E-ticket decided to find out, embarking on a two-year quest. Kathryn Bertine, a former competitive ice skater turned professional triathlete as well as an accomplished author, endeavored to earn a trip to the Beijing Games. After failing to make the U.S. team, Bertine gained dual citizenship from St. Kitts and Nevis. In the 13th installment, she faces the fateful deadline in her Olympic quest.
The last time I was in Uruguay, I was wearing sequins and fishnet stockings and had a face caked with makeup. And I had blond hair, which also was very bad idea. It was May 1998, and I was a professional figure skater on tour in South America, completely unaware my future had anything to do with a bicycle. Now, one decade later, I find myself back in Uruguay wearing a helmet and duct tape and having a face caked with sunscreen.
About the duct tape ...
Amanda Chavez, the WonderMinion, and I arrive in Montevideo, Uruguay's capital, for my next set of races. Not just any races, but the Pan American cycling championships, which I had no idea I'd be competing in until three days before. Every country in North, Central and South America (and any islands in the oceans in between) is eligible to send its national team to the Pan American championships. So here I am, the lone representative of St. Kitts and Nevis, proudly representing my new nation and answering the minimum 10 daily questions of Where exactly is St. Kitts and Nevis? After our eight-hour, red-eye flight from Venezuela (on a map, Uruguay is tucked just under Brazil and to the right of Argentina), I immediately collapse onto the hotel bed while WonderMinion heads to the race meeting. Acting as my manager, Amanda is supposed to make sure that all is well with my registration, that my uniform is race legal, and that I am in compliance with all Union Cycliste International rules and regulations. Turns out not all is perfect. Gee, there's a big surprise.
A few hours later, Amanda bursts into the hotel room and throws a heap of red and black Lycra at me. "Try this on. Quick," she orders. She is slightly out of breath.
I unfold what appears to be a time-trial skinsuit, cycling's aerodynamic equivalent of a body stocking. Only this one is about three sizes too big. "But I already have a skinsuit," I tell her.
"No, you don't. I took your Sport Beans suit to the race officials, and they said it has too many sponsor logos on it. It isn't UCI legal for the Pan Am Games."
"No, silly, the new St. Kitts and Nevis skinsuit from Champion Systems is coming by mail, remember?"
"Where did you get this one?" I ask, checking out the saggy spandex.
I try on the red-and-black skinsuit, a men's medium. It fits perfectly ... over my street clothes. "Good enough," Amanda decrees. WonderMinion grabs the skinsuit, bolts out the door, jumps into the car of a stranger and heads back to the race officials on the other side of Montevideo.
For the previous two hours, WonderMinion had been running around the city in search of a bike store. After she finally tracked one down, she explained my uniform situation to the shop owner. He didn't carry skinsuits, but said he would lend me his personal suit. Said it was good luck, even, because he had captured the time-trial world championships wearing it back in 1999. Amazing. One dream, so many people helping. The honchos of UCI approved my new race suit with one condition: that I cover up the brand name of the clothing manufacturer emblazoned on the chest, back and legs of the suit. The only way to do this on such short notice: duct tape.
"I have to race wearing duct tape and men's clothes?" I whine.
"Dude, I just saved your butt from riding naked," Amanda says, ripping silver strands of tape with her teeth. WonderMinion 1, Kathryn 0.
At the start of the 20-kilometer time trial, I look around at my competition. Cyclists from all over the Americas are warming up on stationary bikes, while trainers, team managers, mechanics, coaches, doctors, massage therapists and assistants gather around the cyclists like NASCAR pit crews. The cyclists don their sleek, aerodynamic helmets and mount disc wheels on to $10,000 bikes, while mechanics check every nut and bolt and measurement, and coaches mentally prep their athletes. I didn't have enough hands or luggage space to bring a stationary trainer with me. I wasn't permitted to take my time-trial bike to China because of storage space issues, so it isn't with me in South America, either. Someone from one of my composite teams of individual cyclists told me I'd be outfitted with a new aero helmet, so I left my old one at home. That didn't come through, either. So here I am among the world's elite, with a too-big skinsuit, a wind-catching helmet, well-worn wheels and a less-than-aerodynamic road bike with left/right clip-on aerobars that WonderMinion accidentally attached to the wrong sides.
