Jul 30 Long Live the Meatball!

July 30, 2008, 5:56 p.m. (ET)

Take it from Meatball: "You only have a certain amount of time to do things in life."

Meatball is Olympic track cyclist Mike Friedman, and his carpe diem attitude is exactly why he took a leave of absence from Penn State and broke up with a serious girlfriend at age 22 to throw himself back into his teenage passion full-time.

"My parents were really against it," he said.

He didn't want to disappoint them, but he wanted even less to disappoint himself.

"There's a lot of pressure with that.

"You just know you only have a few years [to excel] in sports. You have to take a gamble," he said. "I figured, no matter what, you're going to learn something. I pushed, and I'm glad I did."

In 2005, Friedman was a biology major at Penn State-Lehigh Valley and was essentially living out of an old red van because he and his roommate, Bobby Lea, didn't get along. Friedman was midway through his junior year when he dropped out of school.

Although Friedman considered himself a road cyclist, he decided to pursue track cycling partly, he said, "because of my body physique. I'm short and round, and low to the ground" - like a meatball.

Even as a kid, he said he had "upside-down bowling pins for calves, short fat little legs, and a big ass." He had been quick on a bike, but he also had endurance so he ran 800 meters and the mile in track. Wrestling was his other high school sport, but the wrestling-cycling combination was unusual and the truck-driver's son who shaved his legs was not always understood by his Pittsburgh peers.

Someone finally took him aside and said, "Friedman, it's like that everywhere. Let it roll off your back and laugh." 

"I learned to be carefree. It's hard to embarrass me," said the 5-foot-9, 170 lb rider.

With complete focus, 2006 turned into a banner year for Friedman. That summer he won two prestigious track races, and in October, at the USA Cycling Track National Championships, he won three gold medals (individual pursuit, team pursuit, and Madison) and a silver in the points race.

Track racing led to a professional contract in road racing, and road racing led to starts in classics that many cyclists only dream about, such as one-day events like Paris-Roubaix where riders' thin-tubed tires meet cobblestone streets. His road work, in turn, complemented his track racing and as Friedman continued to excel on the velodrome, track cycling opened the door to the Olympics.

To get to Beijing, however, he needed a little help. Friedman didn't qualify for an automatic berth, but his ex-roommate Bobby Lea did, in the two-man Madison event, and USA Cycling's selection committee was letting Lea choose his Olympic partner.

"They told me I had the majority say," Lea said.

His options were: Colby Pearce (who held the national record for the hour ride, covering 50.191 km), Brad Huff (a two-time national champion in the Madison) and...the Meatball.

Ultimately, Lea picked Friedman because of their 10-year history of racing together.

"In this event, it helps to know how your partner is going to react," Lea said. "It's a 55-minute yard sale. You've got riders going slow, fast, up and down the walls, some hanging at the top of the track, some at the bottom. It looks like everyone's on the verge of crashing the entire race. It's the scariest event to watch - even for me."

The Madison features 18 teams (36 riders) on the track at once. The winner is the pair that completes 200 laps (50km) first. After the winner crosses the line, other teams are ranked based on how many laps they've completed. In case of ties, the higher rank goes to the team with the most points earned from intermediate sprints held very two laps.

Teammates take turns circling the track and when they want to switch out, exchanges are done with a swooping hand sling. It takes precision to communicate and coordinate correctly - especially on bikes with no brakes. Riders must also read whether their teammate is ready to attack or is in danger of fading.

"I know his body language," Lea said.

But Friedman can still be unpredictable.

"Sometimes someone will yell at him and he'll go off on a suicide mission and end up winning a race because of it," Lea said.

Not only anger propels him; sometimes it's irrational exuberance.

At a Thursday night track practice in Trexlertown, Penn., Friedman came out of a presentation and realized he only had 20 minutes to get to the track. Half of his equipment was at home. But he drove to the track, took off his blazer, threw on his helmet and shoes, and rode around in his dress shirt and business suit, tie flapping in the wind.

There was also a little incident at the While House. On July 21, Friedman was one of 22 athletes invited to the Rose Garden for an intimate Olympic send-off by President Bush.

It was 90 degrees and humid, so it wasn't long before Meatball's royal blue shirt was splotched with sweat. When the athletes were unexpectedly invited into the Oval Office, Friedman realized he wasn't looking too good so he dashed into the East Wing and ran his shirt under a faucet (presumably to even out the sweaty areas). By the time he rejoined the team, his back was still wet, his front was half-dry, and his underarms were soaking. President Bush took one look at him, and before he could comment, Friedman said, "Mr. President, it's just water." Bush exhaled and said, "Oh - I was going to say; I thought you might have a problem."

Everyone has a "Meatball story" - even the President, now - but one Friedman incident left nobody laughing.

It was 2006, Friedman was 24 and feeling invincible after scoring six wins in both road and track, but all year, he had been bothered by a saddle sore. After track nationals, he had surgery to relieve it. Two days after the operation, he drove a bee-line cross-country back home to Pittsburgh. Along the way, he developed a severe cramp in his right calf. Two weeks later, it went away. Then he noticed severe pain in the middle of his back, but he assumed it was from pedaling out of his saddle during the month since his surgery. On November 17, while Friedman was on a date and lying face-down on his date's bed watching the animated movie "Cars," the pain shot up to his neck. He went numb, couldn't breathe, and thought he was having a heart attack.

"Emily! Get me the computer!" he sputtered. He wanted to look up his symptoms, but there was no time.

His condition was life threatening, but it wasn't a heart attack. Branches of his pulmonary artery were being blocked by two blood clots in his lower right lung. Genetic testing revealed that the pulmonary embolism was due to an anomaly called Factor 5 Leiden, passed down from one of his parents. As a result, he has an eight percent greater chance of forming a dangerous clot than most people.

He was treated with the blood thinner Coumaden for six months and the clots dissolved. But scar tissue made it painful as he weaned himself off it 10 days early (with his doctor's permission) so he could ride in the Four Days of Dunkirk, a multi-day road race in May of 2007.

"I was stoked," he said. "It was the most famous, prestigious race I'd ever done. It was windy, rainy, it was made for me. Plus, he his legs were fresh. Taking 2000 mg of Ibuprofin a day to alleviate the pain in his lungs, he put on a show. In the second stage, he was sitting 10th in a lead-out train of riders, when another cyclist came out of a blind spot on his left side, causing Friedman to crash. Had it happened 10 days earlier while he was taking the blood thinner, Friedman likely would have bled to death. Instead, he finished the stage.

The Slipstream team director Jonathan Vaughters was so impressed that he offered Friedman a contract for 2008. "That was the race that convinced him," Friedman said.

On July 1, when Friedman was officially selected for the 2008 Olympic team, he was given free rein to focus on the track but he still did six-hour rides on the road. He said it not only helped his endurance for the Madison in Beijing, but when the Games are over, he expects to return to the road until the end of October - at least.

It's been a long season and a harrowing ordeal, but Meatball knows life is too short to sit on a dream.

 

Aimee Berg is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.

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