So You Wanna Be An Olympian?

Editor's Note: Just how difficult is it to make the Olympic Games? 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 two-year quest. Kathryn Bertine, a former competitive ice skater turned professional triathlete and accomplished author, endeavored to earn a trip to the Beijing Games. Though she failed to qualify for the U.S. team, Bertine did gain dual citizenship while trying to represent St. Kitts and Nevis. In the 14th installment, she begins moving on after the end of her quest for the 2008 Olympics.


"You were very color-coordinated, so that helped us out," British sports commentator Emma Jones assures me. We are standing in the lobby of a hotel in Varese, Italy, after my time trial event in the 2008 Cycling World Championships. The first of 43 riders to compete in the individual race, I was on camera for an extended period while I stood on the starting ramp. No one had ever heard of the St. Kitts and Nevis Cycling Federation. And since no one had ever heard of me, the commentators had no idea what to talk about.

"Your cycling kit looked very sharp. We talked about the lovely reds, greens and stars on your skinsuit," she says. Yeah, that's right, I think to myself, go ahead and talk about my stars. Stars today, galaxies tomorrow. You might not know me or my country right now, but get ready to watch us grow, my commentator friend. Then she asks, "How, exactly, did you come to race for St. Kitts and Nevis?"

"How much time, exactly, do you have?" I reply.

Kathryn's Journey

Kathryn Bertine's Olympic quest has been an up-and-down journey involving six sports and two countries. Check out earlier chapters:
PARTS: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6
7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13

I tell her the entire story of my two-year quest for ESPN.com, from the first day of my modern pentathlon experience in Colorado Springs in 2006 to cycling across my final finish line on a volcano in El Salvador in May 2008.

"Let me get this straight," she attempts to clarify. "You've been racing a bike for 20 months, you're at the world championships -- without teammates -- and you're representing a country that's never been to worlds before?"

I nod, fully aware of how weird that sounds.

"Good luck on Saturday," she offers, with more sincerity than I expected. "We'll root for you."

As it turned out, I needed more than rooting. A motorized bicycle, for example, would have been helpful. But let's begin a few months before that September conversation, before skinsuits and stars and start ramps and world champs.

In August, I watched the Beijing Olympics unfold from my living room, on a borrowed TV with a crooked antenna and just enough reception to bring in the local NBC station. (Before starting this project I was too poor to buy a TV. Then, when I knew I'd be training and writing all day, I decided I was too easily distracted to get one.) I loved every minute of the Summer Games. A lot of my readers wrote in to ask me whether watching the Olympics, instead of being in them, was bittersweet. No. It was all sweet, no bitterness. That is the benefit of going for broke. I left it all out there, no "what ifs" or "should have dones." I wasn't in the Olympics because I wasn't strong enough to be there (yet), so I watched the Games in complete mental peace. I marveled at Michael Phelps, applauded all underdog sports, gawked at prepubescent Chinese gymnasts, endured more hours of beach volleyball than there are grains of sand on Earth and cheered for the four St. Kitts and Nevis track and field athletes: Kim Collins, Virgil Hodge, Mertizer Williams and Tiandra Ponteen.

But when women's cycling finally came on, I didn't watch the Olympics. I felt them. I paced my living room the entire broadcast, my heart rate likely similar to the athletes'. I saw the women I had raced with in Asia and South America -- Guiseppena Grassi from Mexico, who was my roommate in Venezuela; Anita Valen from Norway, my composite teammate in El Salvador; the three Brazilians I'd bumped shoulders with in Uruguay; the towering Chinese women who had dominated my race in Shanghai; the South African women I'd sat with in the dining hall in Chongming, China; and the American women I had tried to emulate at the Pan-Am Championships. Having ridden with them enough to know such details, I identified them not by helmet color and national jersey, but by their body posture and pedal stroke. When Kristin Armstrong of the United States obliterated her competition and won the gold medal in the time trial event, I jumped up and down on my couch ... then promptly fell off my couch when Jeannie Longo of France, finished fifth. Jeannie is 49 years old. One thought continued to cycle though my mind as I watched the Games, the same thought I'd had since the day my 2008 Olympic quest ended. I still want this. I'll try for 2012. Now that I know what I'm doing, imagine what could happen in four years.

During the Olympics, I talked frequently with Winston Crooke, the head of the St. Kitts and Nevis Cycling Federation, discussing my plan to go to Nevis this winter and help build a cycling development program. In the meantime, Winston had another idea. "Kathryn, our country can send one female rider to the world championships in Italy in September. What do you think?"