The good news is I could care less. I am here, and it has been a hell of a fight to get to this point. I might not have the best equipment or a team to take care of my athletic needs, but I have two working wheels, two able legs, one willing mind and a WonderMinion with more heart and soul than any team of cycling professionals. I am here. There are Olympic points to chase. I'd ride a tricycle if I had to, duct tape and all.
Rolling down the starting ramp, I feel good. Strong. Stronger than usual. In fact, I feel really, really super-duper. Off I go. The Spanish-speaking race official announces my name and country into his bullhorn: "Keeatrin Berteeeen de St. Kittens and Novice." Gotta work on that. For the next half hour, I battle into the wind, aware of the Olympic points I could earn. I am hungry for a top-five finish. I know I can do it. I pedal with every ounce of strength. A piece of duct tape comes loose from my skinsuit and ensnares my braid, taping it securely to my back. At least my hair has become aerodynamic.
When I cross the line in 30 minutes, 1 second, I am ecstatic. Though all courses and conditions are different, this race result is five minutes better than my time-trial finish 10 months ago at U.S. nationals. I send Amanda to grab the final results from the officials. She returns with a piece of paper and a blank expression.
"I double-checked," she says. "They're correct."
I look down the results to find my name in 14th place. Out of 15 riders. The time is correct, 30:01. Despite hellacious winds and non-aero everything, this is my fastest 20K time trial to date. But the winner put up a 27-minute time. And 12 others crossed the line between us. The disappointment overwhelms me. I can handle it when I lose my chain on a pothole or snap a water bottle cage on nasty pavement. I can handle getting elbowed by giant Chinese cyclists, or being bumped by aggressive Brazilians, or narrowly missing sprint bonuses, or nearly crashing out on a dangerous corner, or finishing two seconds behind the winner without winning any points. But I'm having a hard time with the fact that in this time trial, I went as hard and as fast as I could and finished second to last.
I'm trying so hard to think good thoughts. I was 2:45 behind the two American cyclists who beat me by more than four minutes last July, and I was competing against the national champions from two continents. Still, it hurts like hell when you're confronted with the reality that your best just isn't good enough. Maybe I should have ridden a tricycle.
In my lifelong athletic experience, I've discovered there is only one way to deal with a crappy race result, a poor-me attitude and the daunting prospect of another race less than 24 hours away: It's called beef. Amanda and I find a Uruguayan grill and refuel my depleted body with a giant steak, heaps of potatoes, a leafy salad and some tasty little dulce-de-leche bakery cookies. Things always look a little brighter with a belly full of fat, protein and carbs. Bright enough to remember i have 12 days of racing to go before the cutoff date to accumulate Olympic points. Maybe my best wasn't good enough in the time trial, but I have 12 tomorrows left in this quest.
Make that 11. Though the next day's Pan American champs 100K road race is a strong effort, my finish in a giant lead pack of 60-some riders is not enough to gain me any points. To fall short by mere milliseconds is something all cyclists accept. I can see so much progress in my cycling. I ride in the front, despite having no teammates to help protect me from attacks, breaks, sprints and wind. I hold a steady line, I don't give way to others who try to bump me from my spot. But I've been in this sport for only 15 months; for a 32-year-old newbie, nothing comes easy.
Make that 33. On May 11, the day after the road race, I celebrate my 33rd birthday, just before Amanda and I fly to El Salvador for my next racing adventure. How does a cyclist celebrate her birthday while on an international tour for Olympic points? Sleeping. And dreaming. While I was curled up in front of the hotel television, my favorite movie, "Invincible," comes on Uruguay's version of HBO. Despite the Spanish subtitles, I watch (for the millionth time) the story of Vince Papale, the 30-year-old bartender/substitute teacher who earned a roster spot with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1976. Against all odds and having never played college football, he kicked some serious butt as a wide receiver for three seasons and even became a team captain. This man is my athletic hero, and I don't even particularly like football. But Papale's story spoke to me, so I got in touch with him earlier in the year and told him about my Olympic quest. Awesome guy that he is, Papale answered back. We had dinner when he visited Arizona a few months ago.
