Changing the world through bikes

Kat Sweet
Kat Sweet / Marc Studer photo

By Douglas Esser
Kat Sweet, an athlete who competed in skiing and downhill mountain bike racing, attended college off and on when she wasn’t shredding the slopes. By the time she reached the University of Washington Bothell, it was her seventh college. All she wanted was to finish her degree.

Sweet entered the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences with 20 years of experience as a mountain bike competitor and coach.

“Everything I studied turned into being about the bike. I didn’t even mean to do it. It just happened,” she said. “It’s what I value in life, but for me the bike isn’t just about having fun, it’s about making change in the world. So it was cool to see it come together.”

Sweet received her degree in Society, Ethics and Human Behavior in 2011 and then started her own mountain bike coaching business — Sweetlines — with an interactive, interdisciplinary approach she’s still using.

“I’m trying to change the world through bikes,” she said.

Biking as education

Education easily intersected with life for Sweet. In a project-development class, she designed a Mary Jane style bike shoe for clipless pedals.

For an American culture class that explored the influence of rapper Tupac Shakur, Sweet’s group created a scraper bike — an art bike, painted in his favorite colors black and gold, showing a gun shooting out lyrics. That class also inspired a scraper bike program Sweet ran with the Cascade Bicycle Club for kids living in low-income housing.

In an entrepreneurship class, Sweet learned how to do research, think about an elevator pitch, and start and grow a sustainable business. She put the lessons to work at Sweetlines. Its mission is to empower young people (especially girls), build confidence and create community.

Biking as a profession

Sweetlines summer camps train about 250 kids a year. Classes are held at Duthie Hill Mountain Bike Park, a King County park at Issaquah. Hiring eight to 10 coaches for the season, Sweet tells them to use an interactive style of teaching that she learned from UW Bothell. Instead of saying, “Here’s how you do it,” they say, “Watch me and tell me what you see.”

Using the book “Packaging Girlhood,” Sweet asks girls at camp to examine gender roles and how they are marketed. “That was all inspired by a class at UW Bothell,” Sweet said.

Sweetlines also hosts events, such as the Sugar Showdown friendly competition and Sweetlines Junior Racing for girls aged 8 to 16 who compete in downhill racing.

“I’m trying to provide opportunities for women to showcase and elevate their riding,” Sweet said. “It’s really inspiring for people to see these young girls coming up who don’t have the same barriers I had: ‘You’re a girl; you can’t do that. You’re not as strong as a boy.’”

These girls aren’t getting those messages, Sweet said. “They’re saying, ‘We can do this, and we’re going to do it our own way.’ It’s really fun to watch them progress.”

Biking as inspiration

Sweetlines produces its own videos and marketing through social media. “We’re building our own global community of people who see what we do and are inspired by what we do.”

Still biking herself, Sweet also is a brand ambassador for sponsors. She recently served as a guide for a group of six who traveled with their bikes to Peru. Then, she went on to Colombia to scout trails for a future tour.

Sweet appreciates UW Bothell for a style of teaching and learning that “really catered to people like me who don’t do well in lectures, who are not memorization-based learners.”

She received not only a degree but an approach that infuses Sweetlines.

“To have a school where everything is interactive, where you had an interdisciplinary look at every topic, has absolutely helped my business be something greater than just about bikes,” Sweet said.

“It’s about how we can change the world through bikes, by looking at things differently, making things interactive, getting feedback from coaches,” she said. ‘We’re constantly growing and changing because of that. I learned so much of that at UW Bothell.”

Kat Sweet on bike
Kat Sweet riding / courtesy photo

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