Editor's Note: Just how difficult is it to make the U.S. Olympic team? Does it require a lifetime of training and devotion? Would an average person with an athletic background have any shot at all?
E-ticket decided to find out, embarking on a quest that's now in its second year. We tapped Kathryn Bertine, a former ice skater, professional triathlete and accomplished author, to see whether she could somehow find her way to Beijing in 2008. After failing to make the U.S. team, Bertine is now hoping to represent another country in Beijing.
In early December, three weeks after my crab dinner in Florida with Winston Crooke and Greg Philip, I'm on a plane to St. Kitts and Nevis, a tiny two-island nation in the Caribbean. With a population of 43,000 and an area of 162 square miles, the country is about the size of an Ironman race course and less populated than Penn State University.
With me en route is my ESPNtourage -- Lucas Gilman (my photographer), Jim Bittel (my documentary filmmaker) and Gord Fraser (my coach). We are planning to meet with the premier (the commonwealth version of a vice president) to ask him for dual citizenship so I can cycle under the flag of St. Kitts and Nevis and work toward those elusive Olympic points. After hearing about Coach Gord's Olympic/professional/stud cycling career, Greg and Winston believe Gord's presence will be very helpful when we meet the premier. "He can only help further your case for citizenship," Winston explains, "and we could use his expertise in coaching."
The airport in Newcastle, Nevis, has a single runway used for all planes on the island. Through the window of our turbo prop, the first thing I see is a sign advertising pizza. It is a wooden sign. On a post. Next to the landing strip. Behind it is the ocean. There appears to be no restaurant accompanying the signpost, but any country that welcomes its visitors with the promise of pizza is my kind of country. Grazing nearby is a herd of brown goats, which I later learn are sheep. Sheep, pizza, ocean and palm trees. As we descend into Nevis, I feel slightly hallucinogenic. A year ago, I was getting stabbed by epees, whirling around a velodrome and throwing handballs into what seemed to be an Olympic dead end. Now I'm flying to another country to race -- if my request for citizenship is granted -- not only for its national team but for a chance at Olympic qualification. How did I get here? Fate, karma, luck, chance, divinity, physics, winds, moons, tides -- to a questioning mind, the possibilities seem endless. But deep down, I know exactly how I got here: by bicycle.
Upon clearing customs, we meet Winston, who wrestles my mammoth bike box and the entire ESPNtourage into his 15-year-old crimson Vanagon, which creaks and moans and hee-haws under our shifting weight. Two miles later, we pull into the driveway of the Oualie Beach Resort, a collection of pastel bungalows situated a mere 20 meters off the Caribbean Sea. Winston has arranged with the gracious owner, Alastair, that my hotel will be comped for the week. My Econo Lodge expectations have not prepared me for the reality of the Oualie Beach Resort. Hammocks sway between palm trees. Old surfboards have been planted vertically and turned into showers for sunbathers. A string of small white buoys bobs offshore, marking a 100-meter swim course where the local triathletes put in their laps. Cushioned chairs lounge along the beach. An outdoor restaurant is set up in a garden of local flora, next to the walk-up bar where a steel drum band is teasing out mellow rhythms and people are drinking frothy, fruity things.
Next to the hotel is Wheel World, Winston's cycling and windsurfing business housed in a little white and turquoise building. Winston's cell-phone number is scribbled on an outdoor chalkboard. Welcome to Caribbean time: Sometimes Winston's at work, sometimes he isn't. Call, however, if you need something. Though I understand beggars can't be choosers, I am grateful my citizenship quest has brought me to Nevis and not, oh say, Kyrgyzstan. "You could certainly find tougher places to be a citizen," Gord agrees.
The next three days in Nevis are a whirlwind of training, sightseeing, paperwork. Winston, Greg and I begin work on a proposal outlining my quest for citizenship. This way, if the premier wants to go to the prime minister on our behalf, he can take a one-page cheat sheet with him. Unfortunately, Winston explains, we cannot go to the prime minister ourselves; only the premier has access to him. OK. Makes sense. "But if the premier is on board, this is a huge step in our favor," Winston underscores. Our meeting with the Honorable Premier Mr. Joseph Parry is set for Thursday, three days away.