Translation: Hey, Kathryn, do you want to go race against all the women who just competed in the Olympics, plus the three to five next-best riders from each nation?

"YEEEAAAAHHHH, baby!! Wooooohooooo!!"

Translation: Yes, Winston. I would very much like to go to the world championships. Thank you.

Gearing up for the world championships meant there would be very little rest time after my Olympic attempt, as I continued to race in the United States through September. From national events to local time trials, I saw the progress of my previous 20 months of cycling begin to take shape. I placed quite well at a few races in Massachusetts (Fitchburg and Tour of Hilltowns) and won the team time trial state championship in Arizona, with three wonderful teammates, one of whom was none other than The WonderMinion herself, Amanda Chavez. Since returning from our South American adventures, WonderMinion has taken a real job that does not involve slinging my bike box around the Southern Hemisphere. She now works as a contractor for the U.S. government, doing background checks on prospective employees. Her coworkers actually call her Amanda. As perfect as her wonderminioning was, I knew there was only one possible replacement for my traveling partner for my trip to Italy: my coach, the ever-entertaining Gord Fraser of Carmichael Training Systems, who has worked with me for the past year. Off to Italy we went ...

The Three Musketeers Invade Italy

Gord and I land in Milan -- a 12-hour flight from Tucson, Ariz. -- and drive an hour north to the town of Varese, just a few miles from the Swiss border, where we will meet Winston at the hotel. Whereas some countries bring as many as 14 cyclists and an entourage of coaches, managers, mechanics and massage therapists, Gord, Winston and I become the Three Musketeers of the St. Kitts and Nevis team. In two years of race travel, this is the biggest team I've ever been on.

Signs and posters for the Road Cycling World Championships are everywhere, even the back of the luggage carts in the airport. In every shop window, vintage bicycle displays show an outpouring of community support. I'm starting to understand this is a very big deal. There will be two races in Italy, the 24-kilometer time trial and the 138-kilometer road race. There will be three fields: pro men, pro women and an elite group of junior men under 23. Gord and I spend a few days training on the race courses, which are hard, hilly, fast and filled with technical descents (aka corners that can maim). There are two rather monstrous climbs, which could be cardiovascularly deadly, depending on the pace of the peloton. Yet none of it intimidates me, for gone are the things that do -- there are no potholes, no open sewer grates, no stray dogs or ice cream vendors that have snuck onto the closed course. I have arrived, I think to myself.

"All worlds courses are like this," Gord attests. "This is the big leagues of cycling."

Gord is a three-time Canadian Olympian and a Tour de France competitor. He once was named North America's greatest sprint cyclist, so I wonder how many times he has been to the world championships.

"Twice," he says.

"How'd they go?" I ask.

"Didn't finish either one. Hardest races I've ever done."

Time to change the subject: "Hey, look, gelato!"

Kathryn Leads the Way

The day before the time trial, Gord heads to the race meeting and procures the start list. I spend the day with my feet up, mumbling, "Contre la montre ... contre la montre ...," which is Italian for "time trial" and lots of fun to say. There will be 43 women in the event. Countries represented: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Belarus, Brazil, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Great Britain, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Mexico, Mongolia, Netherlands, Norway, New Zealand, Poland, South Africa, Spain, Russia, Slovenia, Switzerland, Slovakia, Sweden, Ukraine, USA, Venezuela and the very color-coordinated St. Kitts and Nevis. The top 10 individuals from the 2007 world championships will go last (as in "save the best for"). The remaining start order is based on each country's overall ranking. Unranked, unknown countries go earlier. While it doesn't really matter when a rider goes off, seeing as we're racing against the clock and not each other, it is much more fun to go later in the order. Knowing there are women up ahead gives a cyclist something to shoot for, to focus on hunting down and passing.

"You're going off first," Gord says.

"First?!"

"Yep. Think of it this way, it'll be good camera time for St. Kitts and Nevis."

Yeah, a TV camera capturing my first-time-at-worlds nerves. Awesome! Yet, somewhere deep inside, I really do think it is awesome. I'm at the world championships, representing a country that is finally going to get on the charts of international racing. Not to mention, I'm getting the most valuable experience yet -- racing against Olympians, learning how it's done. With 90-second intervals between each rider, there is a huge bonus to going first: If no one passes me, I get to be the world champion for at least a few seconds. OK, first it is. Maybe starting first is a good sign ...