"Kathryn, keep grinding, don't let anything hold you back," Papale said. He told me all about his amazing life and his football experiences and humored me when I asked him to tell me all about Mark Wahlberg. Twice. Vince Papale, NFL veteran, having dinner with me, the Olympic maybe! I love this man. Weirdly, I went to see "Invincible" in a theater the night my first ESPN column was posted in 2006, so I find it a nice omen that it is on TV on my birthday in the middle of my Olympic quest. Later that night, I actually dream that I am playing quarterback for my high school football team and that a scout for the "Olympic Football Committee" is in the stands. I am immediately recruited to represent the first-ever St. Kitts and Nevis Olympic gridiron team. Dream analysis: At this moment in my life, pretty much anything is possible. But before I enter the NFL draft, I need to keep my feet on the pedals and grind it out in El Salvador. Eleven races left ...
Because I am barely able to move my exhausted, postrace body beyond the Bermuda Triangle of athleticoma (bed, bathroom and television) on a daily basis, Amanda pilots the details of my Olympic dreams. For the upcoming 11-day, 13-stage event, WonderMinion will become my bike mechanic, gear carrier, get-out-of-bed-Bertine-er, water bottle handler, calf-cramp healer, Internet-connection pilferer and Pizza Hut dialer. That last one will literally save my life.
Many people don't know this, but the Central American country of El Salvador has another name. Hades. We arrive at the San Salvador airport at 11 p.m., and the thermometer reads 90 degrees. With 10 days of nearly 100-kilometer races (often up the sides of volcanoes), I immediately understand I am in for a sweatfest unlike anything I have ever known.
We are also in cultural shock. Though all 70-some cyclists are officially housed at the equivalent of El Salvador's Olympic training center -- the Albergue Indes Sports Hotel -- we are not permitted off the compound without armed guards. Though the country is physically beautiful and the people are kind and welcoming, the political strife and poverty have wreaked social havoc. For example, we are not allowed to take a warm-up ride the day before our race because of a shooting in the neighborhood. In fact, guards toting AK-47s accompany us to the starting lines of all our races.
Luckily, the arrival of the prerace adrenaline fairies provides a hearty dose of reality-deflecting denial: Here I go on a super-fast bike ride! Look at all the pretty weapons! Nothing bad can happen to me! I wanna be an Olympian! La la la la la la!
As was the case in China and Venezuela, to race the Vuelta Ciclista Femenina a El Salvador, I need to be on an UCI-sanctioned composite team of four to six riders. The race director groups me with five other cyclists, all of whom are trying to chase down Olympic points. Joelle Numainville from Canada, Anita Valen from Norway, three young local El Salvadoran girls and I comprise Team GSB, short for Le Grand Saint Bernard Swiss Resort-Domaine du Chene. I can now legitimately say I have been a Jelly Belly, a Champion System and a St. Bernard, all in the name of cycling. Each member of Team GSB is given one race kit (jersey and bib shorts) for an 11-day events. This means nightly sink laundering and two lovely days when we'll have to be in wet and dirty clothes because we will race a morning and afternoon event. By the end of the two weeks in El Salvador, my kit will be holey, stinky and gray from pollution. Though we are friendly with one another, there will be no team tactics or camaraderie employed among Team GSB members. Other professional and national teams have women assigned to particular roles (sprinter, leader, etc.); we will be each woman for herself. I am used to this by now.
What I am not used to, however, is the idea that the reigning world champion, Marianne Vos, and her studette team (DSB Bank) are here. So is Giant Pro Cycling, the Chinese team with its 8-foot-tall women. How do you say, "Get outta my way" in Chinese, again? Oh, yes: Jung kai!) Also racing will be the national teams of Spain, Ukraine, Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Cuba, Costa Rica, Brazil, and a few other composite teams.
