RIO DE JANEIRO — Cycling’s time trial has long been called the race of truth. In Kristin Armstrong’s case, it should be called the race of the mind, where the most strong-willed win.
A day before her 43rd birthday, Armstrong overcame rain, wind, and steep hills to win her third consecutive Olympic gold medal. She becomes the oldest female Olympic cycling gold medalist.
Armstrong is also the first cyclist to win three gold medals in the same event, and she is also one of only two women in any sport to have earned three gold medals in the same Olympic discipline. (Bonnie Blair also holds this distinction in speedskating.)
Although she rode the first half of the race in the lead, Armstrong fell to second place by three seconds with 10 kilometers to ride on the 29.7k course. With 5k to go, her coach said through her race radio, “It’s up to you what color medal you want.”
Armstrong’s first thought was, “What? It’s up to me?!”
Then she remembered her team — not Team TWENTY16, in which she’s a partner, but Team USA here in Rio. She thought of Sunday’s road race, where Mara Abbott was passed in the final 100 yards and missed winning an Olympic medal.
“I have to give it everything for my team,” thought Armstrong, who knows that time trial winners are determined by “what’s between the ears.”
“I have to give it everything for Mara and what happened with Mara,” she told herself.
Armstrong crossed the finish line in 44:26.42, over five seconds ahead of Russian Olga Zabelinskaya. Dutch rider Anna van der Breggen, who won the road race on Sunday, rounded out the podium.
Evelyn Stevens, sixth at 2015 world championships, struggled on the time trial course’s steep climb and finished 10th.
Rather than jump for joy at winning her third Olympic gold medal, Armstrong burst into tears.
Her 5-year-old son, Lucas, whom she famously held on the medal podium at the 2012 London Games, ran over and asked why she was crying.
“He said, ‘Mama, why are you crying? You won,’” said Armstrong. “And I said, that’s a great question from a 5-year-old. Why am I crying? That’s what we do, we cry when we’re happy!”
Armstrong’s Road to Rio was as tough a journey as the course she raced today. After defending her Olympic gold medal in London in 2012, she took time off from hard training and racing (she does not like to use the word “retirement”). She focused on her job as director of community health for St. Luke’s Hospital in Boise, Idaho. And she focused on raising Lucas.
Then 18 months ago, she decided to make another gold-medal run.
“Something keeps driving me back,” she said the day before the time trial. “I love the challenge. I love challenges in my life, and I haven’t found a challenge like [pursuing] a third gold medal.”
She hit her first bump in the road last September, when she missed automatically qualifying for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team at world championships. She needed a top-three finish in the time trial but came across the line fifth.
Armstrong trained hard all winter, then finished third at the national time trial championship in May and was named to the Rio team in June. Controversy ensued. Carmen Small, the 2016 national time trial champion, believed that she deserved the right to compete in Rio.
Then on Wednesday morning, Armstrong faced another hurdle: the weather. Rain moved in overnight and made the already technical course, with steep descents and twisting turns, even more difficult.
“Oh my gosh,” she thought, “we don’t train really hard to wake up to pouring rain in a time trial on a time trial bike, let alone on a technical course like this.”
Rather than panic, she reminded herself how many times she has ridden her bike in the rain and wind — most recently in the women’s Olympic road race on Sunday.
The athlete who is known for her mental toughness said she tricked her mind and gave herself a confidence boost.
“Just take it because everyone else has to deal with this too,” she told herself.
She also credited her U.S. teammates with her win. Abbott left her notes — on her coffee cup, on her hairbrush, on her pillow, and then in her podium bag — reminding her that she’s a champion.
“Mara has turned around since her race on Sunday and has been phenomenal, and that’s what this team is all about,” said Armstrong. “I feel that we’re all genuinely happy for one another. It’s given me great pleasure to represent the team. I haven’t experienced this in all of my years.”
No word yet if Lucas will accompany his mom onto the podium again. His interests these days lay in Star Wars.
“Right now, he just wants to be a Star Wars Jedi,” said Armstrong with a smile. “He already went to fencing [here in Rio]. If you look at the fencing venue, it looks like they are fighting with light sabers.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn is in Rio covering her fourth Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.