For many members of the Indiana University Bloomington community, the Little 500 race weekend comes and goes as quickly as any other holiday. But for the students who ride in the race or plan the event as members of the IU Student Foundation, the impact of Little 500 lasts a lifetime.
Meet four IU Bloomington alumni whose lives were changed by their participation in the storied bicycle race.
Leading the pack
For most of her high school career, current Little 500 race director Andrea Balzano was determined not to attend IU. Most of her classmates were headed to Bloomington, and she wasn't interested in following the crowd.
One visit to the campus during her senior year of high school changed everything, and she enrolled in the fall of 2010 as a journalism student living in the Collins Living Learning Center. While Balzano enjoyed the beautiful campus and did well in her courses, she found it challenging to find her place outside the classroom. But after attending a callout meeting for a reinstated Collins' women's Little 500 team, Balzano decided that competing in the race could be the perfect opportunity to find her home on campus.
She and her teammates, none of whom had bikes, quickly began training on stationary bikes at the Wildermuth Intramural Center at 6 a.m. to avoid crowds. They recruited former Cutter Zachary Lusk as their coach and started building a team that would become more like family.
"The friendships that you build on the track or as a volunteer create a bond like no other," Balzano said. "Once you've been a part of it, it just sticks with you, and it's really hard to just walk away once you graduate."
And Balzano didn't want to walk away when she graduated. Although she accepted an offer from Teach for America to teach high school English in South Dakota after graduation, she kept a close eye on ways to turn her passion for Little 500 into her profession.
"I had met Jordan Bailey, who was previously race director, and I immediately thought his job seemed amazing and pretty much decided that I wanted to have that job someday," Balzano said.
Every spring she checked the IU Foundation's site for job postings until she finally saw an opening in 2016 -- which, coincidentally, was posted just as her time with Teach for America was ending. The leadership skills she'd gained as a Little 500 rider and member of the Riders Council coupled with the experience she'd gained working with students landed Balzano her dream job.
As she prepares for her second Little 500 as race director, Balzano has come to love mentoring students as the advisor for the Riders Council and two subcommittees of the Steering Committee as much as she loves directing the race.
"Watching these students accomplish their goals both on and off the track can be so exciting," she said. "It's made me realize how much I love working in student leadership development and that it will continue to be my career for a long time."
Eric Young was the United States National Criterium champion in 2011 and 2013. He's been in leading packs in professional cycling championships from Korea to Croatia and is currently one of the fastest sprinters in North America. But before Young traveled the world to win professional cycling titles, he was on three winning teams at Bill Armstrong Stadium.
Young joined the Cutters Little 500 team shortly after starting classes at IU in 2007. While he participated in track and field and soccer in high school, he had no experience with bike racing. By the time Young graduated, he had three Little 500 championships under his belt and a bond with his team that he'd never forget.
"Little 5 is a completely unique event, both in the collegiate world and the cycling world," Young said. "It gives riders something equally fun and challenging to pour themselves into for four years. Plus, riding in 20 degree weather in Southern Indiana in December allows you to create some of the best friendships possible."
While he was at IU, Young began racing outside of Little 500, working his way through the USA Cycling levels and eventually becoming a Category 1 cyclist. During his senior year, he was contacted by a continental professional team and joined after graduation and his final Little 500 race.
"Little 5 and the Cutters taught me the basics of cycling," Young said. "I learned how to ride together in a group, how to train consistently, how to enjoy time out on the roads in the beautiful countryside outside Bloomington and how to focus on the basics and improve myself as a cyclist. These are still things that define a day in the life of a pro cyclist."
"I would not have the life I have today if it were not for the Little 500," he said. "I'm thankful every day for the experiences I had in college, the friends I made and the memories I have thanks to Little 500."
Gunning for love
When Margaret Wise and Matt LaSuer joined the IU Foundation's Steering Committee, they knew they would be planning the Little 500 Spring Series events and race. They didn't know that soon they'd be planning their future together.
The two followed similar paths to participation with the Student Foundation. Wise, a member of Kappa Alpha Theta, was recruited by seniors in her sorority, and LaSuer joined thanks to the influence of mentors in his fraternity, Phi Gamma Delta. Neither was aware of the work the Steering Committee did for the race, but both became determined to be members as soon as they found out.
"I immediately loved the story of the Student Foundation's history and the unique work we pursued on a weekly basis, and I knew it would be something I would continue to be a part of throughout my time in Bloomington," LaSuer said.
To become a member of the Steering Committee, students must first be a Student Foundation "gunner" during spring of their junior year. Gunners are evaluated based on their performance during the Little 500 season, and the most qualified candidates are chosen for the Steering Committee.
Wise and LaSuer met during their gunning semester, and though they were competing for a spot on the Steering Committee, they were shy in each other's presence. Luckily, they both earned a spot on the Steering Committee for their senior year and grew closer. They started officially dating during a Steering Committee retreat a few weeks after they graduated.
Last year -- just like every year since they graduated -- Wise and LaSuer returned to Bloomington for Little 500 weekend. They caught up with friends, embraced the excitement of the event, then took a long walk around campus before leaving that Sunday. The two stopped for a rest at the Rose Well House, one of Wise's favorite spots on campus, and when she got up to leave, LaSuer got down on one knee and asked her to marry him.
When she said yes, they heard screams of congratulations coming from Dunn Woods. A few of their friends from the Steering Committee had also been out for a campus stroll and happened to witness the whole proposal. Their fellow Steering Committee members will be invited to Wise and LaSuer's October 2018 wedding, and two will serve in their wedding party. Some have even threatened to sport their Steering Committee suits to the ceremony.
"We find ourselves thanking the IU Student Foundation regularly for the experience and skills learned during our time on Steering Committee," Wise said. "We also are so thankful for the IUSF for being a place to connect with other students who were interested in accomplishing the same goals. Not only did we find each other, but we also made lifelong friendships with other Steering Committee members."