Mountain biker Georgia Gould has been climbing on medal podiums — at national events, world cups, even the Olympic Games — for so long she’s always going to feel she belongs there.
“Even if you’re sucking and you’re not in the top 10 the whole season,” she admitted with a laugh.
Now more than 15 years into an elite career, she’s finally come to accept that the day isn’t necessarily a failure if she isn’t up there getting validation she can wear around her neck.
But she wouldn’t mind a few more medal days, too.
|Georgia Gould competes in the women's cross-country mountain bike cycling event held at the Laoshan Mountain Bike Course at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games on Aug. 23, 2008 in Beijing.
Having represented the United States in two Olympic Games — and claimed a bronze medal in London three years ago — the 35-year-old feels she’s “very much on the right track” to make a strong run at a berth to the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games in 2016, and some early season results suggest 2015 could serve as a launching pad.
But surviving a significant competitive valley after 2012 — at the time, she might have characterized it more as a black hole — might have put her in a better frame of mind to handle whatever the Olympic challenge throws at her.
That 2012 season wasn’t just about her London bronze. She won a fifth national championship, had two narrow misses at world cup golds and capped the year with another bronze at the world championships. But after extending her season into the cyclo-cross schedule to represent the United States at those worlds — and spending the winter renovating a newly purchased house — Gould was, as she put it, “fried.”
And it showed in 2013, which she called “the hardest season I’ve ever had.”
“Especially because my training — all the numbers — were as good or better than what I’d been doing,” she said. “But I’d get in the races and it was, ‘I just hope I can finish.’”
Haunted by sub-par results (“there wasn’t anything good about it,” she said), Gould threw herself into off-season training — driven, she admitted, by desperation as much as determination.
Disappointment wasn’t far behind.
The low point came in March at a U.S. Cup race in San Dimas, California, where she finished eighth — and decided she’d had enough.
“I had just checked out, even during that race,” she said. “I wasn’t even racing, I was riding around. And that’s exactly the person I hate, because it’s disrespecting the race and the people in it.”
In a post-race phone call to her younger brother Franco, Gould offered that maybe it was time for her to stop racing. He told her, well, to get over herself.
“He was blunt,” she recalled. “He said, ‘You need to get it together. You’re a pro. Suck it up. This is your ego getting in the way.’ He said there were up-and-coming riders motivated to beat me, and that I was racing out of fear. He told me, ‘You’re not going to win every race, so get over it and just get out there and race.’
“So I came out of retirement the next day.”
The gains weren’t immediate. Gould made some improvements in both technical and tactical riding, and slowly gained back some confidence. She didn’t have success at the world cup level, but she was second to Lea Davison at the U.S. championships in cross-country and won the short-track title — her first victory in a year.
She also began working with a United States Olympic Committee sports psychologist. The gains there weren’t immediate, either.
“I think I was just hoping for some mantra I could repeat during a race,” she joked, “or, ‘Here’s how you’re going to be really strong and on top again.’ It was more, ‘You said this — think about what that means.’
“Maybe the biggest thing for me, coming into this season, was just letting go of expectations and realizing I can’t expect to be at the same place I was before. I’m different, and there are different people out there to compete against. And I don’t have control over what they’re doing.”
What she does have control over is what she calls “process goals.” So she focuses on those — training checkpoints or skill execution — and less on the finish order.
But she’s mining some confidence from her race results, too. Though she struggled to finish 26th at the most recent world cup event in Germany, she was 13th in the series’ first stop and has been in the top five in three of the four U.S. Cup events this season.
“A lot of it is just having a more mature outlook on goals,” she said. “You don’t have to win to have a successful race, and the fact is, the longer you race, the more races you’re not going to win. And that’s never been what it’s all about anyway. Even when I’m not doing well, it’s an enormous opportunity to set a good example. It’s a lot more rewarding getting an email from a fan or a young rider who says you inspired them to keep going when they broke a chain in a race or something than it is to simply win a race.”
Many obstacles remain between here and Rio — not the least of them being hungry young riders whose drive Gould can’t control. But after two Olympic Games and countless other events, Gould is able to put the journey into perspective.
“It would be a huge honor to go, but if it’s not in the cards, it’s not going to ruin my life,” she said. “I feel like I’m in a better spot now. You have to be able to rediscover the challenge of figuring it all out.
“It’s about going forward. But it’s not a straight line.”