miércoles, 26 de octubre de 2011

I Came To Dance

There was a Cuban on my left and a Colombian on my right. The unusual precariousness of my situation had officially sunk in as I tried to put on my harshest, scariest face.
“Just stick with the plan and you’ll be fine,” Jamie said.
I blinked and gave him a curt nod. “Okay. Got it.”
As I sat at the line, I attempted to do two things: A) come to terms with the fact that I was indeed in the keirin final at the Pan American Games; and B) convince myself that I would be okay. I’m here. I can do this. Probably. Maybe. Well, yes, I suppose. Definitely.
                The plan itself was simple: be at least in fourth position with two laps to go. Trust the gut and see what happens. Genius.
                “Big push,” I said. I leaned over and plunked my hands into the drops. After shaking my ponytail from my face and giving a quick snort, I sank back on my seat bones and prepared for the gun.
                “Turn three . . . turn four.”
                Bang! Game on.

Bike racing is like dancing. One can’t learn to dance if she doesn’t get out on the floor – and when one does get out on the floor, there’s the worry of looking silly as a first-timer. Last week the Pan American Games was, in my eyes, my first real international competition. True, I had the PanAm track championships and the Colorado Springs Grand Prix under my belt. However, at the former I did a two-lap time trial; the latter happened in my own back yard. Somehow that’s like one going to a sock hop when she wants to be break dancing. It doesn’t feel quite right or the same.
                I touched down in Mexico knowing exactly what I was doing there: the sprints and the keirin. We had had trials at the beginning of August and I had earned both spots based on times. I’m all for quantitative data, but I don’t consider myself a time trialist – I just like to race my bike. I was happy to see my USA team mates Liz Carlson and Maddie Godby prepared to kill the team sprint. I’d take the races

                The PanAm Games had a less business-like feel than the previous races. Instead of the standard hotel-track-hotel game plan, we lived as if on a college campus – minus the classes. After team processing in Houston (team processing: i.e. get lots of free USA swag) we came to Guadalajara for one of the largest-scale competitions in the world – for the United States, it’s second in prestige only to the Olympics. It’s kind of a big deal. 

Having the chance to mingle with other athletes, from both our own country and others, reinforced that idea of prestige but also made it more fun and relaxing at the same time. The dining hall and international zone were the Spanglish social zones; the dorms, sorted by country, were the team solidarity headquarters. It was certainly a strange paradox, to say the least.
                With so much going on, it was easy to get distracted – but there’s also a fine line between focused and stressed. It was important to switch on the race brain once I got to the track – especially since the USA team had a good chance to do well. I had to remember the mission and what I had come to do personally and for the team.
                You can't dance unless you get on the floor, and I came to dance. It might have been my first Games, but I was still there to race.

Seven riders launched from the line at the sound of the gun. I knew a handful of these riders from the sprints a couple days before – the Cuban especially, since it was she whom I had had to race in the first round; I managed 6th overall and wanted better.
                We rode two wide for the first three laps, everyone jockeying for the best position as the motor gained speed. The Cuban crashed going into lap four after getting too snuggly with the Mexican – a lucky break for me, as it shook the lineup and I was able to move out of  sixth position and closer to the front.
                As the motor swung off at the two-and-a-half mark, the pace immediately quickened. Thank God I slapped on the 100-inch gear for this. I was sitting in fourth and had to act. Soon.
                Ding, ding!
                Three riders were doing battle at the front and caused the rest of the group to swing up, opening a hole below. I took a huge breath dove down to the left.
                I hope I don’t get relegated for this.
                As I hit the pole lane I hammered the pedals as hard as I could, swallowing up the Colombian and Brazilian after the pursuit line.
                Turn three. The Mexican closed the door before I could get beneath.
Turn four. I chased the Venezuelan and the Mexican as fast as my legs could turn. I hit the white line with the two in front, all else behind.
Bronze! I just won bronze! Who would have thought?
We stood on the podium with our medals and turned to face the flags as they sank from the ceiling. They might have been playing Venezuela’s anthem, but my eyes were watching my flag.
                I was so happy I felt like dancing. I cried a little bit, but I also could have danced. Tango, two-step, freestyle, anything. I had done what I had come to do.


jueves, 13 de octubre de 2011

Like Wonder Woman But Different

When I was six years old, I sat with my classmates in a circle as we talked about what we wanted to be when we grew up. My friends wanted to be teachers, nurses, ballerinas. I wanted to be a Power Ranger. I wanted the tight suit and slick helmet, the super powers, the lightning-fast karate moves. I wanted to use my giant, ultra-cool robot to make intergalactic bad guys beg for mercy. Yep, that would be pretty awesome.
                Now fast-forward about fifteen years: being a cyclist seems to be the closest one could possibly get to being a superhero. I wear a Lycra red, white, and blue skinsuit stamped with “USA” on the chest and legs. By the power of fast-twitch muscle fibers, I zip around a banked track at crazy-high speeds – just because I can.
                The 2011 Elite Track Nationals were held in Los Angeles not quite two weeks ago, and it was then that it occurred to me how super track cyclists can be.

The stadium was packed fuller than I had ever seen it. It was Saturday night of Nationals and I was prepping for the second gold medal ride of the sprint tournament. I had won the women’s keirin the night before and was hoping for a repeat in the sprints as well. The evening’s events had been tailored towards the audience’s entertainment as well as the racers’ performance; some kids racing had been mixed into the program between the elite races, so there were more young faces in the stands and on the infield than usual.
                The kids racing were some that I had worked with on and off during my time in L.A. I realized as I sat on the infield that most of them had never actually seen me kitted up and in race mode. Naturally, that wasn’t exactly the biggest concern of mine at the moment, but it was there.
                As I sat on the line for the second ride of the round, I went through my mental plan, reviewing my strategy. It went as most sprints go for the first two laps: the riders maneuver around and goad each other into position for the final sprint. I had my opponent, training partner Cristin Walker, on my hip and exactly where I wanted her into one lap to go.
                That’s when I heard it. Coming out of turn four into the final lap, I heard the kids on the infield chanting my name. In any other race situation, any noises from the stands just sounds like white noise; this was quite clear.
                Crap. I better not mess this up.
                Ding, ding!
                Cristin began to initiate the sprint and it was on. I shot to the pole lane and barreled along the black line as fast as my legs would churn. The video later would show me bursting across the line first to win the title in two rides. I wasn’t thinking of that at the time, but rather that now I could finally use the rest room.

Jodi is ten years old, has long golden hair and almond-shaped brown eyes set in a perfectly round face. She’s so small that she has her own tiny track bike that she brings to each kiddie training session; the bike has “JoJo Monkey” emblazoned along the top tube. Her jersey bunches around her shoulders and her shorts hang loosely at her knees. She says she wants to be a professional cyclist when she grows up.
                I saw Jodi running at me as I walked down from the podium – she had raced earlier that evening as well, and had her own medal to show for it. She wrapped her arms around me in the tightest ten-year-old’s bear hug I’ve ever received.
                “You were so awesome!” she yelled up at me.
                “You were, too! You looked great out there,” I said.
                “Really. Anyone ever tell you that you look good with a medal on? Because it’s true.”
                “Thanks!” She gave me one last squeeze and scurried off, locks flying and medal swinging.

I’m not exactly Wonder Woman. I don’t have a cool cape, I can’t actually fly, and I have no hope of filling her Wonder Bra. But if I can inspire kids to start riding bikes – and keep riding them – my mission has been accomplished.