Deena Manitu poses for a photo after being named the Next Olympic Hopeful for the sport of track cycling on July 30, 2018 in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Deena Manitu wasn’t quite sure what to think when her aunt, Lisa Greene, told her she should try out for Next Olympic Hopeful, the athlete talent search designed to identify potential U.S. Olympians.
“My aunt said that Eastern Tennessee University was hosting tryouts, and she told me I should try out,” the 19-year-old Manitu recalled. “I was like, ‘I don’t know. Even the title, Next Olympic Hopeful, is intimidating.’”
Somehow, it wasn’t intimidating enough. Manitu not only smashed the tryout testing — which included pull-ups to failure, a sprint, a maximum squat and other strength and power measures — but earned an invitation to be part of “Milk Life presents, Scouting Camp: The Next Olympic Hopeful” training camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. NBC Sports documented the camp, and a two-part documentary aired Thanksgiving weekend.
Manitu had no idea what sport she’d be selected for, or if she’d even be selected at all, but her 19 pullups impressed officials at USA Canoe/Kayak, who emailed saying she’d be perfect for sprint kayak.
“I went to Colorado with in my head that I would be doing something with my upper body,” Manitu said.
Yet, upon arrival Manitu was channeled into track cycling, where she earned the honor as the Next Olympic Hopeful for that sport, identified to train for the team sprint despite having no previous experience in the sport.
Manitu, originally from West Virginia, possessed an impressive athletic background that included winning a national age group wrestling title as a 15-year-old. She also competed in tumbling, volleyball and soccer, and she was working as a gymnastics coach at a local academy when her aunt encouraged her to take the chance.
“Based on the testing data from the first day-and-a-half or so, we could select athletes to go further with sport-specific testing,” explained Scott Schnitzspahn, vice president of elite athletics for USA Cycling.
USA Cycling selected Manitu and put her through testing on a Watt bike for 6-second and 30-second max power tests. Based on her testing there, she became part of an even smaller group of athletes selected to ride on the velodrome to see if they had an aptitude for riding fixed gear, direct-drive bikes with no brakes.
Schnitzspahn said Manitu smiled the whole time while riding the steeply-banked 333.3-meter concrete velodrome at the OTC.
“It was definitely very strange going with no brakes,” Manitu said.
Schnitzspah said he and USA Cycling sprint coach Jamie Staff liked Manitu’s athletic background and her ability to pick up nuances on the bike quickly.
“Based on other people in our group of similar ability, Deena, being 19, has time to develop,” he said.
Since the camp, Manitu has been back for training at the OTC with retired New Zealand cyclist Joanne Kiesanowski, who represented her country at three Olympics and 14 world championships.
At the OTC training camp, Manitu got fitted for proper cycling shoes and was clipped into the pedals, but that feeling of not being able to just stop pedaling still took some getting used to.
“You definitely have to think about it and develop the instinct that if you want to slow down, you resist pedaling,” she said. “If you’re going too fast and resist too soon, you can go over the handle bars. Jo taught me to stand up, and that helps me slow down.”
Deena Manitu trains at Scouting Camp: The Next Olympic Hopeful on July 29, 2018 in Colorado Springs, Colo.
During that training, Manitu worked on standing starts, 200-meter time trials and embracing the speed she can create.
“Those were some of the funnest things I ever did, zipping around the track like that,” she said.
She also experienced the worst of the track as well: the crash. Riding in a cooldown line, the rider in front of her went down, and Manitu went over the rider, crashing and hitting her head, resulting in a concussion.
She has since been medically cleared to go full bore in training, and she’s looking forward to receiving a training program from Lee Povey, USA Cycling’s national sprint development coach, who is helping her pick out a track bike.
Manitu plans to begin training at the Giordana Velodrome in Rock Hill, South Carolina, which isn’t too far from where she lives, in preparation for the 2019 USA Cycling Elite National Championships in July in Los Angeles.
Schnitzspah said that the target for Manitu is as a starter on the team sprint, with an Olympic mindset for 2024.
Manitu is thrilled to be in consideration.
“Every athlete is more than their sport, but through that ability they possess the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than themselves, a movement to speak a universal language, sport,” she said.
“The Olympics is the world’s biggest stage. Every person there is the part of a revolution that is ultimately love, for they are there for the sake of what they love, and doing what they love. With that many candles lit, how can the world be dark?
“Despite the nations involved and flaring egos, we athletes are able to rise above it all for the sake of the sport, for the sake of the world. We come together in the name of the sport, and that which we truly desire, which is peace.”