Never Give Up:
If there’s one piece of advice Felipe Nystrom can share, it’s “do not give up before the miracle happens. Just keep pushing!”
The urge to quit - to completely give in and give up - is a feeling Nystrom, Costa Rica’s 2019 Elite Road Race National Champion at age 36, knows all too well.
With a cramping leg, burning lungs, and an empty tank, he wanted nothing more than to end his championship race. Then, upon seeing the finish line, he found a way to dig deep into his final sprint and historic title.
However, this was far from Nystrom’s first time feeling the deep urge to quit.
When Nystrom was a young man growing up in Costa Rica, he fell into addiction and deep depression. During his rock bottom, Nystrom made seven attempts to take his own life. On the seventh attempt, as he prepared to overdose on cocaine, he made a deal with himself.
“I said, ‘I’m not waking up, but if I do, I will do something about this,’” Nystrom recalls. The next day, he was alive and made good on his promise.
Nystrom sought out a treatment center and begged to be let in. In contrast to his life on the streets, he found himself with clean clothes, three meals a day, and help from men who cared and supported him. He also found hope!
Seeking a fresh start after completing his treatment, he took an opportunity to move to Portland, Oregon and put distance between himself and his old life.
However, still early in his recovery, Nystrom faced the challenge of creating friendships in the absence of drugs and alcohol.
“I did not know that Portland was the drinking capital of the world,” he says with a laugh. “I had a really hard time the first couple years, in a completely different culture, not knowing anybody, having a really hard time making friends. Then I thought, ‘Maybe I should try sports.’”
And he did! Over time, Nystrom found his home in the cycling world. While he used Zwift to train for his national championship, it’s so much more to him than a training tool. It’s a supportive community, motivation to stay healthy, and an anchor to hold him steady.
“It literally is what saves my life, every single day,” Nystrom says. “I would not be able to continue cycling if it wasn’t for Zwift. And if I couldn’t continue cycling, I don’t know where I’d be.”
Climbing the Ranks
In Oregon, Nystrom began dabbling in cycling and small mountain bike races. On a whim, he entered his first triathlon in the summer of 2014. With a rented wetsuit and bicycle, he won his first amateur sprint distance race!
If only every race could be such smooth sailing. Months later, in his second race, Nystrom found himself struggling in the notoriously hectic waters of a mass start triathlon swim. Within minutes, a competitor's flailing limb knocked his goggles off, leaving him sightless in the murky water.
Laughing, he recalls a paddleboat lifeguard calling out to him: “When I went up for air one more time, I was out long enough to hear him say, ‘Stand up!’ I stood up, and the water was at my waist.”
Embarrassed, Nystrom furiously swam back to the start with the desire to collect his belongings and return home. As much as he wanted to quit, the supportive community turned him around and encouraged him to keep going. And so he did. And again he won. This time, he finished with the fastest overall bike time.
Within a year, a fellow triathlete suggested road cycling to Nystrom. After securing a loan, purchasing his first bike, and a few months of training, Nystrom entered his first cycling race in 2015.
In his first mass start cycling race, the Cat 5 Cherry Pie Road Race in Oregon, he won. While he attributes his win to two juniors who thought the finish line was closer, he went on to prove his serious talent for cycling and explosive sprinting abilities. By the end of his third season and 60 races later, he had moved from Cat 5 to Cat 1.
Photo Credit: Leonard Johnson
Zwifting For Balance
Nystrom’s first off-season as a cyclist meant trying to ride outside in the cold, rain, snow, and ice of the Pacific Northwest. Used to the warmth and sunshine of Costa Rica, he was eager to give indoor cycling a try after a teammate introduced him to Zwift.
“Zwift was what kept me training through the winter,” he says. “It gave me balance. . . . With depression, alcoholism, and addiction, [one minute] things can be great, and then a switch flips and I can go downhill in no time. It doesn’t go away. All I can do is learn to live with it, try to have resources and tools in place for whenever it happens, and focus on these other things.”
In the beginning, he stuck mostly to group rides and races on Zwift. He helped start a group called Zwift Costa Rica, a community of Zwifters from his birth country. Together, they raced in the Zwift Racing League, supporting each other along the way. Then, in 2018, he set his eye on the Costa Rican Road Race National Championships. With the help of a coach, he focused on structured workouts and rode 5-6 days per week, mostly on Zwift.
In 2019, Nystrom headed back to Costa Rica to compete in the championship race. Unsure of what to expect, he ensured his best friend would have a car ready to take him to the beach if he fell off the back.
“I managed to find myself in the winning move and ended up in a group of about 15,” he says. “I thought we had 10 kilometers to go, and I was about to drop off – ‘Time to go to the beach.’ But I looked up, and in the far distance, I could see the finish line arch. I thought, ‘I made it to the end, and it’s going to be a sprint. Hey, I can sprint! I can do this!’”
And he did.
Nystrom sprints to victory at the 2019 Costa Rican National Road Race Championships. Photo Credit: Junior Ajun
From Champion To Trailblazer
After his 2019 Road Race National Championship win, Nystrom asked to represent his country on their national road team. He was turned down, but once again, he didn’t give up.
In 2021, he switched gears and asked to represent Costa Rica in the Cyclocross World Cup series of races in the United States. His national federation agreed and Nystrom became the first Costa Rican to race in a World Cup race! As of November, he’s the only Latin American in the 2021-22 cyclocross world rankings.
In December, he’ll race in the Pan-American Cyclocross Championships. He’s also raising money to travel to and race in the European World Cup this winter where he'll brave the cold and mud to again make history. In January, he aims to race the 2022 UCI Cyclocross World Championships in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Reflecting on his journey, Nystrom speaks about his life with a sense of wonder. He has a fulfilling job as an interpreter, helping people in hospitals and courts communicate with providers and legal professionals. He has a family and a 15-year-old son who he has worked to repair his relationship with after addiction took him away more than a decade ago. Nystrom also has something he once thought impossible - real dreams and ambitions for the future.
“If there is anyone out there thinking that they’d be better off dead than alive, I promise you it is not true,” says Nystrom. “You do deserve to be alive. And not only that, you can make your dreams come true no matter how far gone you think you are.”
Photo Credit: Leonard Johnson