As one of the few women in professional motorcycle racing, Melissa Paris is used to competing against men. Recently, she was "in a battle" vying for fifth place in a race, when she found herself neck-in-neck with a man. When they finished the race, the guy approached her and said, "Hey, I don't ride bad for a guy pushing 40."
At the time, Paris was four months pregnant, but kept it a secret from everyone she raced with, because she didn't want them to question a pregnant person on a bike. "I so badly wanted to be like, Yeah, I'm not so bad for a pregnant girl, either," she says. "I had to bite my tongue and keep to myself."
Paris, 35, says she kept riding up until her leather gear no longer fit. "I was so worried about what people were going to say, and honestly I didn't want to have to hear about it," she says. "I talked to my midwives and explained what was going on — obviously I didn't want to take any unnecessary risks."
Of course, riding a motorcycle hundreds of miles around a track can be risky in itself, but Paris is more of an athlete than a daredevil. "People always say, you guys must be adrenaline junkies, but it doesn't really feel like that to me," Paris says. "You're so focused on what you're doing, and you're working hard at it, so it doesn't seem like a thrill-seeking situation to me."
Paris has been competing professionally for over a decade, and these days she mentors young women who are interested in road racing. There are only two women who compete at the national level, Paris and Jamie Astudillo, a 16-year-old from Pennsylvania, U.S. who is also featured in the mini-documentary series above, but Paris wants to change that.
Now the mom of a five-month-old baby, Paris spoke with Refinery29 about fear, motherhood, and why athletes have to find balance.
What's your training routine like?
"It’s a lot of core strength; that's what you use to help turn the bike. When you’re braking, that’s actually the hardest part, and a lot of that is upper body and shoulders. The g-force of breaking is so much, so you have to hold yourself up on the bike.
"But, the cool thing about it is it’s not like basketball or football where you really need a ton of brute strength. I think that's why women can compete with men in road racing, because it’s something that's achievable. If you just took your average tiny girl, she might struggle, but it’s nothing you can’t overcome with conditioning. The fastest guys in the world championship are all pretty small, they're not big guys. Being small is actually an advantage, because if you’re tiny you can go faster. An average-sized woman is actually the ideal size for it. So, it's kind of neat that way."
To me, I feel safer racing on a race track at triple-digit speeds than I probably do driving my car down the interstate in L.A.
So, why do you think there aren't more women in the sport?
"This is conjecture, but I feel like in your average family, if you have a dad who rides motorcycles, he'd be so excited to teach a son how to ride. But maybe people don’t think that so much when they have a daughter. You have a greater number of little boys learning how to ride at a younger age, but most of the women in our sport came to it like I did, when they were 19 or 20.
"There's a huge disadvantage. I’m trying to make up for all that experience, and years and years of riding, and it's hard. Whereas, if you saw more little girls getting introduced to riding when they're little tiny kids, then you’re going to see more of them excelling later in life when they get to the bigger champs."
Road racing looks really dangerous. But is it actually dangerous?
"Obviously there are risks involved when you’re going over 100 miles per hour, and we all have some injuries that we’ve acquired along the way. But it’s really calculated risk. To me, I feel safer racing on a race track at triple-digit speeds than I probably do driving my car down the interstate in L.A.
"There are so many safety measures in place: The race tracks are all made so if you crash there's nothing for you to hit, which is obviously the biggest danger. We wear really good protective leather gear from head to toe, and there's really advanced technology in our helmets. So, you’d be shocked at what we can get away with coming off a motorcycle at high speed — it's pretty safe. It's not uncommon to come off really fast and walk away without a scratch on you."
Has your relationship to racing changed since having a kid?
"My passion for it hasn’t changed at all. Maybe I’m a little more passionate about it, because I had to take a long break, so I really missed it. It’s definitely hard, but a lot of the things I’m bumping up against are things any woman going back to work struggles with. Time management has become so important, because I only have childcare so many hours during the day, plus I want to spend time with my little boy, because he’s awesome. I have to be a lot more diligent."
In the film, you say that, "the life of an athlete is selfish." Do you still feel that way?
"I do, I think. My husband also races, he’s a multi-time national champion, and he was the one who taught me that to be successful, you do have to be a little selfish. We developed our life around that, and we're both really understanding, and we're lucky that we get to do it together. But now it's like, there's this little tiny human that depends on me. You do lose a little bit less of that ability [to be selfish].
"When you have a baby, that's not an option. Your first job in life is to care for that little tiny human. Obviously, you have to put a little bit of that selfishness on the back burner. The flip side of that is, I could be staying home with my kid and not racing, but I’ve chosen to have some childcare so that I can continue to chase this thing I’m really passionate about. In some ways, yes, still very selfish. It's a bit of a balancing act."
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