The U.S. women's track cycling team competes in the women's team pursuit first round at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Rio Olympic Velodrome on Aug. 13, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
RIO DE JANEIRO — On the surface, the women’s team pursuit at the 2016 Olympic Games was a tale of world champion versus world record holder, Olympic silver medalist versus gold.
But a closer look at the programs revealed that it was more a tale of David versus Goliath — with the U.S. squad playing the role of David and the British team as Goliath.
In the end, Goliath won. In Rio’s Olympic Velodrome, the hot British team that had set world records in qualifying and round one, shattered its record again and defended its Olympic gold medal in 4:10.236.
But the U.S. squad of was happy with silver, finishing in 4:12.454. It’s the second silver for the U.S. team since the event debuted at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Sarah Hammer — 32, and a two-time Olympic silver medalist in London — led a young American team of Kelly Catlin, Chloe Dygert and Jennifer Valente. It was a team that came together less than a year ago.
“We were going for gold,” said Hammer. “Obviously, I’m still so proud the team and what we accomplished. I feel like we’re the little team that could, going against the big old machine of Great Britain.
“I hope that we motivated some other smaller nations to show that you can have a fraction of the budget, a fraction of the staff, and you can still go for it and try to win.”
Hammer and Valente, 21, both have extensive experience in track cycling. Hammer set a world record in individual pursuit in 2010 and also helped the U.S. team pursuit squad win silver at the London 2012 Olympic Games, along with Dotsie Bausch and Lauren Tamayo.
Valente first tried the track at age 13 and soon racked up 12 junior national and one junior world championship titles.
But they needed two more fast riders to fill out a team pursuit squad. Three years ago, the UCI (cycling’s international governing body) had expanded women’s team pursuit from three to four riders, and from a 3,000-meter race to 4,000 meters to match the men’s event.
Andy Sparks, USA Cycling’s director of the track and the only full-time staff member in the program, received an email from someone who had seen Catlin, 20, racing her bike and thought she looked strong. Sparks invited her to a track cycling camp, and the young cyclist learned quickly.
A fraternal triplet, Catlin is studying biomedical science and Chinese at the University of Minnesota, reads five books a week, can ride a unicycle, and likes to listen to violin concertos while warming up to race.
“She is the ultimate student,” Sparks said of Catlin. “She’s fluent in Chinese and is like a first-chair-level violinist. From the very beginning, she was on YouTube checking out the videos, asking ‘How can I be better, how can I be better?’”
Then last year at the 2015 UCI Road World Championships in Richmond, Virginia, Dygert,19, burst onto the scene. She won both the junior world road and time trial titles.
Sparks sent her a Facebook message. Would she like to try the track?
She was “completely clueless” about the track. But over Thanksgiving last fall, she traveled to California and hopped on one of Hammer’s track bikes. She did a timed effort with Hammer and Valente.
“She was one of the fastest of anyone, including Sarah and Jenn,” said coach Neal Henderson, who was not surprised by the U.S. team’s silver medal in Rio.
Sparks predicted that Dygert would show up in Rio as the strongest rider on the team pursuit squad.
“It’s not just the physical talent, it's the mental game too that her parents, David and Gretchen, instilled in her,” Sparks said. “She has the full package.”
The four women won the team pursuit world championship title in March 2016 — it was Dygert’s first race on the track and Catlin’s fourth or fifth.
Then in April, bike manufacturer Felt presented the team with new bikes. Called Felt TA FRD track bikes, their most defining characteristic is that the drive train is on the left side of the bike rather than the usual right — to make them more aerodynamic as the bikes travel counterclockwise around the track.
“They said we know that Great Britain is going to pull out every single stop in the book with every single bit of equipment,” said Hammer, who works closely with Felt. “Let’s put you on a bike that puts you on an even playing field.”
Although the bikes were high tech, the U.S. squad wasn’t as fully outfitted as the British. They did not let it faze them.
“Our sport psychologist told them we might not have the fancy shoes or the fancy this and that, but what we do have is the heart and soul,” said Sparks. “They wanted to come out over two days of competition and show that they’re here to represent our country and fight it out for three rides.”
The U.S. squad rode superbly in qualifying and in the opening round to move into the gold-medal race with Great Britain.
In the gold medal match-up, the U.S. was even with Great Britain for the first 1,000 meters: one lap, Team GB was ahead, the next, the U.S. had pulled into the lead. But by the second half of the race, Britain took the lead and held it to the line.
“Tonight we were riding for every single girl who’s started the team pursuit camps in the last two to three years,” said Hammer. “We have this tiny little group of volunteer staff that show up for these camps. It’s staff that wants it, staff that is so motivated. They are motivated by the Olympic experience, the United States of America, and that’s how the U.S. rolls. We are the underdogs. I feel like that’s what motivated us. We came close. We tried to push ‘em. But they were the better team for sure.”
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.