Or not.

Warming up before the race on the stationary trainer (on an extra wheel we've borrowed from U.S. national champion, Olympian and Tour de France cyclist Dave Zabriskie), I ask Gord if he thinks I should go with the long-sleeved or short-sleeved skinsuit.

"Let me see your arms," Gord says.

I hold out my forearms.

"You're not too hairy. Shortsleeves are fine."

While it is always nice to be reminded I'm not a Yeti, I notice most other women are donning full sleeves, so I do too. I feel fast and sleek and ready in my Saran Wrap-ish, St.Kitts and Nevis-flag-colored skinsuit. Gord borrows a radio from the friendly Canadian team and slips it into the neck of my suit, then smushes the earpiece into my ear and tapes it into place. "We'll be behind you in the team car, and you'll be able to hear me the whole way," he explains.

"Where's the receiver that allows me to talk to you?"

"I don't need to hear you. Plus, you won't be able to talk at maximum effort."

"Roger that."

Winston walks me to the start line, carrying my bike. He's wearing his St. Kitts and Nevis jersey and looks proud, which makes me feel pretty darn happy. Before I head to the start ramp, Winston takes my arm and says "St. Kitts and Nevis has never been to a cycling world championship before, Kathryn. We're here because of you."

"No, Winston," I assure him, "we're here because of you."

He gives the big booming Winston laugh, and I step up to the start ramp. I hear my earpiece cackle into action, Gord's voice reverberating off my eardrum. "OK, you've done the work. You know the course. As soon as the clock starts, turn your brain off and suffer."

I tend to suffer much more when my brain is on, but I keep that to myself.

"Go get 'em."

Go I do. Get 'em? Not so much.

While the experience of racing through the northern Italian countryside on a route lined with fans, supporters and TV cameras is unforgettable, my race itself is rather, well, forgettable. The entire time trial, my legs lack the punch I usually feel. Gord barks encouragement and enthusiasm, and offers helpful reminders such as "pedal," "breathe" and "go, go, go," which are strangely easy to forget in the midst of physical suffering. Despite turning out good watts and power, I feel clunky and slowish. I know enough about cycling now to accept that some days are on, some days are off and some linger in that vast purgatory of athletic effort known as "blah." I can speculate about the reasons for all eternity -- not enough racing, too much racing, 20 months without an offseason, 42 national champions as my competitors -- or I can accept the day for what it is. Not my best, but not my worst.

Since no one passes me, I am able to be the world champion for about 30 glorious seconds. I finish the race 5 minutes and 20 seconds behind the winner, superfast Amber Neben of the United States, and 4:52 seconds behind Olympic gold-medalist Kristin Armstrong, who finishes fifth. (Kristin has no relation to Lance, but I think they should double-check the genealogy). My effort is good enough for 41st place out of the 43 women. Or as I prefer to interpret it, nowhere to go but up in 2009. If I can knock off one minute per year, I'll be all set for London 2012. (What's that noise? Hey, it's the Doable Bells chiming!) Alas, 41st doesn't come with a medal, but it provides one prize I really needed: experience. That, and a plethora of photos of my rear end as taken from the team car behind me. What more could a girl want?

The Doper Dictionary

Later that night, my commentator friend from England, Emma, asks how the time trial went. "I prepared well but didn't quite have it today," I tell her.

Gord quickly pulls me aside. "Kathryn, don't tell anyone you prepared well for this race," he whispers. "Tell them you trained well."

"What the heck's the difference?!" I ask.

"Saying you've 'prepared well' is a cycling euphemism for doping," Gord explains.

"No way!"

"Way."

I panic.

Prematurely, as it turns out. "Seeing as you came in 41st, I think you're safe from being labeled a doper," Gord reassures me.

Oh. Well then. I guess losing has some advantages after all. But hear this, you big, dumb, blood-doping cheaters out there: I'm taking "prepared well" back to its rightful, clean-competing, hard-working owners right now. No one comes into my sports journalism dictionary and pushes me around. I did prepare well, I do prepare well, and I will prepare well. Maybe I didn't win the world championships, but at least I ride clean, hard and with literary correctness. Put that in your syringe and stick it. (Ooooh, Angry Kathryn! We haven't seen her for a while!)

