This story was originally published on REI Co-Op Journal in January, 2019. See it here.
When Anita Naidu discovered gravity sports at the age of 8, everything changed. Her whole life she’d been abiding by the rules of a traditional Eastern Indian culture—rules she says were not supportive of women who wanted to chase the unorthodox.
One memory stands out from her childhood. Sitting in the backseat of the car while her parents drove her home from dance practice in Montreal, Naidu gazed out the window and saw a group of skateboarders riding around on speed bumps in a parking lot. She thought the sport looked rebellious and she wanted to do it.
Around the same time, she stumbled upon a book in the library: “Here She Is, Ms. Teeny-Wonderful!” by Martyn Godfrey, which follows a young girl who wins a beauty pageant by jumping over garbage cans on her BMX bike.
The book and the skateboarders inspired Naidu to get a bike of her own. It was used and had no brakes, but she took it to the top of a hill and rode down as fast as she could.
“I almost got hit by a car, but I was so inspired [to create] my own universe that no one could dictate but me,” said Naidu. “I grew up [in a] traditional Eastern culture. This was the first time I experienced freedom on my own terms.”
Naidu, now 34, makes her living as a freeride mountain bike coach, humanitarian and engineer. Men’s Journal just named her one of the World’s Most Adventurous Women in its January 2019 issue, and Naidu will be featured in a documentary film, “Project Wild Women,” which tells the story of a handful of women of Indian descent who are immersed in action and gravity sports. Aside from biking, Naidu is an award-winning humanitarian and holds master’s degrees in environmental and chemical engineering. She’s also an aspiring astronaut. (In 2016, she qualified and participated in the astronaut recruitment process. So yes, she’s well on her way to going into space.)
Throughout her 13-year-long career as a professional mountain biker and coach, Naidu has strived to make mountain biking, especially freeride, accessible to all people from all backgrounds. And she has many more goals and ambitions to come. “We, especially women, must allow ourselves to be defined by the audacity of our goals,” said Naidu.
Naidu started with a broken bike. Not long after, she learned how to do tricks on her mountain bike and discovered the world of freeriding, as well as skateboarding, snowboarding, rock climbing and surfing. She chose mountain biking to pursue professionally. “I chose freeride mountain biking because it was where the most bro culture was. It was where the most change needed to occur,” said Naidu. “There’s a moment when you look around and you go, ‘OK, someone needs to do something,’ and then you realize that somebody is you.”
Naidu competed in the first-ever women’s slopestyle competition at Crankworx in Whistler, British Columbia, in 2007. She didn’t win, but she was determined to keep going.
“In the beginning, it was about showing up,” said Naidu. “In order to be heard, in order to have a voice, you have to be seen.” Naidu chose slalom and slopestyle as her disciplines and soon she was standing on podiums and gaining sponsorships.
“I never ran into a single Indian person in those years who said ‘Good for you, you need to pursue this,’” Naidu said. “I understood quite young that if you want a cultural shift, you have to go first. … I started biking because it was fun, but I continued because it was this chance to bridge the gap between these different worlds.”
Mountain biking has never been Naidu’s whole world. In college she pursued engineering for the same reasons she became a biker, because there weren’t a whole lot of people in the field who looked like her.
In 2004, she joined Engineers Without Borders (EWB) and realized how significantly technology could impact positive change. Soon, she found herself in Lebanon at the start of the Syrian war working with refugees. This led her to develop an app called Services Advisor, which has helped more than three million refugees in Jordan and Turkey find resources.
She says her work as an engineer and with refugees gives her a different perspective toward gravity sports. “It was important to me to show mountain people that they could use their skills and talents to address some of the world’s deepest needs,” she said.
In 2009, Naidu turned her biking focus to coaching. She developed her own physical, mental and psychological techniques and methods, which proved to be very successful in getting riders to progress rapidly. She believes that one of the most important things when it comes to being a good coach is understanding the psychology of fear. “You have to understand how to look fear in the eye and how you’re going to absorb it in order to get your job done,” said Naidu.
Naidu also values good listening.
“It’s not talking at people, but it’s understanding what they are telling you about what’s holding them back,” she said.
Her work with fear and ability to listen to her athletes helped propel her to become one of the most in-demand freeride mountain bike coaches in the world. This year, she will teach more than 20 clinics in North America in which she’ll coach a spectrum of riders, from beginners to elite racers.
“She finds out what works for you and how to explain it so you will understand,” said Sarah Pineo, a friend and student of Naidu’s. “And don’t let how tiny she is fool you. When she turns on hard-ass coach mode, it can be intimidating. I still have flashbacks to her yelling, ‘Switch! Switch! Switch! Faster! Faster!’ at me while I was learning the body positioning for cornering. She is lovely and kind but also a force of nature.”
Once Naidu mastered the art of coaching, she started giving her knowledge away for free.
Naidu noticed that good coaching was typically only available in communities that were wealthy, such as resort communities with well-developed trail systems. “Being a humanitarian, I was aware that if you really want to make an impact and start a movement, you have to be willing to go where others won’t and do what others won’t,” said Naidu. “I started traveling to communities in the middle of nowhere where biking, particularly women’s biking, hadn’t been invested in, and I offered free or low-cost high-performance skills coaching at every level.”
Out of all the clinics Naidu teaches, she believes it’s the weekend-long, all-women’s mountain bike festivals that create the most positive change. These events combine outdoor culture with moral adventure. Women from all backgrounds learn hard skills—and Naidu doesn’t hold back. By the end, beginner riders know how to bunny hop and do wheelies. Intermediate riders know how to send jumps, and expert riders know how to soar over gaps. This year, she’s opening them up to young girls and the hearing impaired, and expanding internationally to those traditional Eastern cultures she grew up in. She will soon be offering clinics and festivals in Africa, the Middle East and India.
By coaching women through technical skills, Naidu says they often start to foster a sense of camaraderie with each other. At night, she opens up the conversation to give participants a chance to share something about themselves and their world views. Naidu also hosts moderated round-table conversations on current issues facing society. Her focus is always on helping people learn how to address some of the world’s deepest needs with the skills they already have.
“I want to show people they can be part of something bigger than themselves,” said Naidu. “Sure, they’re bikers, but they are humans first and I believe that humans have a desire to contribute in a meaningful way.”
During these social impact sessions, Naidu mostly steps back and lets the women have the floor. “We live in a time when people are so afraid to be controversial because of popularity on social media,” said Naidu. “People are scared to do things that will affect their likability because we’ve given enormous and useless credibility to popularity in artificial social circles. I think it’s extremely important to be controversial.”
Naidu believes deeply in the power of these discussions. She knows that the 60 or 70 women who show up to these sessions are going to influence their families, sons and daughters, husbands and partners, and peers.
“That’s when real change starts to happen,” said Naidu.