Health Hero Challenge

This Philly Woman Helps Girls Gain Confidence Through Mountain Biking

Meet Caitlin Thompson, the founder of the local chapter of Little Bellas — and one of our Health Hero semifinalists.


mountain biking

Caitlin Thompson is the founder of the Philadelphia chapter of Little Bellas, an organization that helps girls gain confidence through mountain biking. / Graphic by Meredith Getzfread

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be chatting with our semifinalists in the 2019 Be Well Philly Health Hero Challenge to give you a glimpse of the people who are helping Philadelphians live healthier lives. Vote once a day, every day, to help decide which of these 10 semifinalists become one of three finalists — and get a sizable donation to a charity of their choice — here.

Name: Caitlin Thompson

Role: Founder of the Philly chapter of Little Bellas, a mountain bike organization for girls ages seven to 16 whose goal is to help young women realize their potential through cycling.

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Describe a health- or fitness-related turning point in your life.
I remember in middle school when a friend tried to defend me to the PE teacher when I was trying to pass a physical fitness test by saying I couldn’t run that fast because I was short. After that, I was out to prove a point and worked hard to level up, successfully running a faster mile with the pacing help of a different friend, who talked with me while we ran the four laps of the track. That was a turning point in my ability to push myself; once I figured out that independent space for goal setting and improvement, it’s been a lifelong trajectory. I still race my bike 10 to 15 times a year even though I’m 34 and have a four-year-old.

The things that keep me going in life are being outside and doing physical activity with a community. When we get to do that with Little Bellas, you’re doing that with the girls, but you’re also doing that with the adults. The volunteer mentors are modeling for the girls and allowing the girls the space to do that themselves. They can build this sense of accomplishment. They can can gain confidence, be outside, make new friends, and see us modeling healthy relationships among adults. In Philly, a lot of kids don’t necessarily have those role models, and this allows us to do that in a more fun, low-risk way.

Why is your selected charity meaningful to you?

I founded the Philadelphia chapter of Little Bellas in 2016 after seeing the program in action in Vermont in 2015. Little Bellas is meaningful to me because I enjoy mentoring young girls, helping them grow their confidence, and have fun, all while riding bikes. We just started our fourth year this month and we have 40 girls and 22 volunteer mentors riding together every Sunday afternoon for eight weeks on the trails of Philadelphia’s Fairmount Parks.

When I started the Philly chapter, I applied specifically with the purpose that I would like to get more scholarship girls than the national average, which is a couple girls out of 30 or 40 on a scholarship bike. A third to a fourth of our girls are on loaner bikes we bring them for the eight weeks and scholarships for the program. I have personally fundraised, which is not the standard protocol for chapter leads, every year, so the chapter can continue to not be a drain on resources nationally. We’ve seen a family come through our program who’ve been with us for four years now on scholarship bikes. They were able to go to a program in Vermont through Little Bellas on scholarship. It’s been amazing to see them have that opportunity every year with us, and they wouldn’t have that without the fundraising efforts. The money I will hopefully win will get more girls on bikes by getting us more bikes and providing more scholarships for their fee.

mountain biking

For eight weeks each year, Little Bellas brings together girls ages seven to 16 to ride through Fairmount Parks. / Photograph courtesy of Caitlin Thompson

What motivates you to try and make Philadelphia a healthier place?
I think everyone deserves a chance to lead a healthy life and to find joy in doing so. I want more girls to gain confidence through mountain biking and mentoring with women on the trails.  Through my work with Little Bellas, I get to help girls learn to have healthy relationships with food as fuel and reinforce a positive body image.

What “policy” would you institute to make greater Philadelphia a
healthier region?

I would provide more free opportunities for girls to participate in a wide range of sports, including mountain biking. I know a lot of middle schools (and other schools) don’t have a lot of after-school programs, and this would be a prime time to reach these girls with fun and healthy programming.

What’s the most important part of your health or wellness regimen?
Holding myself accountable to a weekly hard bike ride where I get to try my hardest alongside friends — and some national-caliber local racers — and then enjoy coffee and a tasty treat together after.

What is your number one piece of health-related advice/encouragement?
Try lots of different activities and find friends that will do them with you because peer accountability and enjoyment are what will keep you coming back to it.