Months ago, coach Gord Fraser and I decided racing in El Salvador, as opposed to going to some of the races simultaneously being held in Europe, might give me a better shot for points. After all, how many cyclists would venture all the way to Central America to chase Olympic points? Answer: A lot. In the final qualification stages of an Olympic year, cyclists come out of the woodwork looking for points. And they're all fast and strong. In El Salvador, we have a start list of around 70 riders on the first day. Though my chances are slim, winning one stage on one day would get me nearly all the points I'd need to put me in the top 100 in the world rankings, getting me to the Beijing Games. Of course, with the best team in the world racing here, that will be nearly impossible. Luckily, "nearly" is good friends with my favorite word, "doable." Odds don't mean anything. A chance is a chance is a chance.
Chances are, however, that detailing every stage of an 11-day, 13-stage cycling race would leave most readers blind, bored or both. A snapshot of the beginning, middle and end seems like a better way to go, so ...
The first day features the Grand Prix Santa Ana, a 96K venture into the mighty hills of El Salvador. After four weeks of flat-course races in China, Venezuela and Uruguay, where the sprinters dominated the points and ranks, I am feeling a bit dejected with my results. I wonder whether I belong here, among the best, with no teammates and so little international experience. And then something changes. I stop wondering. I don't have time to wonder. When I see the profile of the El Salvador race courses, I feel a strange sense of calm. Hills are my homeboys. All of a sudden I have teammates of the topographical kind.
And so, 15K into the race, there comes a large, long hill. And a break of nearly 20 riders, including Vos, the world champ. And lo, I am in this break! Off we go. I keep up with every surge and sprint and attack. Better still, I initiate some of them! When the pace backs off with 20K remaining, a voice inside me says, "There is no way I am slowing down, there is no way I am going to let a sprinter win this race. A climber will win this race, and I'm going to make sure of it." So I take off. With no teammates to help me, the other riders sit in and wait for me to get tired. But I don't get tired. Not yet. A rider from Spain comes up to me and takes her hands off her handlebars and puts one hand across my waist and says, "Stop. Slow down." A string of expletives flies out of my mouth, though I'm not sure which language I am using. I shake free of her and keep going.
When the finish line rolls around, there is the usual sprint, but only the climbers are left in the pack. I do not win. Vos does. I come in 20th. But this is the highest-level race on the UCI calendar. Qualifying points for this stage go 20 places deep. I have points! Three of them! Disbelieving, Amanda and I double-check with the head official. WonderMinion asks in Spanish and English, "Points go 20 places deep, correct?" "Si, Si!" the official answers. That is when I begin to cry gushy tears.
Points? I was never even supposed to be here. I was never supposed to get this far in this quest. Two years ago, ESPN thought my Olympic attempt would make an interesting article or two. Not 13. And now I have points! It might not be enough to get to the Olympics just yet, but hot damn, it sure does open the door. Today is a very good day.
A few days later, a saddle sore the size of Pluto is growing where the sun don't shine. The heat, humidity, sweat and ill-fitting jerseys have joined forces to occupy the left trench separating thigh and butt. Also attempting to inhabit this area is the bike saddle itself. This war will rage for the next nine days and the result is an angry, volcanic welt of grape-sized nastiness that hurts so badly I have to waddle when I'm off the bike and wobble when I'm on it. No position is comfortable, and relief comes only when I take a very deep breath and lean all my weight directly on the sore until it goes numb.
Now brace yourself, because here is the really sick part: I like my saddle sore, not so much the sore itself, but the barometer of pain it represents. For two weeks of physical anguish that merciless lump asks me the same question: Is that all you got, Bertine? Two years ago, the answer might have been "yes." But in the last two weeks of my Olympic dream, I can look that pain in the eye -- and believe me, it actually has an eye -- and answer "no." Hell no! Let me show you exactly what I've got, you pathetic excuse for a cyst! I'll show you pain. I'm going to kick your butt, even if, technically, you are my butt.
