She’s climbing to new highs in her sport

Emma Kasza-James (left) at the finish of the national championship mountain bike marathon with the cyclist who won the event. (Lower photo) EMMA KASZA-JAMES rides indoors at her Port Washington home to stay in mountain biking shape during winter. Photo by Sam Arendt

It may be hard to believe, but at one point Port Washington High School senior Emma Kasza-James was not a fan of the sport in which she is now a national competitor and one of its top athletes in Wisconsin.

When she was 11, Kasza-James’ parents got her involved in mountain biking. She had been riding bikes since she was 3 but initially had no interest in heading out into the woods on two wheels.

“I hated mountain biking when I first started. My parents would force me out of the house to go,” Kasza-James said.

“I was really scared of mountain biking because of my fear of falling. Not only that, I didn’t really have anybody my age to ride with.”

In seventh grade, she found a few other girl riders, and her attitude toward the sport started to turn.

“Riding is where I found my community,” she said. “I just kept building.”

Those girls didn’t stick with it, but Kasza-James did.

Fast forward eight years and she just competed in a national race on the East Coast that was the toughest she ever biked.

Kasza-James completed two 16-mile laps, each including about 2,700 feet of climbing, at the USA Cycling Marathon National Championships in Frederick, Md.

She is one of the top cyclers in her division in the state, has biked in other places in the country, trains nearly every day and runs and swims.

But the cycling marathon was a different animal. Just finding a path was a challenge.

“It was dirt but it was just scattered with rocks everywhere. Around here, we have roots; they have rocks,” Kasza-James said.

“Not only is the East Coast incredibly rocky, I have coined my own term, East Coast chunk,” Kasza-James said.

“I was on the course but I didn’t know I was on the course,” she said.

The terrain was so bad that Kasza-James figured she couldn’t have been in the right area.

“I was on the right trail, and this is as hard as I was expecting it to be,” she said.

She and her father Anthony James did a loop around the course two days before the race, repeating some portions to get the lay of the lopsided land.

“It was really that pre-ride when I realized, oh man, I’m in for it,’” Kasza-James said.

High school races are typically 12 to 18 miles and last 60 to 90 minutes, and they’re much faster and easier to ride, she said..

This race tested her in a way she never faced before.

“The biggest training I did didn’t come from my technical skills. I had to rely on my endurance. If it came down to it, I could walk through certain sections,” she said.

Many riders ended up with cracked rims and tires, but Kasza-James was fortunate. Her chain dropped once and her bike and axle that holds the front wheel to the fork loosened, “which is incredibly difficult to do,” she said.

The 17-year-old who was scared she would fall when she started mountain biking fell twice, but it wasn’t due to technical mistakes.

“I fell over a couple of times just out of exhaustion. Sometimes I was just so tired I would forget to put my foot down or I forgot to unclip my foot,” Kasza-James said.

“I have never really wanted to drop out of a race, but that one pushed my limits.”

At one point, she thought, “What am I getting out of this?

“But I’m glad I did it and would do it again. It was a really good way to end my year.”

Kasza-James rode as a member of ASU DEVO, a nonprofit junior off-road development team with cyclists from across the Midwest. She finished second of three competitors in the 17-18 Junior Women division in four hours, 6 minutes, 18.74 seconds.

Ellie Krafft won in 3:49:54.8. She rode with Bear National, one of the premier cycling teams in the country.

The two met at the starting line and quickly bonded.

“It’s really nice to make friends with your competition, especially in races like this where they’re so long. You can’t stay in that competitive mindset the whole time. It doesn’t feel like a loss taking second. I was definitely more happy with it that somebody kind took first,” Kasza-James said.

“We still talk weekly. I made a new friend out of it.”

Kasza-James is now taking a break from riding after training for four to five days per week since last November and nearly burning out.

“I was really dedicated,” she said. “I still have that dedication but I’m a little smarter about it.”

Winter training entails riding a stationary bike in her family’s back garage.

“It took a lot of discipline to go out there on days when I felt like lying in my bed or reading a book,” she said.

Now, she is trail running and just started rock climbing with her friends. She ran cross country for Port High, but skipped this year because the national mountain biking race was on the same weekend as the cross country sectional race.

“I still go on runs with my friends on the team. It’s still really nice that I have that community,” Kasza-James said.

Her active lifestyle comes from her parents, who have done ultra marathon trail runs and often go biking. Her mother completed triathlons and Ironman races, even doing a half Ironman while pregnant with Kasza-James.

“I tell people I did a half Ironman but I was in my mom’s belly,” Kasza-James said. “They say that doesn’t count. It counts to me.”

Running and biking continue to be favorite activities with her parents, she said.

“It’s something we’ll always be able to do together, and it makes us very close,” she said.

Kasza-James has been accepted to and plans to attend Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., a small school known for its prowess in mountain biking, which she said is a mainstay of the Durango community’s culture. She has loved the school since she started looking for colleges in eighth grade.

In summer 2021, Fort Lewis offered a mountain biking camp.

“I was like, ‘Mom, dad, we need to sign me up for it.’ I was almost shaking,” Kasza-James said.

She went last year and again this summer.

“I met my people. I was so sad coming home because I felt like I was leaving a piece of me behind,” Kasza-James said.

She also applied to study abroad in Germany, despite not knowing the language. She took Spanish in high school and plans to study it in college.

“I love to throw myself into things. New things are super fun to me,” she said.

Kasza-James balances her training routine and school with being a bike mechanic at Cedar Creek Outdoors in Cedarburg and a receptionist at a chiropractic office in Saukville. She recently applied to be a lifeguard.

In spring, Kasza-James plans to participate in track and field.

“I always say it’s better to be busy than bored,” she said.



Click Here to Send a Letter to the Editor

Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

125 E. Main St.
Port Washington, WI 53074
(262) 284-3494


User login