Crashes, DNFs and KNSs

Two days later, the road race championship offers me another opportunity to compete against the best in the world. It also offers me the inverse of the time trial -- I am called to the start line last, behind 139 riders who represent ranked countries. With no ranking, three lone riders from St. Kitts and Nevis, Slovakia and Estonia roll up to the end of the pack. No cyclist is allowed to move up or jockey for position until the gun goes off, and I find myself in a precarious position. Being at the front is important because (A) it is safer, (B) there is less yo-yo effect in the speed and pace, (C) you can see the road in front of you, (D) it is easier to avoid crashes and pile-ups, and (E) you don't feel like a loser.

Having no control over my position, I let it go and focus on what I can do. My plan is to move up through the pack on the first hill, less than 300 meters from the start line. Regrettably, the 139 riders ahead of me don't give a hooey about my plan and it gets shot to pieces within three minutes. When the gun goes off, the U.S. team members (nicely situated at the front of the line) have their own plan -- to personally ruin me. Or so it feels. Facing nearly eight laps of a grueling, hill-infested 9.2 kilometer course (74 kilometers total), most cyclists are expecting the race to start out somewhat conservatively, with maybe some speedy attacks to surface after a few kilometers. Nope. Not today. Instead, the Americans are sure their only shot at the podium involves kickin' it from the get-go. The gun goes off, the American cyclists sprint and about 20 seconds later the back of the pack rolls through the start line. Immediately, my speedometer jumps to 27mph.

What a ridiculous start pace! It'll calm down, I think to myself. And that is the last thought I remember having for the next four hours.

Less than four minutes into the race, the first crash happens. Blammo! A Swiss rider falls over and takes out a wave of cyclists, domino-style, as we head uphill. The crash causes so much congestion that we back-of-the-packers have to stop and unclip from our pedals, which is the cycling equivalent of putting a pin into a balloon. All momentum is lost ... except that of the women ahead of the crash. Off they go. Bye-bye. Then, two minutes later on a tough left-hand downhill corner, another rider bites it. We're in the back of the logjam again, while another unscathed group ahead of the crash frolics off to Speedyville.

The remnants of the peloton, of which I am now a part, are faced with an interesting situation: Our small groups of cyclists might not be enough to hold off the big groups that got away from the crashes. Over the course of four hours, we might get lapped. Getting lapped means an instant DNF status (Did Not Finish) and being forced to abandon the race. I have a highly allergic reaction to DNFing, so I become rather nervous. Luckily, I find two other cyclists with the same mental condition, a Venezuelan and an Irish rider, and we band together to keep the main peloton away for as long as possible. Unfortunately, a group of three is not aerodynamically equal to a group of 50 to 60. Still, we try. Our other choice is to drop out voluntarily, which 50 of 139 women -- national champions and Olympic medalists included -- will choose to do. I am learning that dropping out is common in cycling, but it isn't an option for me. Not after all St. Kitts and Nevis has done for me; not after the opportunities ESPN has given me. If I get lapped, I get lapped, but there will be no voluntary DNF. The only acceptable way to go out of this race, as far as I'm concerned, is KNS (Kicking 'n' Screaming).

On the fifth lap, an International Cycling Union official drives and tells our group of three to quit. "The peloton will catch you," the woman says. "Quit now."

Never, in all my sporting life, have I had an official urge me to quit mid-race, no matter how high the odds. The other two riders and I decide not to hear the official. We agree to keep going; we will follow the rules, stopping only if lapped. If we can make it to the start of the eighth lap before getting caught, we'll be OK. Up ahead, the UCI officials tell a group of five cyclists, to whom we're catching up, to quit. They oblige.

Up the hills and through the town of Varese, European cycling fans are out in full force. For nearly 75 miles, the Italians scream their favorite chant: "Dai, dai, dai" which means "Go, go, go." Unfortunately, it is pronounced "Die, die, die." That isn't exactly helpful to hear while struggling uphill for hours on end. But it is somewhat amusing.

On the seventh lap, physics, strength and experience conspire against us. The peloton catches the three of us, and we watch the leaders whoosh by. Exhausted, dejected, and in slight disbelief that all our hard work and effort did not morph into the Disney-movie ending I saw so clearly in my oxygen-deprived brain, I dismount and get off the race course. The Irish rider disappears into the crowd; the Venezuelan and I make our way back to the race venue along the sidewalks of Varese. My first world championship is over, and I have learned three things: One, I was lucky to be here. Two, I will know what to expect next year. And three, if I ever again have to hit the start line as the last rider, I will consult Criss Angel as to how best to teleport myself to the front.

