Taking Top Podium

National champion Roni Laughton ’20 on winning, her future, and those that supported her along the way

Clip, clip—it’s the distinctive sound of Veronica “Roni” Laughton’s cycling cleats snapping into place on her pedals.

From there, she’s off like a lightning bold, weaving through trees, skimming over jumps, gliding through the air, and landing with surgical precision (a required prerequisite in the rooted, rocky trails found in the High Country) only to take off once more with a few, powerful pedal strokes.

With the way she rides, you’d think she was a mountain bike prodigy from the time she was walking, but Roni’s talents didn’t rise to the surface until her dad encouraged her to join her high school mountain bike team in Lancaster, California.

Race after race, win after win, it was clear Roni was talented on the trails. From there, she began looking to her future in higher education as a place to continue her passion; however, she didn’t just want to continue challenging herself on the bike. She also had dreams to enter the world of healthcare as a nurse.

“It’s a big gamble when you’re a young person—to come all the way across the country to the mountains of North Carolina to pursue college and cycling for four years,” Head Cycling Coach Tim Hall said. “We know how big of a deal it is when an athlete rolls the dice…but once she arrived she poured her heart and soul into it.”

Of course, Laughton felt some nerves, too, but it was her unshakable determination that led her to her first, major victory right out of the gate (pun intended).

Her freshman year, Laughton made it to collegiate mountain bike nationals at Snowshoe Mountain in West Virginia.

“I had a goal to get a top-five in dual slalom,” Laughton said. “…and I ended up winning it.”

Not to be forgotten, Laughton also took home third place in downhill that day, her first-ever true downhill race on a borrowed downhill bike to boot. 

Over the years, Laughton would amass two more top-step national titles her junior and senior years in her favorite discipline—dual slalom. Her sophomore year nationals performance would land her in second place, only a tenth of a second behind first.

“You don’t stand on the top step by random chance or luck,” Hall said. “[Her success] is because of many years of hard work, sacrifice, and dedication to her craft. A true champion has the capacity, desire, and hunger to not only do it once, but do it again and she continued to do that…you just have to sit back and admire her.”

Of course, Laughton’s time at Lees-McRae hasn’t been all things cycling. Remember that dream of hers to become a nurse? Well, she’ll wrap up her nursing degree in May 2020.

But much like her near win sophomore year, it’s the challenge that keeps Laughton pushing for success.

Over the last four years, the faculty and staff at Lees-McRae have guided her along in the journey. In fact, it was the smaller program size that attracted Laughton to the program in the first place.

“Because it’s such a small program, we are able to connect with our professors on both a personal and academic level,” Laughton said. “So if we are having a problem we can just go by their office, and they are always willing to help us and explain things further.”

Roni Laughton


Instructor of Nursing Sharon Nelson said that once you meet Laughton you can’t help but like her personality and work ethic.

“I think the fact that she wants to go into the nursing profession says a lot about who she is,” Nelson said. “She has the desire and drive to become an excellent nurse…and watching her ride her bike, I’m in awe—she’s amazing.”

With Laughton set to graduate in May 2020, it means that she, her professors, and her coaches will have to say the inevitable, bittersweet goodbye and close a successful, historical chapter.

“It’s sad to see athletes graduate and move on, but even more rewarding as a coach to hear about their stories after they graduate,” Hall said. “You wish they could stay longer and compete, but they have to move on to bigger and better things…I’m sure that she will continue to do things once she graduates that we are going to be proud of.”

Laughton says that over the last four years she’s learned a lot, grown a lot, and experienced a lot that has resulted in a more confident athlete and professional.

“I would say that my years here at Lees-McRae have been very formative because of the people here,” she said. “They have helped me grow, helped me learn, and have helped me become the person that I am today.”

She also said she was happy to play a part in growing not only the cycling program at Lees-McRae, but also expanding women’s place in the sport of cycling.

“When I was younger you didn’t see very many girls on bikes, but now that is almost completely different. It’s really exciting,” she said.

“Roni knows what she wants in life, and what she has built for herself here at Lees-McRae can take her in any direction,” Nelson said. “She knows what path she needs to take, but no matter which way she goes, she wants to come in first.”  

By Nina MastandreaFebruary 18, 2020