This time was going to be different, I was sure of it. I lay on my cot in our tiny hotel room as the Mar del Plata nightlife roared on outside; the Argentinean beach city was alive and glittering beyond the 19th-story window. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, letting my belly balloon with air and my spine to press into the smushy foam mattress.
We’re in the starting gate. Count-down is starting. Beep-five, beep-four, beep-three, beep-two, beep-one, beeeeeeeeep-GO!
Yes, this time would be different.
Located on Argentina’s Atlantic coast, the city of Mar del Plata is about 400 kilometers south of Buenos Aires – the second largest city in the Buenos Aires province after the capital itself. Mar del Plata was built essentially on national and international tourism; it’s the quintessential South American beach city, complete with a host of hotels, restaurants, casinos, and golf courses. It also hosted the 1995 Pan American Games, which attests to the city’s certain athletic panache.
Subsequently, it was here that we were plunked for the 2012 Pan American Continental Track Cycling Championships. After roughly 20 hours of planes and airports, as well as a five and half hour bus ride, it’s only fitting that I was genuinely enamored with Mar del Plata. This went beyond the normal gritty fieriness that I enjoy about South America in general. The vast expanse of ranches and grassland we had covered to get there belied the vibrant mixture Old World European-styled architecture and modern coastal flair of the city itself. It’s lively, loud, and eclectic.
Plus the steaks were to die for. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise about Argentina’s meat products should be smacked. Period.
After months of trying to rebound from Colombia, I was ready to sink my teeth in Argentina. Immediately we settled into the all-too-familiar, enticingly chaotic routine of the South American bike racing scene. Game on.
It was if, for a moment, the morning breeze was being held like baited breath. Liz and I sat in the ready area for the team sprint in anticipation of our qualifying heat. We had practiced handfuls of starts together prior to departing Los Angeles and upon getting to the track in Mar del Plata. The track here was 250 meters of outdoor concrete, a seemingly far cry from the protected indoor wooded tracks we had raced on before.
It matters a lot less in the pole lane, assuming I can get on Liz’s wheel. We had started perfectly in practice the day before. Somewhere in training my breathing rhythm had clicked, my bodily mechanics slowly and consciously aligned to enhance my start. We were ready. We had to be.
But as I sat in the plastic lawn chair on the home straight, all my demons from the Cali World Cup came screaming out of the closet. The frozen legs as the gate released, the wheel bobble, Liz slowly pulling further and further away with each pedal stroke, all replayed in my head as I remembered the disaster.
Not this time. You just nailed it yesterday. You visualized your perfection last night. You will do this.
At the call of “Estados Unidos!” we rose from our seats and went to the start line; Liz got situated in the gate as Ben rolled me up next to her.
“Cincuenta segundos!” Hands on top of the bars, deep belly breathing. Yoga’s good for stuff, see?
“Treinta segundos!” Keep breathing. Remember, hips forward and up.
“Deiz segundos!” Hands in the drops. Breathe in on the odd counts, out on the evens.
Beep-five, beep-four, beep-three, beep-two, beep-one, beeeeeeeeep-GO!
It was the scene I had played in my mind’s eye the night before. Our start was perfectly synched as the gate released; I filed directly behind Liz before the middle of the first turn, building smooth speed as I latched onto her wheel in her draft. Leave a gap, take a run. By turn four Liz was swinging up for the transition and I slung myself ahead. I barreled along the black line for my second lap, legs cranking against the lactic strain in my quads and hamstrings.
I busted across the line with a guttural yelp and swung up to graze the rail, hoping, praying for a satisfactory time. Holy hell.
Jamie gave us the news as I spun on the rollers: we had qualified second behind Venezuela and would be riding against them in the gold final ride-off in the evening.
“Dana, that was the best start I’ve ever seen you do. Ever.” Mind: blown.
That afternoon I eased onto my bed and watched the ceiling fan wobble precariously as its blades whirled in a breezy blur. My open palms faced skyward, my feet splayed lazily outward. Outside, gulls squawked overhead and boats bobbed on the deep green Atlantic in the distance. A tired taxi horn blared somewhere down below.
We were in the gold final. It would be easy to get wrapped up in anticipation of the races to come already. But the sprint and keirin were far off – and whatever happened in those races happened. The focus was here and now, and I had to visualize accordingly.
Let’s get this.
Shakira blasted over the loudspeaker – it’s difficult to attain maximum groovitude at a sporting event without a decidedly Latin beat. I tapped my cleats on the concrete as we sat in the ready area on the backstretch. The Colombian team sprint team sat next to us as they prepared to ride off for bronze.
I glanced to my right at the Colombian starter and extended a fist in an offertory good luck fist bump. She met my knuckles with hers and smiled, braces glinting; I smiled and nodded back.
We watched as the Colombians clinched bronze in a perfectly-executed ride.
It was our turn; we settled into the starting formation as usual. Just more of the same. The countdown and breathing began.
Breathe and GO.
We finished second after Venezuela edged us by 0.3 seconds – close enough that it should have felt like a crushing defeat. Compared to my Cali ride, however, it was perfect. Nothing to cry about there.