a member of the student affairs team here at Appalachian, I see first hand the critical importance of developing healthy tools for management of physical, mental and emotional health. Also, the importance of developing self confidence and resilience,” Cathey said. “I believe that mountain biking brings opportunity to develop all of those things in positive ways before youth leave home for college.”

As the team enters the back half of its season, the promise of NICA’s impact on the Watauga community’s young people continues to shine bright into the future. 

“My hope for NICA in Watauga is that we can find ways to offer opportunities for youth that cannot afford a bike or transportation,” Weddell said. “In addition, finding ways to include marginalized youth is critical to being more inclusive.”