September 17, 2021 | SPORTS | By Will Taylor | Photo by Anil Jergens
Michael O’Riley is a professor of French and Italian at Colorado College. He has written multiple books and has received a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship at Harvard for his work on cultural memory.
He is also a professional athlete.
“I’m currently on Team USA for USA triathlon, which is the governing body of triathlon and duathlon,” O’Riley said in a recent interview. “I’m probably more of a dual athlete, meaning run-bike-run versus swim-bike-run. I’m also a short course specialist, so sprinting in general, but I do longer things as well.”
O’Riley, who was raised in upstate New York near the Canadian border, wanted to be a successful athlete from an early age.
“From the time he was very young, he had made up his mind that he was going to be great at whatever it was, and it happened to be that he started to figure out he was good at running,” said his wife, Deena O’Riley.
“He grew up a kid with very little. A lot of times his family didn’t have enough to eat. He had a very loving family, but they just didn’t have much at all,” she said.
According to Deena O’Riley, Michael O’Riley knew the best chance of getting out of his small town would be through athletics. After competing at an elite level in high school and during his undergraduate studies, O’Riley was building the foundation for a successful running career.
However, running took a toll on his body and he suffered a series of minor injuries. As part of his rehabilitation process, doctors had him start cycling.
O’Riley soon started taking cycling seriously and, “went right up to basically the professional level and over to Europe and raced professionally,” he said.
Through cycling he was able to spend many years traveling across Europe, becoming fluent in both French and Italian.
“At the time, English wasn’t as prevalent over there, so I got to speak French and Italian most of the time with teammates,” he said. “Those are the two languages people use as sort of the lingua franca in the peloton.”
After a horrific crash while racing in Europe, O’Riley returned to the States to get a PhD from the University of Oregon, where he raced for their cross-country team. Almost immediately after getting his degree, he was on the tenure track at CC.
While working as a professor, O’Riley started to participate in group rides in Colorado Springs and was encouraged to race again.
“I started racing and thinking I could make it to the Olympics,” he said. “So I gave it a shot. And I came very close in cycling.”
After a hiatus from competing at the elite level caused by injury and the time constraints of a young tenured professor, O’Riley is back at the top.
“To be honest with you, I’m still hoping to win a World Championship. Without talking about the specifics of age on what I’m doing, it’s probably way outside the norm. But I don’t believe in norms,” he said. “I feel that as long as you believe you can do something, you can do it.”
O’Riley says he is not ruling out going to Paris for the next Olympic games, but his attention is focused solely on the upcoming World Championships in Spain.
He is currently on sabbatical, which has given him ample time to train. According to Deena O’Riley, Michael O’Riley typically trains for three hours a day, six days a week.
“I am very inspired by him, by his personality. He just doesn’t give up,” she said. “He fights for everything, and it doesn’t matter how old he is or anything like that. He’s just an inspiring person.”
At 53, O’Riley shows no signs of slowing down. And with his lofty goals, he cannot afford to. It is hard to predict what might come next for him, but if his life so far is any indication, it might not be what you would expect.