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 entering 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. She settled on road cycling as the sport with her best chance to make the team, and during this installment, she gets her best chance yet to make that Olympic leap.
There. I said it. Fast as possible, to get it over with.
But yet, ouch. No matter how quickly I rip off the reality Band-Aid, the results still sting. I went to the USA Cycling National Championships with hopes of making the podium, with hopes of turning the heads of the coaches at USA Cycling, with hopes of gaining a spot on the developmental Olympic Long Team. I failed.
Or so it feels right now, on the dreaded "day after," when an athlete mentally replays her race over and over again and finds numerous "could haves" and "if onlys" and "what the hell were you thinkings. "
There was that third U-turn during the time trial, so slow and tentative I lost easily 15 seconds of acceleration.
There was that hill at Mile 15 during the road race, where I dutifully focused on the wheel in front of me, only to look up and see the pack had split and I was too far back.
I should have moved into a better climbing position. I should have turtled myself into a more aerodynamic crouch. I should have known better after six months of preparation.
For a moment, the "what ifs" are so intense, I feel the unsportsmanlike desire to blame someone or something. How about Coach Jimmy? No, he has done nothing but help me prepare. How about the race course selection committee? That zigzag time trial pattern was terrible! No, it was challenging. Who else can I blame? My parents! No. Dad drove seven hours to Champion, Pa., to watch me render the town's name ironic. But he looked so proud, despite my middle-o'-the-pack finish. Maybe I could blame British Boyfriend Steve? No, he flew to Pittsburgh to support me and voluntarily hugged my sweaty, spitty, snot-covered self at the finish line. How about ESPN.com? The editors sent a documentary cameraman to nationals who gave me a complex when he played back the footage confirming that, yes, I really do look and sound like that.
This blame thing is not looking good. Seems I have only myself to deal with.
Let's quickly recap, shall we?
The month before my road race and time trial championships, I went to Colorado to train at elevation and got my butt kicked by the Rocky Mountains. Living just outside of Boulder in Nederland at 8,600 feet, I trained 300-350 miles a week. My daily routine was simple and focused: ride, eat, sleep, eat, lift, nap, eat, doze, sleep. Funky little muscles began to protrude on my quadriceps, while my upper body slightly narrowed.
"Yeah, you'll get bigger on the bottom and smaller on top," Coach Jimmy explained. "All cyclists do."
Yay! Big hips and small boobs, just what every woman in her 30s craves!
Still, I felt strong and good about what my legs could do. Twice weekly I rode with cycling's infamous Bustop Ride, a large group of fast men who congregate in a strip club's parking lot on Boulder's north side before heading out for a 40-mile hammerfest. An odd feeling it is, being the lone female among a herd of lycra-clad men cycling around in front of a nudie bar. Not counting our helmets, most of the dancers heading into work had on more clothes than we did.
The guys averaged 24 to 30 mph, and it took every ounce of my strength not to drop from the pack. During one ride, a fellow Bustopper asked whether I was training for nationals. Yes, I am! He advised me to take this year's race as a learning experience and not put too much pressure on myself. "Learn the course and the tactics this year, and kick butt next year," he counseled.
OK, I'll do that! Right after I ask the IOC to move the Olympics to 2009.
Regardless, the Bustop Rides improved my sprinting and pack-riding skills. I competed in hill climbs and road races on the weekends, often passing women who had beaten me earlier in the season. On Wednesday nights, I competed in the Boulder time trial series. On my last Wednesday, I broke the course record. So did one other woman, Anne Samplonius of Canada. She finished one minute ahead of me. Two weeks later, she won the Canadian National Time Trial championships, likely securing a spot on her nation's 2008 Olympic Development Team. The second-place rider was 35 seconds behind Anne. The point is that I am not all that far behind some top international contenders. Something has changed. I don't completely suck anymore. (If only U.S. Team Handball could see me now.)
On July 11, I flew to Pittsburgh and drove a couple hours to the race venue at Seven Springs in rural Somerset County. The start list for the U.S. elite women's time trial and road race events were impressive. Kristin Armstrong (no relation to another famous cyclist) was back to defend her national title. She has been America's strongest cyclist since the 2004 Olympics in Athens, where she captured the bronze medal. Joining Kristin and my unranked, non-medal-winning self were 72 other professional, semipro and top-ranked amateur cyclists.
To race as an elite woman, a rider must be a Category 1 or 2 competitor, which is what I had struggled through the past six months trying to become. After competing nearly every weekend in the first half of 2007, I won my way into Category 2 just in time to register for the nationals. I started training in January, racing in February, moved up through the categories in March and April, qualified for the nationals in May, registered in June and arrived at the starting line in July. I'm in awe of how much life can be squished into six months.