Despite being on a tropical island in the middle of what would normally be my offseason from training and racing, there is no offseason for me this year. If citizenship comes through, I need to be ready to race immediately. As if trying to climb from the beginner's level of Category 4 to the elite level of Category 1 in less than a year isn't stressful enough, I'm tired. A little cranky. I could use some rest. But the Olympics are nine months away. There's not a lot of rest on my horizon. Luckily, the 80-degree Nevis weather isn't a bad motivator for getting on a bike. Ironically, Christopher Columbus named Nevis after "Our Lady of Snows," the Spanish word for snow being nieves. Apparently, Columbus had some scurvy-induced hallucination. Before heading back to sea, the explorer named the larger island for himself. St. Kitts is the only country in the world to officially go by its nickname instead of its given one: St. Christopher. All I know is that when I discover an island nation, I'm naming it St. Winston and Greg.
Gord and I head out on a two-hour ride with Winston, Greg and Reggie Douglas, the St. Kitts and Nevis national champion in triathlon and cycling. With dreads poking out from his helmet and red-yellow-green-black beaded necklaces encircling his neck, Reggie stands 6 feet tall and weighs no more than 150 pounds, thanks in large part to a vegan diet. A full-fledged Rastafarian, he is kind, soft-spoken and has an easy laugh that surfaces at least once every 60 seconds. As we make our way along the 30-mile road that encircles the island, Reggie points out Nevisian hot spots and gives us the history of his country. We pass a woman who waves and calls out, "Hey, Reggie." Reggie heys back. "Aww," I think, "how nice to pass by a friend!"
But soon I understand everybody here -- literally everybody -- knows Reggie Douglas, and to know him, apparently, is to love him. As we pass through the Charleston province of Nevis, an old man with few teeth calls out to him from a doorway. Reggie! Out in the countryside, a young girl holding a baby sibling calls from the open upstairs window of her home. Reggie, Reggie! Cars drive past, hands stick out the window, horns beep gently and Reggieeee! carries through the wind. A sense of community, belonging and safety comes over me. I could train here. I could live here. I could even learn to avoid the herds of sheep that randomly skedaddle across the road.
"Watch for monkeys," Reggie warns as we climb the rolling hills on the east side of the island. "They run out faster than sheep." Ah, yes. Monkeys. OK. In New York, I watch for squirrels and deer; in Colorado, I watch for prairie dogs and lightning storms; in Arizona, I watch for coyotes and snakes; and in Nevis, I watch for monkeys and sheep. Got it. No problem. As long as I remember where I am. Which has become increasingly challenging this year.
On our second day, we take the ferry over to the island of St. Kitts. The 45-minute crossing drops us in Basseterre, the capital of St. Kitts and Nevis, and from there we spend the day riding the roads of the larger island. Lucas and Jim, my ESPNtourage, pile into a cab so they can document our training. About a half-hour into our ride, their cab pulls ahead of us and stops in front of a ramshackle building. Our cycling group pedals past, but the cabbie screams after us, "Lunch!" The building is a restaurant belonging to the cabbie's sister. We are instructed to eat. Gord and I look at each other, neither of us accustomed to stopping for lunch in the middle of our workout.
"When in Rome," Gord says with a smile. We de-bike and head into the restaurant, which is one table, six chairs and a pool table. We are given the choice of cheeseburger or fish soup, and I decide the latter will be easier to ride on. Turns out to be one of the best meals I've ever had. While we wait, a heated game of pool ensues. Reggie and I form Team Americanish, and Gord and Kristina, one of the few female cyclists in St. Kitts and Nevis, team up for the Canadian Ex-Patriates. We tie. But overall, I'm pretty sure I'm winning. Pool, fish soup and Rastafarians -- strange are the ingredients of an Olympic dream.
Later that day, the ESPNtourage asks how exactly we got here. I tell them the abbreviated story: Winston's e-mail appeared in my spam folder, and now we are on the shores of the Caribbean. Crazy, they say. I agree, and change the subject. I'm still unable to express how much I want this dream to continue. But I've learned something about myself this year: My desire scares me. When I want something, I want it badly. I'm a put-every-freaking-egg-in-the-basket type, and it'll leave me with a giant leaking mess or one hell of an omelet. All I can do is carry a fork and hope for the latter.
KATHRYN GOES WITH GOD TO MEET THE PREMIER
The fourth day of my island visit brings our meeting with the premier, which is scheduled for 10 a.m. Winston and Greg have asked Gord and me to be on Nevis' sports radio broadcast before heading to the meeting. We happily oblige, discussing topics such as sponsorship, sports journalism, professional experiences. Most of the callers want to talk to Gord, having heard he is a three-time Olympian and Tour de France rider. Gord has thoroughly enjoyed the pronunciation of his name in the West Indian dialect, an accent which that drops the "r" and renders Gord a God. Gaahd Fraysah. When people call in, Greg is able to personally identify them by the sound of their voices, again dumbfounding us with the sense of small-town community this country possesses.
