The day before her 43rd birthday, Kristin Armstrong Savola won her third straight Olympic gold medal, claiming a victory in the women’s time trial by just five seconds at the Olympic Games Rio 2016.
A four-time Olympian, Armstrong Savola also won gold medals in the women’s time trial in 2008 and 2012, in addition to two world titles and six U.S. titles, before retiring last October. In August, she was named endurance performance director at USA Cycling.
Armstrong Savola took some time recently to answer a few questions about her new role, and how she sees the future of USA Cycling.
TeamUSA.org: Tell us a little about your new role.
Kristin Armstrong Savola: My role as the high performance director is actually a brand new position that USA Cycling has never had before. My job is to help identify our top athletes across all disciplines in cycling. That’s happened in the past, we’ve identified athletes to make the worlds teams, but now we hope to come in with higher performances, better results. Basically, our athletes come into the programs with their own coach, but many of them need something extra, like a dietitian, or to come in for wind testing. My job will be to see that the federation fills in the gaps the athletes can’t otherwise fill through their coaches or connections.
TeamUSA.org: How will this work throughout all the disciplines: road, track, mountain bike, BMX and cyclo-cross?
Armstrong Savola: The way it’s set up, every discipline in USA Cycling has their coach for the national team, like the road coach, the mountain bike coach or the track coach. Where I come in: say the track coach calls me up and says he thinks X, Y and Z could help this athlete, and they need someone to help map her plan. I would be the resource for that. Or say they call and ask if I can help set up a wind tunnel session for our team pursuit. And there are a lot of two-season athletes like Emma White, who is cyclo-cross but also does road. It’s my job to have an understanding and help manage those dual athletes because coaches specialize in cross or in mountain. I want to be sure the track coach understands what the riders’ trade team is expecting from them, and help them understand the expectations so they don’t over-schedule.
TeamUSA.org: How did this opportunity come about?
Armstrong Savola: My understanding is that last fall, USA Cycling put together a high performance plan, presented it to the United States Olympic Committee, and they approved it because we had such great success in Rio. USA Cycling was posting a lot of jobs in May, and I was at the Tour of California and someone asked if I had seen them. Two days later, I said I wanted to apply for this job. I had just left my job at a hospital; I was doing a of public speaking and wanted to write a book, and then this opportunity came along. It’s weird. My degree in college was exercise physiology, so I’ve always been into this side of things … I spend a lot of time geeking out in science. It’s what I love. … Finally, in August I got an interview, and I thought, “Wow, this is one of those once-in-a-lifetime perfect moments and opportunities.” Of course they come around in different sports, but at the end of the day, when it comes around in the sport you do, it’s once-in-a-lifetime.
TeamUSA.org: Explain how you view the need for high performance.
Armstrong Savola: I would say there is a huge need for this not just in cycling but for any athlete. For some reason when athletes are young, we are taught to take care of ourselves, hold our cards close, and we’re taught to be tough. One of the things I learned in my career was that my team got bigger, working with a dietitian and others. The last four years, I had surgery, and my team became even bigger with medical and rehabilitation people. I think we cut ourselves short as athletes when we don’t invite other people in. When you get to the top in your discipline, in your sport, you need a team, and that team needs to be yourself, your coach, and then what else? As athletes, we tend to go work with ourselves, our coach, and hope we make it. I think the first part of my job is relationship building.
TeamUSA.org: How helpful would this have been for your career?
Armstrong Savola: I was lucky. I had four chances at the Olympics. I started in Athens in 2004 and ended in Rio in 2016. Back when I started, I was on the T-Mobile trade team, which was under the federation, and we were actually the PET team — Performance Enhancement Team. I felt the first couple of years I did have quite a bit of support. And then when the women’s team dissolved, we went to trade teams. Throughout my career, I was with U.S.-based teams, and then European-based teams when I was in Europe, and there we were under the direction of the men’s team, so when they went to the Tour de France and got new helmets and new speed suits, we would get them too.
TeamUSA.org: What are you most looking forward to in this role?
Armstrong Savola: I am looking forward to working hand-in-hand with the athletes. There will be a handful. I find my strength is mapping. It’s not like we’re talking about a different sport where everything is set. Cycling in unique. Imagine being a time trial-er for example. They hop onto a trade team because that’s who’s paying them, but the team says, “Here are all the races we want you to do, here is one time trial bike. Good luck.”
I work with a lot of athletes, and I ask what is their goal? “Win nationals!” When do you want to win? “This year.” What’s your best place last year? “Eighth.” I’m good at helping athletes set their vision, applying clarity to set true goals and act on them. I feel I have a natural sense of helping an athlete see, here’s your midseason break. You won’t last until the world championships if you don’t take a break. How are we going to decrease these race dates? I want them to set realistic goals so they and their coaches don’t fail. There’s nothing worse than wanting to win, but they keep getting eighth.
TeamUSA.org: Who will you be reporting to?
Armstrong Savola: I’ll be reporting to Jim Miller. USA Cycling just reorganized and he is now the vice president of high performance, and they just hired Scott Schnitzspahn (as vice president of elite athletics. Schnitzspahn was previously the high performance director at the USOC).
TeamUSA.org: How will you judge the success of your efforts?
Armstrong Savola: I’m really excited about helping others in a think-together way. I’m not going to coach every athlete. I want to form a relationship with their coach. I am here to supplement, to fill a gap, to direct a resource to you, to help you succeed. To me, the success is helping the next U.S. athlete win a gold medal.
USA Cycling has set a goal of winning seven gold medals in Tokyo (at the 2020 Olympic Games, compared with two in Rio), and I want to be a part of that. Four years ago, I could not have said that because I wasn’t finished with competition. I’m truly ready to help the next generation of cyclists bring home what I believe is the pinnacle of sports. I won gold in Rio by five seconds in a 44-minute race. I know I can help our cyclists gain that five seconds.
Gary R. Blockus is a journalist from Allentown, Pennsylvania who has covered multiple Olympic Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.