Most of these elite women have spent the past six years at this level, perhaps I should have been intimidated. Or nervous. Possibly even scared. But truth be told, I just wanted to race. This Olympic dream has me on a tight timetable, so things like intimidation and fear aren't exactly schedule-friendly. A pretty cool benefit of being a 32-year-old rookie is that you don't have time to doubt yourself.
The Time Trial
Any race that takes place on Friday the 13th has to have some kind of story. However, I probably would have been more successful fending off a machete-wielding hockey-masked monster than I was at maneuvering itty-bitty U-turns on the funky time trial course. The most logistically simple of all cycling events, the time trial is usually an out-and-back or point-to-point race in which riders go off individually and race the clock. No team, no pack, no drafting, no tactics, just an all-out sprint. Fastest time wins.
Surprise! A couple weeks before nationals, we were told the time trial course had been moved and shortened -- from 30K to 24K -- because of some road closures. Rats. I like the endurance side of things; more is usually better for me. Even more troubling was that the course was no longer an out-and-back with a nice, wide turnaround point. Nosiree. Now the stretch of road was only 6 kilometers long, so the course was laid out in an out-back-out-back, zigzag pattern that required four sharp little U-turns. Or, as British Boyfriend Steve would accurately summarize, the course had "too many twisty bits, love."
My stomach did a quick flip ... U-turns. Crap. I'd spent much of the past six months learning how to go as fast as possible. I'd practiced sprinting and climbing, descending and drafting. But sharp, tight U-turns? Not a lot of expertise there. How exactly does one do a U-turn in the space of a road's shoulder at 27 mph? Correct answer: practice. Wrong answer: pray. With clumsy braking and wobbly cornering, I avoided disaster but achieved mediocrity.
In the time trial, riders go off about a minute apart. On the 72-person list, my start time is 4:28 p.m., about in the middle of the field. The prerace ritual includes having my bike weighed and measured to ensure it meets regulations. It does. I warm up on the stationary training cycle for an hour, get my heart rate high, my muscles ready 'n' sweaty. I run into two fellow cyclists from track cycling camp, Katharine Carroll and Lara Kroepsch. Their familiar, friendly faces calm me.
At 4:27, I take my place on the start line; at 4:28, I am rolling down the ramp. Not a lot goes through my head, honestly. The familiar mantras of go, go, go and push, push, push are cross-checked with general data from flight control: check for overexertion, underexertion, proper aerodynamics and relaxed breathing. Other than that, there are two thoughts battling for mind control: You should be proud just to be here, is one. That's not good enough, screams the other. When I cross the line 35 minutes, 25 seconds later, I am in eighth place. When the entire field finishes, my time is good enough for only 35th. My average speed is 25.2 mph; the women in the top 10 average about 27 mph and produce times in the area of 33 minutes. Kristin Armstrong blows us all away with a 30:47, a full 4½ minutes faster than me. At least she's the world champion. That helps lessen the sting. Man, my lack of U-turn skills really bit me in the butt.
Thirty-fifth? That is such an awkward number. Hi! I'm Kathryn Bertine, and I'm 35th-best in the country! Will you be my friend? Yeah, that's weird. Then again, so am I. Maybe 35th is fitting.
The Road Race
Luckily, there is little time to wallow in disappointment, which would be unworthy of an Olympian anyway. Monday brings my shot at redemption with the 92K (57.2-mile) road race. Winning will secure an appointment to the Olympic development team, but placing second through 72nd will not.
Unlike the time trial, the road race features a mass start in which all of the competitors roll out together. At the start line, the riders gather by team, discussing strategies and adjusting their earpieces, which link to a radio communication system enabling them to talk with each other while riding. Ooooh, earpieces. A quick sizzle of envy surfaces. I want to be good enough to wear an earpiece.
My only possible tactic as an individual rider with no teammates: Don't get dropped. How do I do this? Draft. Stay right on the wheel of the girl in front of me. Don't attack; that's stupid. The big teams will send their sprinter goons to hunt me down and reel me back into the pack. Be smart. Be aware. Be excited, but not afraid. Be confident. Eat. Drink. Drink more. If there is an appropriate opportunity to move up or break away, take it, take it, take it.
My main strategy is simple: patience. Learn from these women, absorb everything, don't be The Beginner Who Thinks She Knows Everything. No one likes her, especially the Karma Monster. And above all, note the direction of the wind. Not only is this imperative in getting the perfect draft position but I've learned the hard way that one cyclist's Snot Rocket can, indeed, fly right into the mouth of another. With those thoughts in my head, the race begins.
The goal of all cyclists is to stay in the pack for as long as possible to save energy by drafting. It is not uncommon for a field of 72 riders to remain in a large group until the last few meters of a road race, where an all-out sprint ultimately decides the winner. But this course is extremely hilly, with only four miles of flat ground. Within 20 miles of the start, the amoeba-shaped pack thins into a dribble of riders and I lose contact with the leaders. Not only lose contact but am likely last in the entire group at one point. Not being on a team, I have difficulty staying near the front of the pack where all the uniformed jerseys congregate and the individual stragglers do their best to jockey for position.
