“It was a miracle,” he said.
Not only had the US not won a medal in team pursuit cycling in 20 years, USA Cycling hadn’t even bothered to organize a pursuit cycling team since 1996. So in 2012, when four American women decided to make a go of it, training desperately for the London Olympics, the collective experience in pursuit cycling in America was minimal, the team’s budget was meager, and the gap between them and the very best in the world was huge.
And yet, as 1996 Olympian, Sky Christopherson told a transfixed audience at a speaking event sponsored by the US Embassy in Tokyo in early December, a miracle indeed happened. Dotsie Bausch, Sarah Hammer, Jennie Reed and Lauren Tamayo came seemingly out of nowhere to win silver in the women’s team pursuit in London.
Hammer was already a four-time Cycling World Champion in individual pursuit, but was determined to be an Olympic champion. Bausch was a model recovering from anorexia who hadn’t started her cycling career until the age of 26. Reed was asked to come out of retirement to join the team to take a crack at the 2012 London Games.
This is the starting point for the mesmerizing documentary, Personal Gold, produced by Christopherson, who had transitioned from Olympic cyclist to entrepreneur. Not only has he become an authority on the relationship between biometrics and genomics and high performance, he also established a consultancy called Optimized Athlete.
I had the pleasure of watching this documentary at this event, after which Christopherson made himself available for Q&A. His documentary told the story of a women’s cycling team that clearly lacked support in 2012. While Great Britain and Australia’s cycling organizations put tens of millions of dollars into their road and track cycling teams, USA Cycling put all their dollars in road racing, thanks to the success of Lance Armstrong and his colleagues.
Personal Gold tells the story of how the team identified Mallorca, Spain as a good place to train for its low cost and proximity to London. Other national teams would provide a whole cadre of trainers and coaches. When the American team arrived in Mallorca three months prior to the start of the London Olympics, they were shocked to learn that the only support USA Cycling would provide is a single coach.
As is shown in the documentary, the athletes’ husbands played an integral part in Team USA, keeping the bicycles in tip-top shape, shouting out times and providing water during training, cooking meals, giving massages, and being massively important keepers of morale. In addition to the cyclists’ husbands, Christopherson created a virtual team of volunteer advisors – experts on biology, genetics, sleep, a data analytics consultancy, as well as a former Navy Seal who provided guidance on teamwork.
During the course of the training camp, amazing progress was made in understanding the particular strengths and weaknesses of each of the cyclists, and what they needed to do as a team to improve. When the team began its training in Spain, they knew they had to get to world-class speeds of about 3 minutes and 16 seconds in the 3,000 meter race. But try as they could, they could not even break 3 minutes and 20 seconds. Unfortunately, by the time they broke camp, they still had not improved their times.
But Christopherson provided insight into how the body works after training hard. Like the idea of how an “a-ha” moment hits unexpectedly, after periods of great focus and concentration, the body is also readying itself for it’s own “a-ha” moment. “When we arrived in London, we began to taper (our training routine). We mostly rested. And that’s when the biggest potential comes. Of course, it’s unclear how high you will go. But athletes can get into a flow. Something happens, from their hearts, and they transcend.”
As they readied themselves for the qualification round in the velodrome in London, the team from the US tried to stay calm in a velodrome located in a country that is cycling mad. Unfortunately they were going up in the first round against Team GB, and the noise and the support for the Brits was likely intimidating.
The riders selected for this round, Bausch, Hammer and Reed, looked sloppy during the qualification race, their formation far from tight. As it turns out, they achieved their fastest time ever at 3 minutes and 19.4 seconds. But it was disappointing as it was still about 4 seconds off what they thought would be medal-level times. As their heat was one of the early ones, they had to watch the other heats, anxious that other teams, perhaps more than three teams, would be faster. But for some reason, race after race, no other team surpassed their relatively weak 3:19.4.
By the end of the qualifying round, the US team, miraculously, was in second place out of ten.
In other words, they had a shot at a medal, if they could get by the mighty Australian team. Again, the Americans started off slowly, falling behind the Australians quickly. But then something began to click, and the Americans began crawling back.
“They had an incredible flow,” said Christopherson.
Lap after lap they made up the gap, until the final meters in this 3,000-meter race, they crossed the finish line just in front of the Australians. They were in the gold medal round. Their time of 3 minutes 16.85 seconds was a time they could only imagine when they got on the plane to London.
The American cyclists finally did fall to the gold medal favorites, Great Britain. But they ensured their place in history, and more importantly, the support to ride again in Rio. With considerably more support from USA Cycling (I presume), Hammer was able to defend, with three other team members her silver medal. But more importantly, what Dotsie Bausch, Sarah Hammer, Jennie Reed and Lauren Tamayo, along with their husbands, Christopherson and his team of virtual volunteers, was put USA pursuit cycling back on the map.