"Hello, caller, you're on the air with SportsTalk."
"Ah! Ga' morning, John."
"Yes, this question is for Mr. Gaahd."
An hour later, God and I head to the premier's office. Waiting in the lobby, I calm my nerves by reading a Good Housekeeping magazine from 2001 that features a happily married Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin on the cover. Plastic Christmas trees decorate the premier's foyer; tinsel and baubles hang limply in the historic and sweltering building. I'm rather nervous. I have a propensity to become tongue-tied and say stupid things in high-stakes situations. Winston has informed us we should address the honorable Mr. Joseph Parry as "Mr. Premier." What if I blank and suddenly call him Mr. Parry or Your Highness or Hey Joe? And Gord has been no help, joking about the consequences of verbal blunder: Kathryn, be careful not to say St. Nitts and Kevis.
After five minutes, we're led into a conference room where the honorable Joseph Parry, a laid-back and kind-looking man in his 50s, shakes our hands and asks us to sit down at the U-shaped table. Parry already has been briefed about my request for citizenship, and he seems intrigued by my quest. Better still, he appears to be enjoying the presence of Lucas and Jim, who are clicking and rolling footage the whole time. We talk about how thrilled we are to be in St. Kitts and Nevis. We talk about Mr. Premier's past as a 400-meter runner. When the premier mentions his enjoyment in watching the Tour de France, we tell him of Gord's participation in the 1997 Tour and his three Olympic experiences. Gord tells Tour stories. Smiles all around. The premier asks about my training and the upcoming Olympics, and I assure him I'm ready to give it everything I have. He nods softly and tells us, diplomatically, he hopes it will all work out. He will take the matter up with the prime minister. Yessss! Another hurdle cleared! He's going to the prime minister, woohoo!
I am both pleased and disappointed, but disappointed only in my imagination. Everyone else agrees the meeting was perfect, just as they had hoped and predicted it would go. Perfect? Really? Because in my mental movie, the premier shakes my hand and says, Kathryn, I don't need to go to the prime minister. I'm going to issue you citizenship right here and now. We'll get the passport fairies to materialize all your documents momentarily. Would you like a glass of mango juice while you wait? Oh, and here is a newly laminated elite racing license for all your 2008 cycling needs. Is there anything else I can do for you?
Unfortunately, I'll have to be a big girl and wait. My Olympic dream is out of my hands yet again.
A TIMELESS VOID FILLED WITH BAD POETRY
Time, the second-greatest obstacle to my Olympic project (behind talent), has decided to make its presence felt in the cruelest of ways -- by standing still and moving rapidly, all at once. As I wait for St. Kitts and Nevis to deliver its verdict, Winston informs me it could take up to two weeks to get a meeting with the prime minister. This is cutting it dangerously close to the cycling regulations that require all countries to submit a roster of international athletes to the UCI (international cycling's governing body) by Dec. 20.
Back in Tucson, Ariz., I find myself checking my e-mail every few hours. I picture the premier, with my dreams in his pocket, going about his daily routine, drinking coffee, running a nation, filing papers that my Olympic dream could get buried beneath. I ask Winston if I should e-mail or call or write a letter to the premier. "Noooo," he says, "we just have to be patient." I'm not good at patience. I'd rather eat dung than be patient, but Winston is right. What would I say, anyway? Hey, Mr. Vice President of An Entire Caribbean Nation, do you have any answers for me yet? No? How about now? I'm jumping out of my skin here, dude. For the love of Gord, please give me an answer before I spontaneously combust!
Before I know it, I've become so impatient that all I can do is bike 350 miles a week and write very bad poetry in hopes of defusing my twitchy nerves:
Man With My Dream In Your Pocket
Man With My Dream In Your Pocket.
Don't fall down and hit your head.
That would be bad.
Go to your government, Man With My Dream In Your Pocket.
Ask them about my dream.
Tell them of my plan. My path. My wants and desires.
Twist their limbs and hearts until they say yes.
E-mail me, Man With My Dream In Your Pocket.
E-mail me now, before you accidentally trip, get amnesia and my dream dies, cold and alone, on your sunny tropical shores.
OK. Enough poetry. That's clearly not helping. What would help, however, is to prepare for the miraculous -- a "yes" to citizenship. A "yes" will mean I get to keep racing after my dream.
Unfortunately, obtaining dual citizenship does not mean I can just show up on the starting line of international cycling races and ride my bike. First, I'll need to have Winston contact each race director and ask how and if I can enter. Yes, if. Some races are invitation-only. Most race directors have no idea St. Kitts and Nevis has a cycling federation.
