Ten years ago, Georgia Gould was literally a rebel without a cause. Ensconced at Phillips Exeter Academy, an elite eastern prep school, she was not the kid her classmates would have voted most likely to succeed, let alone be an Olympic athlete. She smoked, sported dreadlocks, and hadn't a clue where she was going in life.
But after her a year-and-a-half in college - freshman year at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, then a semester at Oberlin College in Ohio - she moved out to Sun Valley, Idaho, where her dad was living.
On the region's mountainous trails that wind through the sagebrush and pines, she discovered that an athlete lurked under the dreadlocks and smoke.
Nine years later, 28-year-old Gould, now with short-cropped hair and a big smile, is ranked seventh in the world in mountain biking. It's been a rapid rise most notable for its lack of setbacks. In almost every race, she has steadily improved to the point where she is now America's best hope for an Olympic medal in Beijing.
"She has a huge engine, and I don't think she's realized her full potential yet," says former mountain bike world champion Alison Dunlap, who finished seventh in at the 2000 Olympics - the best result by an American woman to date. Dunlap retired in 2005 but works closely with her old team, the Luna pro mountain bike team, which now sponsors Gould. Dunlap is also on cycling's Olympic selection committee.
Gould began morphing into an athlete almost immediately after moving out West.
"I quit smoking right when I moved to Sun Valley," she says. "It wasn't so much the place. It was more of a personal decision. I started thinking about how I would look back on those years of my life and what was I doing? I could be running marathons, climbing mountains, and doing all kinds of active stuff, and instead I was smoking cigarettes? I quit immediately."
She also cut her dreadlocks.
She started running to get in shape, but then noticed all the mountain bikers on the surrounding trails and thought, "I should give that a try."
Her future husband, Dusty LaBarr, helped her make the next step - to mountain bike racing. They met in a Sun Valley coffee shop where Gould worked and started "hanging out and running and riding together a lot." LaBarr had raced mountain bikes as a junior and encouraged Gould to enter a local race. She won, and it lit a new fire in her. She and Dusty started traveling around in a van to regional mountain bike races, and by 2004, she decided "to see how it would go if I got a pro license."
It went quite well. Her big engine propelled her rapidly up the result sheets. She ended the 2005 season ranked ninth overall in the National Mountain Bike Series (NMBS) and earned a contract with Luna, one of the world's top-ranked women's teams. In 2006, she kept stepping higher and higher on the NMBS podiums until July that year, when she could step no higher. She won the 2006 U.S. national mountain biking championships.
"That set the ball in motion," Dunlap says. "Her goal for 2007 was to win one (NMBS) race. She ended up winning all of them."
Gould also made her first World Cup podium, taking fifth at the St-Felicien, Quebec, race in July 2007. She began her 2008 World Cup campaign with two more fifth places. These are the best World Cup results by an American since Dunlap last raced World Cups three years ago.
At the 2008 Mountain Bike World Championships in Italy on June 22, she finished ninth - the top American finisher in the women's race-and thanks to her consistent racing this season, earned an automatic nomination to the 2008 Olympic team.
Gould credits her coach, Ben Ollett, for much of her success. She met Ollett in early 2004 after she purchased a coaching package online. She had purchased the cheapest package offered by Carmichael Training Systems (CTS) - the company started by Chris Carmichael, Lance Armstrong's former coach - and Ollett, then an intern at CTS, was randomly assigned as her coach. Ollett has since left CTS and now runs his own company, Ollett Coaching.
"We work so well together," Gould says. "He's good at making the physical and mental (parts of training) equally important. He knows that I'm not going to be going fast if I'm burned out mentally."
In turn, Ollett gives Gould the credit. Her strengths, he says, lie in her aerobic power, as well as her approach and mindset.
"She's really good at not limiting herself and not letting her weaknesses hold her back," he says. "She works at every aspect of her training to the point where she doesn't have any weaknesses any more."
Except perhaps her lack of experience racing against the world's big guns, women like 2004 Olympic gold medalist Gunn-Rita Dahl Flesjaa and defending world champion and current World Cup leader Irina Kalentieva.
Ollett believes that Gould's fitness is "on the same level as those girls," but that it's the little mistakes that add up - mistakes that more seasoned mountain bikers don't make, such as riding too hard on a part of the course where she should draft off a competitor and conserve energy, or taking a less efficient line through a tricky section of the course.
"But every single race she is becoming more race savvy," he says. "She's definitely capable of winning in Beijing. But it would require a race where she does everything right, no mistakes."
Gould agrees: "I'll need to have the perfect day-perfect legs, perfect skills."
Dunlap thinks Gould is closer to a medal than she might think.
"Just in the last two years, she's made the transition from being a strong mountain biker who didn't feel she could win to standing on the World Cup podium," Dunlap adds. "Every time she's on the start (of a World Cup race) now, she feels she can win."
"That's a crucial transformation if you're going to be a world or Olympic champion."
Peggy Shinn 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.