If trash-talking with my saddle sore isn't a clear enough indication of my mental state, then cycling up El Boqueron -- one of El Salvador's active volcanoes -- provides the needed evidence. The funny thing about cycling up a volcano with a 19 percent grade is that, at the base, you hope to God it doesn't blow. About 20 minutes later, you start hoping it will. To gain a perspective on how steep 19 percent is, pick out a wall in your house and try to climb it. Though El Boqueron is "only" 13 kilometers long, it is situated at the end of our 83K race. Exhausted, dehydrated and depleted, I react to the ridiculous steepness by laughing at its absurdity and at my bike computer, which indicates I am traveling at a speed of 3 kilometers per hour.
I laugh at the fact I can barely grip the handlebars because the humidity and sweat has saturated my gloves to the point of uselessness. I laugh at the spool of ruby-colored, Gatorade-infused drool dangling from my mouth, unable to spare the energy to wipe it away. I laugh at WonderMinion, who attempts to hand me a water bottle on the steepest pitch, but I can't steady my bike enough to grab it, so she pours it over my head. I watch two women ahead of me tip over onto the pavement because they can't turn their pedals fast enough to remain upright. And I laugh at them, even while knowing I am probably next. I double-take at the enormous dead horse lying in the bike lane, because there is no way that can be real. Humor rekindles on the last kilometer of the climb, where local villagers sell handmade furniture alongside the road. What kind of furniture? Beds and chairs. I am at the top of a volcano, about to die from exhaustion, and all around me are beds and chairs that I am not allowed to sit on. My saddle sore finds that one particularly funny.
As if the climbing in El Salvador isn't preposterous enough, the descents can be just as dangerous. We are not on a closed course, so oncoming traffic is a threat. Being part of a pack of 80 women screaming downhill at more than 40 mph through switchback roads is an interesting experience. I call on the adrenaline fairies once more to calm me, and they whisper their special blend of motivational denial. Before I know it, I'm telling myself things like: I've got a helmet, I can take a bus head on! Yellow lines are so decorative! What's a little love tap from a side-view mirror? When you're at the brink, you'll tell yourself whatever it takes to keep going. I finish the race in the middle of the pack. No points today.
Actually, no points at all. At dinner that evening, Amanda discovers that the race official who confirmed my points for 20th place was wrong. That race gave points up to only 12 places, not 20. "But," he offers as a consolation, "you did win prize money."
"Oh, how much?"
"Twenty dollars, U.S. currency!"
"Excellent. How many points will that buy?"
Perhaps if I laugh at this, too, no one will truly know how close I am to jumping into the mouth of El Boqueron. But it could be much worse. At least I still have the ability to race the last five stages. Not everyone will. Today's volcanic efforts have taken their toll on many of us. At dinner in the dining hall, two girls faint into their food. Another is taken to the hospital with severe cramping. Another tore her groin from the intensity of the 19 percent grade. Ten women will drop out of the race by the next morning. Points or no points, at least I am still able to try.
Or so I think. No points, giant saddle sores, three days of racing left ... I drag myself to bed only to wake up a few hours later with fever sweats. My body, 7 pounds lighter than it was 10 days ago, has had all it can handle of the low-fat chicken and rice that the dining hall gives us at every meal. But without a way to travel to the local stores and restaurants, there aren't a lot of options. WonderMinion discovers that Pizza Hut delivers, and it turns out I am likely the only person in El Salvador for whom the globalization of fast food has actually prolonged life.
Still, the heat and humidity have made it nearly impossible to stay hydrated, and without a personal medical team there is little chance for IV fluid replacement. I drink all I can, but volcano-climbing days and sweat-ridden nights leave me completely drained. For the first time in two years, I contemplate quitting. Not because I want to, but because my body insists something is wrong. Three women on Team GSB already have dropped out. Happens all the time in cycling, I've been told. Most cyclists know their limits, and when they're done, they're done. Experienced cyclists have a good handle on the difference between stopping and quitting. They seem to understand that "stopping" revolves around physical issues and "quitting" comes down to mental fortitude. I fully agree. It makes total sense. I should stop. I have a fever, too much weight loss, and my organs feel as if they're in a heated game of musical chairs. Stopping would be smart.
At 6 a.m., Amanda wakes me up. "Can you get up?" she asks.
"I don't know."
