When Phil Stephens was a senior at IU, his Little 500 team arrived at the race favored to win. This had happened before. Three years earlier, his team won every preparatory race leading up to the Little 500 and secured the first seed. But they finished 19th after getting caught up in a crash when they were attempting to lap the field. That year, Phil had to run clear across the track to grab the bike and finish after his teammate couldn’t.
As a senior, he didn’t want to repeat that experience. His team decided they would race conservatively and try to grab the win on the last lap.
Phil is a graphic designer on the Hamilton Lugar School communications and marketing team, producing posters, brochures, digital materials, and swag for the School and its 30+ departments, centers, and programs. If you’ve seen an announcement for an event, community member spotlight, or course promotion, the odds are good that Phil designed it.
Competitive cycling began early for Phil. While he was growing up on the north side of Indianapolis, he would visit the Major Taylor Velodrome—a cycling race track—where cyclists from around the world trained and raced. He began hanging around professional cyclists, who taught him what it meant to be a dedicated athlete: to show up every day, to put in the work, to recover, and do it all again the next day, for weeks and months and years.
In the lead-up to the Pan-American Games in Indianapolis, Phil trained with athletes from Argentina, Canada, Cuba, and the US. He was too young to keep up on their hardest workouts, but he loved the atmosphere. In the tight confines of the Velodrome, where fans can see every move, every mistake, every attack, the energy was electric. He knew cycling was going to become a big part of his life.
He began training year-round and even became an assistant director of the Velodrome. He got a coach and saw progress in his fitness and racing. Once he matriculated to IU, he began training and racing for his fraternity while pursuing a double major in Fine Arts and Art History.
Phil competed in the Little 500 four times as a student, at a time when the Little 500 was not just an Indiana event; it was a national event. The Little 500 had recently been covered by Adam Sandler for MTV, and ESPN regularly showed the race.
The previous three times Phil competed, his team had come close to winning. There was the 19th place finish the year they were favored, and they had also finished second and third. As a senior, it was Phil’s last chance.
Race day was cool and overcast. From down on the track, Phil looked up to see 25,000 fans watching the nervous cyclists, focused on their race plan and trying to stay relaxed. The green flag waved. It was time for him and his teammates to draw on their reservoir of thousands of training miles in the heat, the cold, the rain, the wind, the Saturdays spent waking up early and hammering long, painful rides on cracked country roads.
No race goes perfectly to plan. It does not matter how much you prepare or visualize. It does not matter what decisions you make. Something is going to go wrong, and the team that does best is the one that stays calm and still executes. On this cool and cloudy day, the race did not go perfectly to plan.
A series of accidents prevented Phil’s team from exchanging riders when they wanted. But they stayed calm and stayed out of trouble, biding their time. At the beginning of the last lap, there were three teams in the running: Cutters, a team called College Life, and Phil’s team. Phil, having fulfilled his role to help put the team in a good position, was in his team’s pit, cheering his teammate and watching fans in the stands push toward the track for a closer look at the finish.
On the backstretch of the last lap, Phil’s teammate Peter Noverr pulled up from third position to second and then to first. He started sprinting all-out and was in the lead heading into the homestretch, his legs spinning as fast as they could, his chest heaving. Coming down the homestretch, Peter pulled away and shot his arms into the air as he crossed the finish line. They won by 7/10ths of a second.
The win was a tremendous accomplishment for Phil’s team, but he is calm about it. “Things just fell together like it was supposed to be,” he says. His team followed their race plan, and the race plan worked.
Phil continued to cycle at a high level after his Little 500 victory, competing at the national level. And he still cycles, though mostly just on casual rides. He is also a resident advisor for a fraternity on campus, helping the students navigate college life. He has even worked with their Little 500 team over the course of the year and will likely serve as their mechanic on race day. It’s a young squad, and he’s hoping that the camaraderie of being on a team has been both educational and enjoyable during a difficult year.
Being on a team is about “learning other people’s strengths,” he says. “Individually they’re not nearly as strong as the team that comes together and can put all those pieces together.”
With the Little 500 just a couple weeks away, the importance of teamwork, camaraderie, and sacrificing for a larger cause is an important one to remember and celebrate.