(Actually, this was not my only world championship event this year. In June, I went to Vancouver, B.C., for the Triathlon World Championships, not as an athlete, but as a WonderMinion for my father, who had qualified to race in the 70-74 age group. He was one of 29 starters in an event that includes a .9-mile swim, 25-mile bike leg and 6.2-mile run. As the younger competitors finished and the course grew empty and quiet, Dad shuffled by at his 11-minute-per-mile pace and marveled, "Wow, I must have passed everyone!" He finished 24th. Like father, like daughter.)

Even Loftier Goals

When the results are posted, I find comfort in the fact that there are 50 DNF riders at the 2008 Road World Championships. I am comforted by the names on the list -- great riders, some of whom are Olympic medalists -- although today was not their day. What I find discomforting, however, are the strange policies of cycling's international federation. Remember that group of five riders who chose to obey the "quit now" command on the fifth lap? They were awarded prorated finish times (an estimated finish time based on their speed and location), not given DNFs, whereas my group of three and others who chose to fight to the finish but were eventually lapped were given DNFs. I'm not sure how that works, but inequality really ruffles my feathers. When I ask Gord whether I should protest, he agrees with my sentiments and finds the prorated times strange, but he warns that going against the officials could ultimately red-flag my future in cycling. "Choose your battles carefully," he advises. I agree to put this one on the back burner. For now. It'll do me more good to focus on what I can control: my improvement, my experience and my training plans for 2009.

As I work on the edits of the upcoming book about my quest and prepare for my upcoming trip to Nevis, I'm trying to find a pro team to cycle for in 2009. It's not looking good. Our faltering economy has negatively affected so many sponsors that many professional women's (and men's) teams in North America have been forced to fold. And with so little media attention paid to women's cycling, even sponsors who can afford it are wary of investing. There is something sad about watching a good, healthy, empowering sport struggle instead of flourish. Luckily, there are two fantastic women's teams -- Veloforma and Team Type 1 -- that are still considering my résumé. Both these teams will compete all over the United States between February and August 2009. Who knows, maybe a foreign team will pick me up as a guest rider every now and then? Whether on a team or racing individually, I'll get the best of both worlds as I continue to represent St. Kitts and Nevis on the international scene, it might be another solo adventure in 2009. We'll see. I've got four more years until London 2012, but in the meantime I've got a couple of new quests: to help put women's cycling in the mainstream sports media and to build the St. Kitts and Nevis Cycling Federation.

Difficult obstacles lie ahead, to say the least. Yet after these past two years, I'm proud to say I'm well-prepared.

Got a question or a comment? Send them to ESPNOlympian@aol.com. Kathryn is sponsored by Sport Beans/NTTC, Trek Bicycles and Trisports.com.

Join the conversation about "So You Wanna Be An Olympian."

Kathryn Bertine
Roberto Parodi
Color-coordinated, I roll down the start ramp as the first rider of the World Championships time trial in Varese, Italy.
Kathryn Bertine
Gord Fraser
After 20 months of cycling, I'm amazed to find myself at the world championships.
Varese, Italy
Gord Fraser
Varese, Italy, is not an ugly place.
Coach Gord
Kathryn Bertine
Like a kid in a candy shop, Gord drools over the vintage bikes decorating the windows of Varese. Here he poses with Francesco Moser's world-record track bike.
Kathryn Bertine
Gord Fraser
Drinking it in: A bicycle made of beer cans.
Three Musketeers
The Three Musketeers: Gord, me and Winston.
Winston Crooke, Kathryn Bertine
Gord Fraser
Winston is the real reason I'm at the world championships.
Kathryn Bertine
Gord Fraser
My daily helping of gelato. Lay off, man, I earned this.
Kathryn Bertine
Winston Crooke
With the radio earpiece, I'll be able to hear Gord -- while he doesn't have to hear my lungs explode.
Kathryn Bertine
Winston Crooke
On the start ramp of the time trial, the man behind me holds the bike in place. Hopefully.
Car escort
Gord Fraser
Sweet! I get my own escort car for the time trial.
Time trial
Winston Crooke
Hey, officer, does this time trial make my butt look big?
Gord and Kathryn
Winston Crooke
Gord and I travel all the way to Italy to find the streets filled with ... a photography exhibit on Tucson.
Kathryn Bertine
Winston Crooke
The morning of the road race, temperatures drop into the 40s. I consider wearing Winston's giant fleece under my jersey.