Once a rider falls behind the pack, she has two choices: Give up and go home, or race as fast as she can, alone, like in a time trial, and hope to catch up with the leaders. So off we go, my imaginary teammates and me, determined to pick off as many riders as possible. Slowly, that begins to happen. And the last shall be ... 72nd, 71st, 70th. For a while, I ride in a small group of fellow stragglers. At one point, a view of another small group looms ahead of us ... 56th, 55th, 54th.
"Come on," I urge them, "let's work together [rotate leading and drafting] and catch them."
One girl, on a professional team no less, gives a sarcastic laugh. "Not like it matters," she scoffs, knowing we're not likely to catch the leaders in time.
"It f---ing matters to me!" I roar. Welcome, f-bomb! So glad you could make it!
The beauty of cycling is that so much can change so quickly. Crashes happen. Tires pop. Roadkill obstructs. Traffic congests. Furry little animals run indecisively into the road and cause slowing and chaos. In a matter of minutes -- even seconds -- the first can be last and the last really can be first. Although no decent competitor would wish detrimental events on another, these are the very reasons to push through, to keep going when all hope seems lost, to chase an unseen leader. Strong riders can have a weak day, and weaker riders can have a strong day. No one is unbeatable, no one knows what will happen over the course of one mile, let alone 57.2.
But if none of it matters? Then get the hell off the course. (Readers, Angry Kathryn. Angry Kathryn, readers. I'm not sure you all have met yet.)
"I'll go with you, let's try to catch that pack," another determined teammate-less competitor offers. And so she and I push on. For 30-odd miles, we slowly pick off the other stragglers ... 43rd, 42nd, 41st.
After 57.2 miles, I cross the line in 35th place, out of breath, out of energy, having left everything out on the course. Dad and British Boyfriend Steve are at the finish, cheering and offering supportive hugs and asking how the race went. I have no breath to respond, which is, in fact, the only acceptable answer.
So there we are: 35th- and 35th-place finishes. I am, at least, consistent. Or perhaps it is a sign that when I turn 35, I'll kick everyone's ass. I believe in premonitions. But in the meantime, is it possible to be simultaneously proud and disappointed in oneself? Proud to be at this level, yet disappointed not to have done better?
This article was harder to write than the others. You might have noticed that the Humor Fairy wasn't featured as prominently as usual. My apologies. She'll return eventually. Handball, pentathlon, track cycling (and a bunch of other athletic experiences you haven't read about yet) ... I tried those sports for a week, as a guest on their playing fields. I had little emotional connection to wielding an épée sword or throwing a sticky ball in (OK, near) a goal. But cycling? Six months of daily effort came down to these two races, this chance, this fleeting glimmer of possibility, this how-good-can-you-get-and-how-quick-can-you-get-there opportunity.
When I first got on that bike, I did it because it was my job. But over the miles, a dramatic transformation took place. Between training groups and solo races, between podium finishes and flat tires, I realized I'm not riding for ESPN. I'm doing all of this for myself. The Olympics were -- and still remain -- my dream. I don't believe in failure. I never have. As sappy and self-helpy as that sounds, the only true failure in life is missing out on it. Coming in 27th or 35th or dead last? I've done it many times. But not even trying? That's the only failure I believe in.
Up For Adoption
"But technically, you did fail to make the USA's Olympic long team in cycling," my kind but frank ESPN editors point out, during a recent meeting. "What are your intentions now?"
In all honesty, it breaks my heart to think of giving up cycling. I've improved so much and accomplished a lot in six months; I don't want to do a new sport. Seems I don't have much choice, though.
"Well, there are still a few other summer Olympic sports I could try," I offer. Archery, race walking ... I begin to name a few. They shake their heads.
"No, you've already done that try-and-fail thing. If you keep trying and failing, we're going to lose readers. They'll get bored with you."
"But apparently my readers like watching me flounder," I say. "We can't let them down now!"
Silence all around.
"Well, if I can't try new sports and I no longer have a shot at the U.S. Cycling team, what do you want me to do? Find another country to cycle for?" I laugh.
More silence. A lot more.
Finally, one of my editors clears his throat and says quietly, "We never said you had to get to the Olympics as an American."
"But I am a U.S. citizen," I protest.
"Well, see what you can do about that."
Next time: Kathryn looks for a friendly country to adopt her.
Got a question or a comment? Have any ideas about how Kathryn might find a new homeland. That would be helpful. Send them to Kathryn at: ESPNOlympian@aol.com. Kathryn is sponsored by Team Sport Beans/NTTC, TriSports.com, Trek Bicycles, and CarbBOOM.