Reed was on the verge of retirement

Updated: August 19, 2004, 2:34 PM ET
Associated Press

ATHENS, Greece -- Jennie Reed was alone on the track, winding up a twilight practice when the magnitude of the Olympics suddenly hit home.

"The Star-Spangled Banner" -- blaring at the adjacent swimming stadium in honor of Natalie Coughlin's gold medal -- began echoing through the nearly deserted velodrome.

Reed's eyes quickly filled with tears. She let her mind drift away, imagining the view from atop a medal stand, olive wreath on her blond head, gold dangling from her neck, her flag rising, her anthem playing.

Right there, she realized the fantasy is tantalizingly close to becoming reality.

"When you see someone living that moment, see someone else achieve something they've wanted, it amazes me," Reed said. "It would be awesome."

When six days of competition begin on the Olympic velodrome Friday, Reed will be perhaps the United States' best hope for adding to its Athens medal haul. She'll be among the favorites in the women's sprint, which has opening rounds Sunday and continues through medal finals Tuesday.

Reed also qualified for Friday's 500-meter time trial, but is skipping that race so it doesn't interfere with her preparations for the sprint competition. No Americans are entered in any of Friday's track events.

"It's very difficult to predict what will happen in the sprints," U.S. track cycling coach Andrzej Bek said. "Whoever's feeling well on that day can win. But Jennie's medal chances are going up, no doubt about it."

On the track, seven Americans -- five men and two women -- will vie for more medals. Led by Tyler Hamilton's time trial gold, USA Cycling won three medals, one more than any other nation, in the road competitions that ended Wednesday.

Two-time medalist Marty Nothstein, the sprint gold winner in Sydney, will ride the keirin Wednesday; the only other Olympic returnee is Erin Mirabella, who'll ride the points race and individual pursuit.

The rest of the track team are all Olympic rookies; the sprint squad of Adam Duvendeck, Giddeon Massie and Christian Stahl will ride on Saturday, and points racer Colby Pearce competes Tuesday.

Reed's new to the Olympics, but hardly a stranger to the ranks of cycling's elite.

She narrowly missed an Olympic sprint berth in 2000, and that was a bitter pill. The next three years were largely a downward spiral for Reed, whose World Cup rankings plummeted to 20th in the sprint and 23rd in the keirin by the end of last season. Retirement was prominently in her thoughts.

"I had some really down times," Reed said. "The results were bad. But in the end, I gained a lot of experience. And when I came back, I had a lot more confidence. In a way, it make me a lot stronger."

This year's turnaround includes a keirin bronze medal from track's world championships and a fifth-place showing in the sprint.

She flourished when working with Bek in 1999 and 2000. And Reed's resurgence neatly coincides with Bek's being rehired to coach the national team late last year. Reunited with her mentor, Reed's form didn't just return, her times got faster than ever.

"Jennie's definitely coming back strong this year," said Bek, who coached the American sprint cycling team at both the 1996 and 2000 Olympics. "She's doing very well. Her world championships performance proved that. ... She will have a chance here, no question."

It's a good chance -- so good that her father is footing a $15,000 travel tab so he, Jennie's stepmother and stepsister can see what they hope is a ride into history.

"I'm excited for it," Reed said. "From the track, I can see the swimming venue. I can see all the flags out there in the backdrop. All that really lets you know you're in the Olympic Games. I'm ready."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press