The logistics loom large. Find the Web site for each race. Translate the language of the Web site (only four out of 28 races are in English-speaking countries). With a fair number of races overlapping one another on the schedule, which events do I go to? Where will the best riders be? Which events will offer the most points? Do I go to the big races and take on the big guns but risk placing lower and gaining fewer points, or stick to the smaller races that offer fewer points but better chances of placing higher and therefore winning more points? What? Huh? Beg pardon? Exactly. My mind spinning, I plunk myself down next to Gord's desk at Carmichael Training Systems and we begin sifting through "yes" strategies.
After an hour, Gord and I look at the calendar we've printed off the UCI Web site. We've crossed out the ineligible races, underlined first choices, starred second choices, drawn arrows between different race locations, encircled rest days and, into the margin, we have tattooed which dates I might be in which countries: El Salvador early March, Poland late March, Belgium for one race early April, then immediately to Holland, next Spain for a two-day race, then a night flight to Italy for a one-day event, then redeye back to Spain for another, the United States has the last two races in May before the Olympic cutoff ... but let's keep Brazil, New Zealand and Luxembourg as maybes. I look at this page of scribbles, this weird, indecipherable blueprint of hope. Sitting there in that chair next to Gord, I feel completely drained. Dreams, it seems, can be quite heavy to carry.
Heavier still are deadlines. Dec. 20 comes and goes, and still no word from the prime minister. Winston puts in a request for a registration extension. Despite three attempts, the UCI does not answer. "Perhaps they are still thinking," Winston offers, his glass always half-full. "We can do nothing until we know the decision on your citizenship anyway."
I can't bear the thought of actually getting citizenship but just missing the deadline to race internationally. I don't even have a poem for that one.
The first week of January passes without a call or e-mail from Winston, other than a sympathetic salutation for a happy New Year and his acknowledgement on the state of my nerves. "I still have hope," he writes. Aww, Winston. OK then. If you do, I do, buddy.
Jan. 10: No word.
Jan. 12: Nothing.
Jan. 14: Nada.
Jan. 15: Nooo Caribbean love.
Jan. 16: Zip.
Jan. 17: Zilch.
Jan. 18: Still no word.
Jan. 19: Six weeks since our meeting with the premier.
Jan. 20: One month past the UCI deadline for team registration.
Jan. 21: Five months since I began my quest for citizenship.
Jan. 22: Five months and one day.
Jan. 23: Let's take this three at a time, shall we?
Jan. 26: Guess that doesn't make a difference.
Jan. 29: How many days are in January again?
Feb. 1: Shoot me now.
Feb. 3: UCI races start in less than a month.
Feb. 6-10: Eat. Sleep. Train. Check e-mail. Cry. Repeat.
Feb. 11: I'll be 33 in three months, old enough to be the mother of an Olympic gymnast.
Feb. 12-28: See Feb. 6-10.
Feb. 29: Great. Leap year. One more day of agony.
March 1: That's enough. I can't take this anymore. I e-mail Winston, as I've done every day for the past three months, thanking him for all he's done for me. Winston always writes back within the day, but this time I hear nothing from him. For three days. I guess we can't bring ourselves to say goodbye, to face the facts, to accept we did our best, but that we have to move on.
March 4: Descending Tucson's beloved Mount Lemmon on my bike, my cycling jersey pocket starts to vibrate at 12:57 p.m. I pull over. I don't know why. I never answer my phone while riding. Just like I never check my spam box.
"Kathryn," Winston bellows, "The prime minister and his cabinet approved it! You're a citizen of St. Kitts and Nevis!"
I vaguely remember my war whoops of exhilaration, followed by a breathless silence of disbelief. I vaguely remember telling Winston that I love him. I vaguely remember riding my bike back from Mount Lemmon. I vaguely remember calling my parents. What I clearly remember is March 4, though I didn't catch the symbolism of the date at first. All I could see was the three months of waiting, the eight months of citizenship hunting, the unending wondering and questioning. But the answer came on the one day of the year that is an answer in itself -- march forth! This is the greatest day on the calendar for anyone on a quest, anyone seeking answers, anyone who ever doubted herself and wondered if she should keep going. March forth.
Want to learn more about Kathryn's new country? Check it out here!
Up Next: With the help of St. Kitts and Nevis, Kathryn can chase her Olympic dream. But will the rules of the UCI keep Kathryn from racing?
Got a question or a comment? Send them to Kathryn at: ESPNOlympian@aol.com. Kathryn is sponsored by Team Sport Beans/NTTC, TriSports.com and Trek Bicycles.
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