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.
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.