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Miss Kittie’s lesson in leadership


Kittie Weston-Knauer, 55, is a model of persistence. She’s a lady not afraid to tackle challenges people tell her can’t be accomplished. Eleven years ago when she broke her neck and was told by the doctors that she couldn’t expect to walk again, she told them that she was going to walk out of the hospital. She was right.

“I’ve come so accustomed to hearing ‘no’ all my life that it doesn’t mean anything to me,” Weston-Knauer said. “It’s just another means of getting from point A to point B.”

When Weston-Knauer started racing BMX (bicycle motocross) bikes at the age of 42, when her 9-year-old son was racing, the National Bicycle League wasn’t prepared for her. They didn’t have a class for women racers, only for men. So, she rode with the men for a few years before her pleas were recognized.

“My contention was that there was a women’s class in the ABA (American Bicycle Association), the other sanctioning body, so we battled with the NBL,” she said. “It was my fourth or fifth year when we were able to get a women’s class.”

Weston-Knauer didn’t stop there. She wasn’t satisfied with having all the women competitors bunched together in an unorganized manner.

“I could have been the grandmother of some of those girls I was racing that first year,” she said. “We worked to get the classes broken down. The last class was 35 and over, and as of this year, it was broken down to 40 and over.”

Now, in the 40-and-over class, there’s still a 15-year age difference between Weston-Knauer and some of her competitors. That’s OK, though, because she “enjoys dusting the younger ones.”

Like the national organization, the city of Des Moines wasn’t ready at first for Weston-Knauer’s love for racing, so she educated city officials and brought a group together with the goal of building a track. The Des Moines Parks and Recreation Department got involved, along with county groups and the apprenticeship coordinators of the area building and trades unions, plus many volunteers. Two years later in 2001, the 1,350-foot downhill Des Moines Metro BMX Track opened in Ewing Park, giving her and others a place to practice their sport.

In addition to training for RAGBRAI by riding 150 miles per week, she puts in another four to five hours per week at the BMX track. Weston-Knauer, who is principal of Scavo Campus, an alternative school in Des Moines, said she has found that BMX racing helps her connect with her students. First of all, they can see that she’s still a kid at heart.

“The other thing that I find for me, working with the young adults here at the alternative school, is that this gives me an ‘inside’ with them,” she said. “It’s tough enough being able to talk to young adults, but when they see you do something like this, the ice is already broken.”

Even though some Scavo students may not be involved in the sport, there are a few things they draw from seeing her involvement in it. And, if they’ve ever been inside her office, which is filled with trophies and memorabilia, they know that she’s committed to it.

“I want them to know that although they may have great challenges in front of them, they still need to know how to have a good time in a positive way.”

“Another thing I want them (the students) to know is that this didn’t come easy,” Weston-Knauer said. “I started doing this when I was old. I have worked very hard at trying to get good at racing.”

Besides demonstrating how it is possible to make something from nothing, Weston-Knauer emphasizes the learning component of the sport.

“Every time I go out on the track, I learn,” she said. “You can learn in any realm that you choose, and I want my students to understand that we all need to be lifelong learners. Every day they come here, they’re going to learn something new, either about themselves, about life or what they are studying.”

At this stage in her life, Weston-Knauer says, the learning and the experiences are worth more than the good finishes, although she is currently ranked No. 10 in the nation in her class.

“People ask me, ‘How often do you win?’ I tell them, ‘Every time that I get on the bike, I win.’ The mere fact that I’ve gotten out there and ridden makes me feel good. As long as I enjoy what I’m doing, hey, I’m going to keep kicking at it.”

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