LONDON-- In the Olympic Park Basketball Arena, NBA stars LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are attracting huge turnouts — even among the press. As Team USA beats country after country, usually by double-digit scores, they are a sure bet for gold.
Next door in the Velodrome, Jimmy Watkins has quietly pedaled his track bike. Well, perhaps not quietly. The wooden building with the Pringle-shaped roof — the most noteworthy and inspiring structure of these Olympic Games (it’s the only one that doesn’t resemble scaffolding) — thunders with exuberant fans, mostly Brits, including Sir Paul McCartney, Prince William and Duchess Kate.
Watkins finished sixth in the matched sprint on Sunday. But what the 29-year-old track sprinter lacks in Olympic hardware, he makes up for in Olympic spirit. For his story embodies the spirit of the Olympic Games.
When he isn’t competing in the 2012 Olympics, Watkins is a full-time firefighter in Bakersfield, California. To travel to London, he had to take all his vacation.
“When I think of all my friends and family who have helped me get here, all the guys at the Kern County Fire Department who are helping work my shifts while I’m here, I just want to really represent them well and do the best I can,” he said after he made the quarterfinals.
Watkins’ cycling career started less than a decade ago. In Bakersfield, California, his hometown, he’s a “hot shot” — an elite group of wildland firefighters.
To maintain the fitness level required for the job, he started riding his bike in 2003. He entered a few road races and criteriums, the sprint-focused races around city blocks that suited his fast-twitch physique, and was “pretty good.”
Then he saw a track race at a local velodrome.
He thought, “Oh yeah, that’s perfect for me.”
In 2008, he won national titles in the sprint, team sprint, and keirin. A year later, he took first in the 1-kilometer time trial and second in the keirin at the Pan Am Continental Championships.
“Then got a little ambitious once I saw maybe I could be pretty good at it,” he said, “and just kept going after it.”
He was good, but not yet top-of-the-world good. But how could he be? While most cyclists competing at the Olympics train full-time, Watkins was working 48-hour shifts at the fire station. To train, he set up his rollers next to his engine and pedaled until a call came in. Then he would hop on the truck and go.
“You come back after the call and finish up your training, or you’re just too tired and are like I’ll have to do it tomorrow,” he said. “It’s kind of hit and miss. You just do the best you can.”
When he goes home, he plays with his two-year-old daughter, Taylor.
To see if he could make the 2012 Olympic team, he started traveling to bigger races this past winter. He competed in three World Cups but never finished higher than 16th.
After he was named to the 2012 Olympic team in June, he needed time to prepare full-time, so he switched shifts with his buddies and maxed out his vacation.
The effort paid off. Though unhappy with his 12th place in qualifying in London, he started to feel better as he raced. And he stayed relaxed — not easy when the roaring crowd in the Velodrome practically lifts the swooped roof off the track. But for someone used to even higher-stress situations — like running into burning buildings or up hillsides ablaze with fire — how much more stressful could the Olympics be?
In his first round, Watkins defeated Seiichiro Nakagawa from Japan who qualified ahead of him.
“I just caught him kind of sleeping, not paying attention,” Watkins said. “I attacked him, and he wasn’t ready for it. I got the gap and got the win.”
Then against Pavel Kelemen (CZE), he repeated the move, launching his sprint high off a banked turn in the Velodrome and winning comfortably.
With this win, the firefighter met his goal: “To make the five-through-eight” (the races to decide fifth through eighth places).
Though he dreamed of making the semifinals, Watkins faced third-seed Shane Perkins (Australia) and only took one of the best-of-three rounds. This put the American in the five-through-eight final.
There, he faced Russia’s Denis Dmitriev, Robert Forstemann from Germany, and Azizulhasni Awang from Malaysia.
Watkins was able to out kick all but Dmitriev. His sixth is the best American Olympic result in the men’s sprint since Marty Nothstein’s gold in the 2000 Games in Sydney.
When asked if he will now take time off his job to pursue cycling full-time, Watkins said no.
“I’m just really happy doing what I’m doing, being able to be here,” he said. “I love my career. I love my family. To do this full time, you would be gone so much more. I couldn’t afford to raise a kid. I have a home and a wife. I love my life. I’m happy.”
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.