"If you can't race, it's OK," she says in her calm, cool, WonderMinion way. "You've done your best." She tells me the cyclists' bus will leave at 8 a.m., and she'll have my bike ready just in case. If I quit -- or stop -- on any given day, the rules of racing will not permit me to start the next day. I will have a DNF next to my name and be out of contention for points, for the Olympics. For two hours, I roll around in sweat and tears and what-ifs. Yes, you can, body! says my mind. Mind, you're a raging idiot, says my body. At 7:55, I roll out of bed, put on my still-damp-from-doing-laundry-in-the-sink-too-late jersey and pollution-stained, gray-tinged, armpit-reeking jersey and head onto the bus moaning incoherently and looking like an extra from "Day of the Dead." I flop down next to WonderMinion. She gives me a silent knuckle bump. I can live with quitting. I can live with stopping. But I simply cannot grasp not starting.
I finish that stage, barely, and the final two days of the race. Every day there is a chance for points. Every day there is a fight to the finish line. Every day I try. But I come up short. The points cut-off date approaches, and since I don't have the 45 it would take to rank me among the top 100 cyclists in the world, I won't be an Olympian in 2008. And that is that. Amanda and I leave El Salvador the next day.
Though it is nearly impossible to describe precisely the emotion that comes with the ending of my quest, the best I can do is this: fulfilled emptiness. I have emptied myself physically and emotionally into my goal. I left it all on the line. Given everything I have. And that kind of emptiness is more fulfilling than anything I've ever known. Some people go through their entire lives without experiencing the rush, joy, fear and bottomless emotion of living in the moment. For two years, ESPN has given me the chance to live in the moments -- about 62,893,850 of them, if you equate moments to seconds. How can I possibly be disappointed about that? I am not upset. I am not sad. I am not angry. I do not have the impulse to kick or throw anything. I did not make the Olympics ... and honestly, I think that's awesome.
No one, myself included, should be able to make an Olympic team with less than two years of experience. If that starts happening, we need a new Olympics. Maybe 20 years ago a few "fringe" sports had so few competitors it was "easier" to qualify for the Olympics. But not today. There is not one sport on the Olympic roster that is easy -- trust me, I've tried them all -- nor underpopulated. Even if there were, it still wouldn't matter. Sports, especially women's sports, have progressed on such a worldwide basis that making any national team no longer ensures an athlete a berth in the Olympics. A common misconception: Because I received dual citizenship from St. Kitts and Nevis, I would automatically go to the Olympics. But with 161 nations and more than 700 female riders registered with the Union Cycliste International, there is no way to get to the Games without experience, hard work, dedication, qualifying points and what Coach Gord perfectly summarized as "paying your dues."
At El Salvador's airport, I ask Marianne Vos, the 21-year-old world champion, when she started racing. "When I was 5," she says, "I have been doing this for 16 years." That is one year for every month of my experience. Those are some well-paid dues. Look for her on the podium in Beijing.
So, whether my readers have been rooting for me or against me, let there be one thing everybody can agree on about this quest: The Olympics are no joke. The Games are stronger than ever. I was a professional athlete going into this project, and I'm twice as strong now -- head, heart and body -- as when I started, so I can attest to the fact that the athletes who are going to Beijing deserve to be going, and those who did not qualify can hold their heads high knowing they competed against the very best. I did everything in my power to get to Beijing, given the resources, time and talent that I had. Though some will say I failed, I would rather look at my Olympic journey from Thomas Edison's perspective: "I did not fail. I successfully found 10,000 ways that did not work." I'm not disappointed. Just the opposite. I am even more motivated to find out what, in life, will work.
So, what now?
What if I continue to get stronger, faster, better as a cyclist? What if my love of the sport grows even more? What if a pro cycling team signs me, and if not, what if I keep racing alone? What if I continue to race for St. Kitts and Nevis and make a run for the 2012 Olympic Games in London? I'm not ruling that out.
