There are no chartered flights, fancy hotels, or catered meals for Avah Cherry and her University of Tennessee club cycling teammates when they travel to competitions. They drive their own cars, sleep in tents, and eat ramen noodles.
Each Friday in the fall after she finished classes, Cherry would grab her mountain bike, a bag of clothes, and her homework to make a four-hour trip to a race location in the South. Any time she was not at the wheel driving, the sophomore aerospace engineering major was in the passenger seat studying.
Once Cherry and her teammates arrived, they would pitch their tents in the dirt and try to get some sleep before the morning races began. After nearly two days of competing, they would pack up on Sunday afternoon and drive back to Knoxville in time for classes on Monday morning.
It’s not a typical weekend routine for many college kids, yet alone engineering majors. But for Cherry, it’s an exhausting whirlwind of joy. She finds the most peace when she is on her bike in nature.
“It’s the thing I truly love doing the most,” Cherry said. “We’re not getting paid to do compete for the club team. We’re doing it because it is fun. If it’s not fun, what are you doing?”
Cherry’s cheery outlook, talent, and skill resulted in a milestone achievement last fall when she was crowned a national champion.
Cherry won the all-around title at the 2023 USA Cycling Collegiate Mountain Bike National Championships last October at Ride Rock Creek in Zirconia, North Carolina. Cherry finished first in the women’s club category for Individual Omnium, in which a rider’s three best placings over four events determines the winner. Cherry won the dual slalom and placed second in cross country, short track, and downhill.
Along with taking home a gold medal, Cherry was awarded a coveted Stars and Stripes jersey.
“My whole life was building up to that point. It was my dream to get one of those jerseys with the zipper,” Cherry said. “It just made the whole weekend even more amazing.”
Putting UT in the cycling spotlight
Although UT gets a lot of attention for its success in traditional sports like football, basketball, baseball/softball, and volleyball, it’s not the same for club teams. Cherry hopes her win can change some of the perception.
As she traversed the courses at nationals, she often heard “Go Vols!” from several spectators.
“It was cool to put UT on the map for cycling, because we have some of the most awesome mountain bike trials around,” Cherry said. “We have 50 miles of trails you can ride from campus. That’s almost unheard of in other places. It felt good to show we have good riders, awesome trails, and all the ingredients to be quality cycling school. It felt good to try and advocate for UT as a cycling destination.”
Cherry, a Knoxville native who graduated from West High, began riding bikes in the seventh grade with her dad, Chris, an associate department head of undergraduate studies and professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UT.
She eventually joined Appalachian Youth Cycling (AYC) and competed for the program in middle and high school. Cherry could have attended a liberal arts school with a fully funded cycling team, but she wanted to pursue aerospace engineering.
“It wasn’t something I was willing to compromise just to go to one of those schools that would have a whole lot of support,” Cherry said. “I am going to school because I want an education. I am not going to school to just ride like some other people do.”
Mountain biking takes a combination of physical strength and mental acuity. Cherry studies the course before races to determine the best way to approach each turn and jump for maximum efficiency while not crashing. She expertly maneuvers her bike around tree roots and rocks at high speeds along dirt trails.
Chris Cherry takes great pride in all his daughter has accomplished in the sport and how much growth she’s experienced.
“The fun part is to see her become a really technically good bike rider over the last two or three years,” he said. “She is finding that special place of knowing when take risks and still be smart in her riding approach. I can see her engineering mind processing and really making good decisions in terms of how she approaches riding and how she approaches racing.”
Early interest in engineering
Even before she discovered her affinity for cycling, Cherry knew she wanted to study engineering. She wasn’t just following in her father’s footsteps; she was pursuing a passion that burned inside.
“I love science, I love math, and I love building things. I just always loved experimenting with stuff,” she said. “I was obsessed with space and rockets. I wanted to be an astronaut when I was in elementary school, so aerospace engineering was just a good combination of all those things my love for space, love for exploration, and love for physics.”
Cherry recently worked on a drone project with Shuai Li, an assistant professor in CEE. Li leads the UT portion of a $1.8 million National Science Foundation project called Future AI and Robotics for Women in Smart Engineering (FAIR4WISE).
Cherry joined the team last year and helped design and assemble a new type of drone that can rotate in the air. She was the only undergraduate student working directly with a PhD student.
“I was very impressed with how she was balancing a lot of work with her mechanical studies and research project and doing the bike competitions. That is really hard to do,” Li said. “But she has really good time management skills that some students may not have and that is very important.”
Cherry admits to feeling some anxiety when she first arrived at UT and tried to combine her racing schedule with her studies. She also didn’t want to miss out on any social gatherings with her friends. But she realized it was OK to take breaks and not always be “as productive as possible,” for her mental well-being.
“She had to basically throw away all her typical over prep for races and just really have fun and do her best,” her father said. “To me, that moment when she let her hair down a little bit and relaxed about prep for really big races helped her mentally.”
Giving back to help encourage others
Cherry has never been afraid to tackle big challenges or stand out in a crowd. Much like engineering, cycling has largely been a male-dominated industry. Cherry was the only female on her mountain bike team for most of her youth.
But the tides are shifting, and Cherry wants to be at the forefront of change. She is now a coach at AYC and is advocating for more diversity on the trails.
“I am trying to get more girls on the team and inspire that love of cycling for more and more people,” Cherry said. “I am really trying to focus on girls, but not excluding guys. I want everyone to ride together-dads with daughters, brothers with sisters-I want to make it more inclusive.”
Cherry plans to serve an internship this summer in Huntsville, Alabama, where numerous aerospace companies are located. She has already scouted the local trails to make sure she can ride as much as possible. She wants to be ready for the 2024 fall season, when she will defend her Individual Omnium titles at the South Eastern Collegiate Cycling Conference (SECCC) regional competition and the national championships.
Although Cherry wants to add more gold medals and Star and Stripes jerseys to her collection, she has a more overarching objective in mind.
“First and foremost, have fun. I have to keep reminding myself at this point,” she said. “I want to keep growing and making progress, but I don’t feel like I have to reach some goal. I’m not going to feel like a failure in cycling if I continue to have fun.”
Rhiannon Potkey (865-974-0683, firstname.lastname@example.org)