Armstrong proves winning gold after motherhood and injuries is like riding a bike

Idaho StatesmanAugust 2, 2012 

Nothing could stop Kristin Armstrong from her second Olympic gold medal or the special moment she had planned.Not a brief retirement. Not motherhood. Not a fractured clavicle suffered weeks before the London Games. Not a crash in Sunday’s road race. And most definitely not any of the 23 other cyclists in Wednesday’s event.The popular Boise resident and University of Idaho graduate overwhelmed the 18-mile course to defend her Olympic time trial gold.

After the medal had been placed around her neck, after the national anthem was played and the U.S. flag was raised, after she posed for photos with the silver and bronze medalists — and with an assist from a U.S. State Department official — Armstrong got her moment.

She stood atop the medal podium and held her son Lucas in her right arm.

“Honestly, that was the dream,” said Armstrong’s husband, Joe Savola, fighting back tears. “The whole dream was to have her holding Lucas up there.”

It was the desire to start a family that led Armstrong, who turns 39 on Aug. 11, to retire after winning gold at the 2008 Beijing Games and the 2009 world championships.

Lucas arrived in September 2010, leaving 22 months for Team Armstrong to plot a path back to the Olympics and the top step of the podium.“The reason I came back was because of the feeling I got back in Beijing on the top step,” Armstrong said in a post-race interview with NBC. “But I couldn’t imagine anything better than being on the top step with my son.”

It was obvious early in Wednesday’s race that Armstrong would get that chance on the mostly flat course that began and ended at Hampton Court Palace, a 16th century court used by Henry VIII, and twice crossed the River Thames. The riders started in 90-second intervals, and Armstrong was the last of 24 of the world’s best to begin. The race featured three other former world champions, but Armstrong led at the first time check by more than 1.5 seconds and increased her advantage to more than 5 seconds by the second time check. When she made the final turn for the finish line, Armstrong had drained any suspense from the ending.

Armstrong finished in 37 minutes, 34.82 seconds, far ahead of silver medalist Judith Arndt of Germany. Arndt finished in 37:50.29. Russia’s Olga Zabelinskaya took the bronze in 37:57.35.Armstrong became the oldest road cycling champion in Olympic history.

“When she stopped, she was on top. You don’t lose what you’ve got,” Armstrong’s American teammate and seventh-place finisher Amber Neben told The Associated Press. “You don’t lose the fact that you're a great bike racer.”

Armstrong, however, said it wasn’t that clear to her until the end. She caught a peek of the clock above the line and cracked a smile before she finished.

“I didn’t know until I crossed the finish line. The information I was getting was it was a close race out there and I needed to give it everything I had if I wanted it,” she said in the post-race interview. “I knew just 1 percent off the pedal is going to take you to second or third or even off the podium.”

Even second was not an option.

“She had her eye on the gold medal, and there was nothing that was going to stop her,” said James Carkulis, the president and CEO of Exergy Development Group, which sponsors Armstrong’s professional team.

Said Armstrong before the Games: “It’d be one thing if I got silver or bronze the last time around. One more higher medal would be good. But it’s hard going in as defending champion and thinking you want anything less than a win.”

For a time, the obstacles seemed too plentiful for Armstrong to overcome. A Junior Olympian in swimming, she had already overcome the arthritic hips that forced her from triathlons into biking to become the world’s best. Now she had other challenges.

Juggling motherhood with training demands was doable, especially with help from her and Savola’s extended family, and it provided her with a better balance.

“So what if I had a bad day? (Lucas) didn’t care,” Armstrong said in a studio interview on NBC. “I was a mom first and a cyclist second.”

But her fitness level did not return as quickly as she hoped in 2011. She finished a distant third at the national championships, a placing Savola called “the nightmare outcome.” Then Armstrong was bumped at the last minute from the world championship roster, leaving her without a clear path to the Games.

But Armstrong returned to form in early 2012, blazing through a spring schedule that included a huge victory in the Tour of California time trial.

