LONDON — Poised on her bike near the Anne Boleyn Gate at the Hampton Court Palace — Henry VIII’s country estate — Kristin Armstrong began the Olympic cycling time trial, a 29-kilometer, crowd-lined loop around Surrey. Just under 38 minutes later, she sat on a throne.
“There aren’t many days that you get to be queen,” she joked, referring to the Henry VIII-sized gold and purple velvet-cushioned throne where the top competitor sat.
There aren’t many days that you get to be an Olympic champion either. But Armstrong (no relation to Lance) has now experienced two days standing atop the podium, listening to the Star Spangled Banner — once in 2008 and now in 2012, where she beat a stacked field of former world champions.
But the Armstrong of 2012 is far different than she was in 2008. She’s older—39 on August 11. She’s a mom as well. And the journey back in the saddle over the past 20 months has been fraught with the kind of obstacles that all parents of a baby, then a busy toddler are well familiar — lack of sleep, a life restricted to a different schedule, and the constant chase. All while training to defend her Olympic gold medal.
“It’s been the hardest journey,” she said. “It’s been a hard 20 months leading up to [this race], a lot of ups and downs.”
First, it’s important to note that Armstrong never officially retired. After winning her second time trial world championship in 2009, she put cycling on hold while she and her husband, Joe Savola, started a family. Their son, Lucas, was born September 15, 2010.
Six weeks later, the 2008 Olympic time trial gold medalist was back on her bike, pedaling around her hometown of Boise, Idaho. She still had a “pregnant body” and “that in itself is a mental thing for a female,” she said.
“I was coming back, but I wasn’t coming back like full-on race-ready,” she added. “I was coming back like anyone would say, ‘You know, I think I need a fitness program. What should I do?’
Her coach, Jim Miller, USA Cycling’s VP of athletics, suggested she just ride and see how it felt. He liked the idea of Armstrong continuing her cycling career, though he knew it would be different.
“The way we did it before [Beijing] was very focused, very, you hate to say selfish, but it was about her,” said Miller. “This time, it couldn’t all be about her. It had to be about Lucas, and he had to be included.”
“It’s different,” he added. “You normally don’t have plastic toys at the start of a stage race.”
The reality of training a new mother quickly set in. Armstrong was breastfeeding, and when she was home, she couldn’t rest, even at night.
“Anytime we had really good training blocks going, she would end up sick,” said Miller. “It was a step forward and a step back. She couldn’t get to where she was.”
Armstrong also felt uncharacteristically anxious on her bike.
“I would always look back behind me, like I was going to get hit by a car,” she confessed. “I had never done that before.”
She considered clipping a mirror to her helmet — considered among bike racers as geeky as hanging a basket from her handlebars. Other mothers assured her that her reaction was normal.
Within a year, Armstrong hit her stride again physically and mentally — though she still fears crashing. By spring 2012, she was on the podium in major international races.
“Now we have a real chance,” Miller realized.
But then racing at the Exergy Tour in front of a hometown crowd in late May, Armstrong crashed in the time trial and broke her collarbone. She had surgery the next day and was back on her bike within three to four days (and chasing Lucas again).
“Looking back, it refocused me,” she said of the collarbone break. “I thought, ‘Wow, I don’t have much time. I have to rest, recover, and get back at it.’”
By July, she was back in top form, and her Olympic competitors considered her the favorite going into the time trial this morning.
Armstrong kissed Lucas good-bye and told him to be a good boy. Then she hopped on her bike for cycling’s “race of truth,” where it’s just the cyclist out on the road alone, with no teammates to draft. She would start 1:30 behind Germany’s Judith Arndt, the reigning world time trial champion.
From the follow vehicle, Miller gave Armstrong time checks, but it was a tight race.
“From 20k in, we knew we were within seven seconds of winning or losing everything,” he said. “She couldn’t let up for one second, not a single second on the way back.”
She averaged 28.77 mph and crushed the last nine kilometers — though Armstrong confessed that her crash in the Olympic road race on Sunday made her “a little bit grandma-like” in the course’s many corners today.
“I just kept on telling myself out there, ‘Kristin, you must live with this result, whatever it is,’” she said. “I was the Olympic gold medalist in Beijing. But any athlete knows, you’re only as good as your last ride. And this is my last ride.”
After dethroning Arndt for the win, Armstrong sat on the big purple and gold throne, then held Lucas on the podium after accepting her second gold medal.
She had said she wanted to win this gold to give Lucas something to play with, though the 22-month-old seemed more interested in the flowers than her medal.
“He’s already played with my one from Beijing,” Armstrong said, smiling broadly whenever asked about Lucas. “This is a lot less fragile.”
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.