South Charlotte

Athelete's 'iron will' helps her succeed

Andrea Hilderbrand was at the top of her game when a genetic disorder derailed everything.

Now, this Steele Creek area resident has her life back on track.

She's biking, climbing and inspiring others.

Hilderbrand, 39, grew up in rural Troy, about two hours east of Charlotte in Montgomery County.

"I was always curious," she said. "I love everything life has to offer. I just want to see and do it all."

She has a degree in applied mathematics and mechanical engineering and a master's in industrial engineering and engineering management from University of Florida and University of South Florida. She started her career at Pratt & Whitney as a senior engineer designing jet engines.

While in Florida, Hilderbrand got a pilots license. She also got into climbing, on the weekends, and other adventure sports, including biking. She continued her activities when she moved with the company to Connecticut.

"Those activities led me on TV for a couple of shows - 'Global Extremes, Forerunners of Adventure' on OLN and 'Worst Case Scenario' on TBS," Hilderbrand said.

In her first show Hilderbrand competed with 50 other athletes for a chance to go to Mount Everest. She didn't win, but her experience led to her role as a rock climbing expert on "Worse Case Scenario."

"Having been on those shows put me in contact with people in TV," Hilderbrand said. "...I wanted to get out of engineering and focus on my bike racing."

Hilderbrand began mountain bike riding six days a week, nine months a year and racing every weekend in the summer. She was close to applying for a pro license in 2003 when she got sick.

The first race of the season Hilderbrand felt unusually tired. Doctors discovered high levels of iron in her blood and suggested genetic testing. Hilderbrand had hemochromatosis, a genetic disorder that causes too much iron to be absorbed.

If it's not detected early, the iron buildup attacks organs and can be fatal.

"My iron level was five times over the highest limit for a human," Hilderbrand said. "For a year I had to have a pint of blood withdrawn every week. There was no way I could race."

Hilderbrand moved to Charlotte where she didn't know anyone and had difficulty finding a job.

But by 2004, the blood withdrawals were down to just every three months. That left her feeling stronger.

"I saw an ad for Hornet's Nest BMX, so I went and checked it out," Hilderbrand said. "The guys were really nice and they gave me a bike and let me on the track. I started racing within a year and I was winning regional and national titles. BMX gave me my spirit back."

Hilderbrand stopped racing BMX bikes in 2006 and focused on her work with ESPN and big mountain climbing.

This summer she was asked to race for Bike Source's mountain biking team. Bike Source makes bicycles and biking equipment. Every Wednesday night she races in the top category for women, 12-14 miles through area park trails. She has won the 2011 women's overall series.

She's also a stage manager with ESPN for the NASCAR circuit.

Hilderbrand spends most weekends on the road, but plans her time strategically. She has climbed some of the highest mountains in the world, participated in 100-mile mountain bike races and 50-mile ultra-trail runs. She has tried almost every extreme sport available.

Hilderbrand has raised $20,000 in the past three years for Summit for Someone climbs, which supports Big City Mountaineers wilderness mentoring expeditions. The program helps at-risk youth by taking them out of the inner-cities and paring them with a mentor for backpacking and canoeing trips.

"I'm not the fastest or the strongest at anything," Hilderbrand says. "But I'm not a quitter. If you want something bad enough, you can do it. If I can do it, anyone can do it."

Her friends call her "Ironwoman" - a name tied to her genetic disorder and her accomplishments.

Hilderbrand says she hopes to inspire others.

"I'd like to help people achieve their goals in life, to motivate others to go for their dreams, no matter how big or small, " she says.