When you first meet Linda, you will be impressed by her statuesque height and infectiously positive attitude. Subsequently, Linda’s avid love of good coffee will quickly become apparent. But watch a little more closely, and you will notice Linda’s skill at flipping her water bottle while cycling at speed — a seemingly small, but very challenging skill that belies a hint of her colorful and multi-talented background not as a cyclist… but as a professional basketball player who escaped a war torn country.
For this Rider Spotlight, we sat down with Linda Nalis to learn a bit more about her. Linda was born and raised in Bosnia and subsequently emigrated to the United States. The following responses were lightly edited for clarity.
Q: When and how did you take up cycling? Did you ride much as a kid growing up in Bosnia?
I started riding when I was 5-6 years old. I rode a bike a lot as a kid growing up.
It was how we transported ourselves everywhere in town – to the gym, lake, stadium, and to goof around. I rode with my boyfriend while holding hands in third grade. Also, I was on a bike police patrol, and we practiced going around the cones, jumping curbs, and of course stopping at the stop light. I even got into some big trouble when I rode with my friends to another town about 12 miles away and far away from home, and that was a BIG no. Riding on narrow streets with heavy two-way traffic was not very safe. There were no official bike mechanics in town so an older friend would fix bikes for all of us on the block. One time we welded a steering wheel in the place of handlebars and had a blast riding through town. It was a hit.
Q: Tell me about your background as an Olympic-caliber basketball player.
I played basketball professionally since my junior year in high school and throughout the college, practicing twice a day and attending classes in between. I was born in and grew up in Bosnia and played for, at the time, the well-known ‘Bosna’ team in Sarajevo. After the war in Bosnia broke out in 1992, I moved to Croatia and continued to play with a team called ‘Split’ in the city of Split. We won two National Championships in a row, and I had a pretty good time playing and living in Split. That’s where I met my husband, Zlatko.
When Bosnia was fighting for independence in 1992, their women’s basketball team was able to compete at the Olympic games as a separate nation. I was selected to be part of that team. The war in Bosnia was in full swing at the time so to practice all the players had to get out of the war zone. Luckily, I was out of Sarajevo before the war turned into a madhouse, but most of my friends were still in the city. With the help of the Bosnian army and the Olympic committee, we (the players) and the coaches were able to get out of Sarajevo, and we were stationed in Italy.
Italy was quite a treat after previously living in the dark, with no electricity, no heat, very little food, and in constant danger of being shot. Now we had warm croissants in the morning, played basketball all day, swam in a pool, ate lots of pasta, fish, and delicious pizzas, and drank coca-cola, a luxury drink back in the war zone. But it was a slow transition back to a sane world. We all would duck or jerk when someone would close the door too loudly, and we would hit the ground at the sound of a loud bang or celebratory fireworks. Throughout, we would laugh at ourselves and try to move on.
The 1992 Olympic Games were held in Spain, but when the departure time approached to head to the Games, I decided not to go. This is the greatest regret of mine. Why did I decide not to go? The war again. By this time, the war was raging; there were great battles and ethnic “cleansings” happening between Muslims and Croats. I was a Croat from Bosnia, but now the new Bosnia was a Muslim country. How could I go to the Games and play for a Muslim nation when I had lived and played in Croatia? My family felt that I would be in danger or that they would be in danger too if I went to the Olympics with the Bosnia team. We had already had a bomb set up at our house in Bosnia. But that is another story.
Anyway, at the last minute, I pulled out of the Olympic Team and the chance to experience the Olympics.
Q: Tell me about your work as a Physical Education (P.E.) teacher.
Fast forward 20 years and I am a PE teacher at a Jewish elementary school. Being a PE teacher is super fun for me. I love teaching sports and being active with the kids. The work environment is very dynamic, and I find working with kids more fun than working with the adults. So far so good.
Q: Is cycling popular in your home country?
Not so much.
Q: What attracted you to join Spokeswomen Racing?
Smaller team and service opportunity with Jubilee.
Q: How do you fit cycling into your life?
Cycling is a significant part of my everyday life. I commute and run errands on my bike.
Q: How do you balance cycling with being a mom?
As a PE teacher, my days are not long like those of most people, and I have plenty of time. Having one child makes a difference. Now my daughter is almost 18.
Q: What are your preferred cycling disciplines and why?
I enjoy cyclocross the most. I love the variety of skills needed but not the mud as much. I also like road cycling because I like to challenge myself and compete with others. However, there is a whole lot of tactics that I am just beginning to understand. But I know I enjoy long, hard, and brutal workouts, which pretty much represents road cycling.
Q: What are your current cycling goals?
Heal my foot tendonitis:)
Get back in shape for the cyclocross season.
Q: Do you have any other interesting facts?
I love to play guitar as my downtime. And make bike jewelry 🙂
Editor’s Note: Linda is known to carry a mug of coffee on long bike rides in lieu of water. Oh, and she appreciates beer hand-ups at the cyclocross races. Just please don’t hand her Gatorade or some other electrolyte drink, or she might throw it back at you in disappointment. Many thanks to Linda for sharing so much about herself.