BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — The sun was shining. Techno beats and upbeat country played over the loudspeakers. Cyclists on red-and-white Schwinn bikes circled the track, pulling dust into the air.
It was Tuesday — just days before the Women's Little 500 race and one of the last practices. From a pit on the north side of Indiana University's Bill Armstrong Stadium, a first-year team had just two of its four riders.
The other half of the team — sisters — was miles away in an Indianapolis hospital, one in critical condition and the other with their parents at her bedside.
"Doing good, girl," Rachael Dickerson called as Chelsie Hafler — the team's only veteran rider — passed the pit.
On a track of cyclists wearing dark-colored helmets, they were the ones with an embellished emblem of nurses: glittery red crosses.
They were the IU Nursing team.
They joined to be noticed.
"Who doesn't know Little 5?" Dickerson thought.
With a team from the IU School of Nursing, they could meet students from the rest of campus.
Students know there is a nursing school, Dickerson told The Herald-Times (http://bit.ly/1rt2CTL ), but they don't know nursing students. If the nursing students had a Little 500 team, other students and cyclists would meet their nursing classmates in the stands and the cyclists with the glittery red crosses on the track.
Then, the accident happened.
It was one of the worst in recent memory, sending IU Nursing cyclist Lauren Gill, 23, to IU Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis in critical condition last Thursday. This Thursday, she was upgraded to fair condition.
Suddenly, media from across the state were reporting about the rookie team, and the members were warned there were more reporters to follow.
But pulling out of Friday's race was not an option.
"You just have to do it for yourself and Lauren," Dickerson said.
Gill was the third person to join the team.
Dickerson searched for teammates, but got the same answers: too much to juggle with nursing school, or it'd be too nerve-wracking in front of the crowd.
With less than a week to enter a team and only herself and Hafler committed, Dickerson posted a call-out on Facebook for two more riders. Gill, from Granger, approached Dickerson and asked to join. Her sister, Kelsey, a junior, became the fourth member on the team of seniors.
Except for Hafler, who rode once for Air Force, all of them were new to Little 500. Gill was very motivated, even above her already highly motivated nursing student peers, Dickerson said.
Gill watched race film. Gill was excited and passionate. Gill gave 100 percent, even when she was tired.
And it was Gill who was the first on the track for last Thursday's practice race.
Not long into the race, the rider in front of Gill slowed, causing her back wheel to touch the front wheel of Gill's bike. Gill lost control and went over the handlebars, hitting her head and shoulders on the track. Although she was wearing a helmet, the accident was serious enough for her to be airlifted to an Indianapolis hospital, the extent of her injuries unknown.
The way she fell made this accident very serious, said Mark Land, IU spokesman. He said most bike wrecks result in scrapes, bruises and broken bones, not this.
Suddenly, Gill and the IU Nursing team were at the front of everyone's mind.
But even before, the team was making its mark.
During Rookie Week training, Dickerson overheard other riders saying they thought it was cool nursing students had a team despite their busy academic schedules.
Tom Schwoegler, in his 47th year as a Little 500 coach and coach of Chi Omega, also noticed the team.
"They are a pretty inspirational group of women," he said.
With all the demands on their time as nursing students, they still decided to commit to Little 500, Schwoegler said.
And outside of varsity sports, he said, riding in the race is "the most demanding athletic thing you can do at this university."
When qualifications came, the rookies on the nursing team had only been on the track five times, due to bad weather.
The teammates made the best of it. They added the glittery red crosses to their helmets to stand out and hoped to place 33rd — the last place to advance.
"We were hoping for 33rd, so 27th, that was a huge deal for us," Dickerson said. "It was all adrenaline."
The team trained around 12-hour clinicals, full class schedules and unforgiving weather. Team members lived the slogan on their team's T-shirts: Nurse, Study, Cycle.
But the months of work were halted by the accident and seeing Gill in the hospital on a ventilator.
"We are all very close, so seeing her in that condition took a toll on us emotionally and physically," Dickerson said.
The team visited the hospital to support Kelsey Gill and their teammates' parents.
They started a fundraiser, thinking it would be a surprise for the Gill family, with goal of $5,000. Instead, the secret spread in the nursing and Little 500 communities and beyond and was at nearly $7,700 on Thursday.
Support grew with the attention, and it helped team members cope, Dickerson said. They maintained they wanted to ride.
"We had to get back, for Lauren and for all of us," Dickerson said.
Competing in Little 500 is about sticking with the decision and being dedicated to it, and this team is remarkable, Schwoegler said.
"Even with Lauren in the hospital, they've not backed off the decision," he said. "That's pretty amazing."
Because if they didn't do it, Dickerson said, she doubted the team would return next year.
But even more, all their work — and Gill's — would be wasted.
So Dickerson and Hafler got back on their bikes on Monday. Kelsey Gill joined them Wednesday.
And Lauren Gill improved. By Thursday, she moved from intensive care to a regular hospital room and was breathing on her own.
IU Nursing was still a team, all moving forward.
There would be no room for error with one less rider, Dickerson said.
She and Hafler knew they'd ride most of the 100 laps typically split for a team of four, since Kelsey Gill missed most of the last week of practice.
But they were committed.
"They are women of substance; don't take them lightly," Schwoegler said. They ride and then they save lives, he said. "They are my heroes."
Information from: The Herald Times, http://www.heraldtimesonline.com