Life has been a bumpy ride for Georgia Gould. Her path is cobbled with rough terrain - rocks and roots, stumps and streams - but she glides across it.
What more could you ask of America's top-ranked mountain biker?
"I get paid to ride my bicycle through the woods," said Gould, who was raised in Baltimore. "That's the coolest thing. It's the best job ever."
At 28, she spends her time churning through the wilderness, pedaling 20 miles a day up fire roads and down ski trails in preparation for the Olympics. Gould is one of two U.S. spokes women headed to Beijing next month to compete in the demanding two-hour race.
Mountain biking is spine-jangling work, but she's up for it.
"I like being challenged - both by other riders and by the course," said Gould, who is ranked No. 7 in the world. "Each race is different; there are scary parts to every course.
"You're thinking, 'Can I ride my bike up this steep hill with the big rock in it?' Or 'Will I slide down the loose dirt on this downhill run?'
"At the same time, you're watching the rider up ahead, studying her body language to see if she's suffering. That's when you summon every ounce of every muscle and put in a hard attack, hoping she'll be too blown up psychologically to chase you."
Those who know her say Gould of Fort Collins, Colo., has found her niche, flying over fallen logs and roaring down mud-caked slopes at 30 mph on a $5,000 bike in world competition. The woman who attended Roland Park Country School as a child, they say, has morphed into a strong-willed, gifted athlete with an unparalleled work ethic.
"Georgia has focus, fire and the ability to dig deep as a competitor," said Ben Ollett, her coach. "She's never intimidated. She takes full responsibility for messing up. She's as professional as they come.
"Can she medal in the Olympics? On a good day, she will be in the hunt."
The 2006 national champion, Gould has come far since that day 23 years ago when her father took the training wheels off her first two-wheeler.
"I remember running beside her and holding on to the bike as she went down Chancery Road [in Guilford]," Paul Gould said. "One minute, she was pedaling away and chatting with me. Then I let go.
"I can still see her face when she realized she was riding by herself. It was a look of surprise and accomplishment."
"I crashed," Georgia Gould said. "I thought my dad was still holding on to me. When I saw that he wasn't, I fell."
Up she jumped and climbed back on.
"Georgia was a very willful child," said her mother, Susan Gould, who owns a photo gallery in Baltimore. "At 10, she learned to ride a unicycle. That Halloween, she dressed as a clown and rode the unicycle from house to house, collecting candy."
Early on, Georgia Gould was always moving. She attended a private high school in New Hampshire, then tried four colleges - including one in Ghana - before graduating from the University of Montana with a psychology degree.
She became an ardent cyclist at 19, when she moved to Idaho and met David "Dusty" LaBarr, a mountain-bike enthusiast four years her senior (they wed in 2006). Together, they rode logging roads, deer paths and forest trails.
The sport grew on Gould, though she lacked focus. On occasion during an outing, Gould would disappear, forcing LaBarr to double back and beat the bushes. He would find her filling her water bottle with wild berries she picked along the way.
Gould began entering races in 2000 and turned pro in 2004. A year later, she did the national mountain bike circuit, traveling the countryside in a GMC van. LaBarr was her mechanic. To save money, they ate pasta off a campstove, bathed in streams or friends' motel rooms and slept on a futon in the back of the van.
That season, Gould placed ninth in the U.S. standings, gained a sponsor (LUNA nutrition bars) and ditched the van. She has been riding high ever since, winning her share of World Cup races and placing second in the U.S. championship in 2007 and 2008.
There have been setbacks. Two months ago, while leading a race in Santa Barbara, Calif., Gould collapsed in 103-degree temperatures and was hospitalized with heat stroke.
"Ten minutes from the finish, my body shut down. Never happened before," she said. "I couldn't ride or walk. I remember looking for a tree to crawl under, and then I passed out."
Gould has since recovered.
"That was scary," said Ollett, her coach. "It was a bigger deal than people realized, but she has bounced back pretty darn well."
"I rode that [Olympic] course in a race last year and placed fourth," she said. "There are a lot of short, steep climbs and descents without much time to recover. And they've buried some rocks and put in a log here and there to make it more interesting."
Berry bushes, she didn't see. All she wants to pick up in China is the gold.