Courtesy of Daghan Perker, Trek
Paige Onweller ('11) came to Ferris State University as an indoor/outdoor track and field and cross country runner, pursuing a degree in Nuclear Medicine Technology. She took her degree and became a physician assistant, a career she had for eight years.
That was until a new passion came to the forefront.
"I started biking in 2020 and got recruited through something called Zwift, which is like E-sports," said Onweller about getting her start in cycling. "I was recruited by a pro team at that time because they saw my power numbers on that platform, and I started racing competitively online."
However, the curiosity of racing outside on a real bike took over.
"If I can learn how to ride my bike outside, I wonder if I can compete professionally," said the Lapeer native.
She eventually found a race that worked within her busy schedule between her weekends working in the E.R. and urgent care. Her first race was in 2021, where she placed fifth.
"I basically just started racing at a very high level very quickly and was recruited to other professional teams," Onweller said.
Now over the last few years, she has continued to train, improve and race all over the country resulting in some big wins and an even bigger life change.
"I ended up winning Big Sugar, and I placed ninth in the Life Time Grand Prix, which is one of the largest off road American circuits for the U.S. and that was exciting," Onweller said. "And I was able to land some better contracts to be able to race full-time."
Those contracts and sponsors, like her ones with Trek, SRAM, Abus, HED, WTB, Good Life PT and Sports Performance, and Voler, were the final push for the Ferris alumna to leave her job in the medical field to pursue cycling, professionally.
"To be honest, the decision was quite easy, at least initially," said Onweller, reflecting on leaving her job at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids. "And I think that's because I was burned out. I think a lot of us in medicine are, especially after COVID. It came down to, go work these grueling shifts in medicine, where you're not appreciated and you're burned out, or go ride bikes for a living for a couple of years."
Taking advantage of the time and opportunity she had felt right, especially when she has her degree and work experience to fall back when she decides to hang up the helmet and put away the bike. But that does not come without some doubt that trickles in every now and then, and that's why she wrote her 'future self' a letter to keep the goal in mind.
"I've had a lot of setbacks this season. Just a couple of bad mechanicals and races," said Onweller. "I'm pouring a lot into this, and then you get to a race and you end up with a flat tire or a mechanical problem that puts you on the side of the road and then basically like you're questioning it. I gave up my job to get a flat tire at mile 20 of a 100 mile race? So that's why that letter was important just to remind myself, this is a decision you made and here are the reasons why."
Regardless, the P.A. turned pro is trekking on. Onweller is the middle of her 2023 season with races in Tennessee, Michigan, Colorado and more. She hopes to continue to set the example of following your dreams and paving the way for other women cyclists.
"Whether it's quitting their day job and riding bikes, or pursuing pursuing professional sports, or any other life change, I think you just have to follow your gut and you have to have an understanding of what drives you personally," Onweller added. "If there's something that you're passionate about and you have that opportunity, you have to ask yourself, in 20 years, will I regret turning this down? And that's what I asked myself."
"I'm trying to inspire other people," Onweller said. "You can ride bikes at a very high level, even if you start in your 30's. I’m trying to help close the gender disparity and get more females on bikes."
Discipline is the name of the game at the level she competes at now. She credits her experience at Ferris as the building blocks to her competitive drive and dedication to her craft.
"My time at Ferris was instrumental because I was not only pursuing a fairly difficult degree, I was also a three season athlete," Onweller said. "I had to be very regimented because I had a grueling schedule between my internship and races, and so that time that Ferris taught me, you can do this."