“That sealed it as far as I was concerned,” Carkulis said of her chances to defend the gold medal in London.Then came the crash in what was supposed to be Armstrong’s hometown send-off. In a city that loves its cycling, Armstrong is a natural favorite daughter — even though she was born in Tennessee and attended high school in Japan before settling here after college.

She sold appliances at the Home Depot. She taught swim classes at the YMCA. She hosts an annual kids ride and autograph session at the Twilight Criterium. She has shared her gold medal with anyone who wants a look or a touch.

“I’ve told people: Obviously she’s a world-class athlete and what she did was amazing, but she’s a world-class human being,” said Jim Everett, CEO of the Treasure Valley YMCA. “If you had to pick one gold medalist to have in your town, Kristin would be the one. She’s going to be doing good stuff in this community for years to come.”

Everett said many in the cycling world insisted she needed to leave Boise for Boulder, Colo., or California to reach the top. Armstrong resisted and did it her way.“She’s proven everybody wrong,” Everett said. “Boise is home. She loves it.”It loves her back.After her 2008 gold medal, Boise awarded her a key to the city during a ceremony. The road to Bogus Basin was re-named the Kristin Armstrong Bikeway. The city plans another celebration on Aug. 11, her birthday.“

Kristin Armstrong is much more than a successful athlete who happens to live in Boise. She is part of the Boise family, part of who we are. Her athletic talent made her well known, but it's her tenacity, her sincerity and her spirited commitment to Boise that has created such a close bond between her and our community,” Mayor Dave Bieter said. “I hope she knows that we aren’t ever going to let her leave.”

The Boise Young Riders Development Squad, which trains riders from 6 to 18, has produced 16 national champions in the past four years. Armstrong’s success is an inspiration to many of the young riders, said Douglas Tobin, the program’s president.

“They have those aspirations to compete at the professional level. Someone like Kristin Armstrong is very visible in our community and very successful. They see her and they see how hard she works and how committed she is,” Tobin said. “Someone like Kristin, who works hard and is committed and is focused and is resilient to injury and keeps working and does not give up. Those kids see that.”They got to see it up close in May. In the prologue of the Exergy Tour, Armstrong crashed hard on her left side. She got up and completed the course, finishing 13th. But it was obvious something was wrong as Armstrong broke down after the finish line. She had fractured her left clavicle — and selection for Team USA was just weeks away. A defiant Armstrong underwent surgery the next morning, made an appearance at the next day’s stage and vowed to be ready for the Games.

Her dominant season — and her status as the defending champ — was enough for USA Cycling to name her to the road race and time trial teams. Armstrong, a three-time Olympian who finished eighth in the road race in 2004, said the injury provided some needed perspective.“It did allow me to refocus. Things were going too smoothly,” she said before the Games. “There wasn’t any reason to refocus. It made me refocus and work harder.”

Once in London, Armstrong had yet another hurdle to overcome. In Sunday’s road race, she crashed and fell on her left side again. Her elbow was swollen and she finished 35th in a performance reminiscent of Beijing, where she was involved in a minor crash and finished 25th before winning the time trial. Again, she vowed to be ready.“I had my doubts,” she said in her post-race interview.She also had her fears. The fear of coming so close. The fear of failure. The fear of living with the result of Wednesday’s time trial forever. Those fears motivated her, pushed her, helped her cruise to victory.

“Can I hurt anymore? Can I suffer anymore?” she said after the race. “I have to live with this result.”Armstrong vowed after the race that she was now retired from cycling. She has a son to raise and she wants to find something that fuels her like cycling has.“Whatever I do next, I want to wake up every morning and go to something I put as much passion into as cycling,” Armstrong said before the Games. “Will that come overnight? Probably not. I promise I’ll take some time to figure out what’s next.”

She had plans — to win gold, to stand on that podium, to hold Lucas and create a memory for him.

Nothing could stop her.She did it all with determination and tenacity and style. Now she gets to live with the results forever.

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