In the meantime, I have a few busy months ahead. I will represent St. Kitts and Nevis in the world championships in Varese, Italy, in the fall. I will stay in my new country for a while to help Winston Crooke build up the St. Kitts and Nevis Cycling Federation so that someday the Caribbean will be a stealth force in men's and women's cycling. In addition, I'll work on the book that this journey has allowed me to write. ESPN plans to publish it in March 2009. And you thought my articles were long! But for the next few weeks, I'm going to rest. I am going to make nice with my saddle sore. I am going to eat a lot of food. I am going to sit down for one entire day. And I am going to like it.
During my journey, I kept a folder with me when I traveled to races and events. It is white, with a Tropicana logo that tells me in authoritative block lettering, "OJ is more than OK." I have no recollection of where this folder came from, but it now houses bits and pieces of my Olympic adventure. After unpacking my El Salvador suitcase, I decide it is time to clean this thing out. As I begin separating hotel receipts from rental-car agreements, I discover that what I thought was clutter is actually treasure. Here, in this tattered white folder, are the invoices of effort and achievement. What was clutter just moments ago has become priceless. I couldn't see it clearly at first, the achievement thing. (Being on a mission is great, but quests are not renowned for making one immediately self-aware. That comes later. Wax on, wax off.) Yet, in this folder of scrap paper and scribbled notes, I see that I truly achieved the one thing I set out to do: to find the boundaries of "doable" and render it "didable."
In the folder I find a printout for an Ironman entry, a download on track cycling technique and another entitled "How To Play Team Handball." Coaching invoices, race calendars, Web-page bookmarks on Beijing culture. Frequent-flier numbers, national team federation numbers, international calling codes and unidentifiable confirmations, one marked "MX5G3RT0012." Directions to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., directions from the Olympic training center in Lake Placid, N.Y., and a notepad marked Oualie Beach Hotel of Nevis. Physical therapy bills, race-entry receipts, sponsors' business cards and a cycling prize money envelope that serendipitously still has $5 in it. A list of extremely important emergency phone numbers written on a Post-it of Homer Simpson consuming multicolored doughnuts with an underscored note reminding me to call, in the following order: Dad, plumber and Poland. An abundance of random quotes and important thoughts that are in my handwriting but not my memory. But here they are, in my folder.
I look at the things in this collection of yellowed customer copies and fraying local coupons and digital e-mail reminders, and I understand now that these are the receipts of living. Who knew? Colby Pearce did. As the track cycling coach in Colorado Springs, Pearce was the first to listen to my Olympic dream and utter the word "doable" while looking me in the eye. I believed him. "Doable." Not "maybe," not "possibly," not "perhaps." Those words leave a lot to chance. "Doable," with its amazing ability to promise nothing and everything all at once, still left me in charge.
I knew that the task I had set for myself -- to cycle my way onto an Olympic team in less than 18 months, and ultimately, only 20 days to accumulate points -- left the odds stacked against me. But the odds never bothered me. If you think about it, odds don't really exist. They're just guesses. Odds are the dark side of maybe. Being frightened of "maybe" seems a terrible waste of time. The only true fear I had was of leaving some stone unturned, of leaving some "doable" left "untried."
There is a great saying: Half of life is just showing up. Well, I just found out the most wonderful news! So is the other half. That is all we're supposed to do, show up. Showing up is hardly passive; it's the sly first cousin of initiative. We're supposed to go places and see what happens when we get there. We're supposed to try things and see what happens when we do. Above all else, we owe it to ourselves to show up for our own dreams. Showing up is doable, even if the dream isn't.
So here I am. A good athlete who attempted greatness for two years. And who just might keep trying. I don't have an Olympic medal. I don't have an Olympic experience, not by conventional standards, anyway. But here's this torn-up folder, filled with clippings and chicken scratches that tell me I tried, reminds me I showed up, confirms I marched forth, and gives me this serene feeling of inner peace.
Strange are the medals life gives out: Sometimes a pile of crumpled paper is worth more than gold.
Got a question or a comment? Send them to Kathryn at ESPNOlympian@aol.com.
Want to race your bike around Nevis on Sept. 6-7? Or just come on down for a vacation? How about ordering a St. Kitts and Nevis Cycling Federation team issue jersey? Check out www.neviscycleclub.com for information. Kathryn is sponsored by Sport Beans/NTTC, Trek Bicycles and Trisports.com.
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