Jackson Capela had no trouble pinpointing his hardest test during the “Milk Life presents, The Next Olympic Hopeful” competition held in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“We were doing this test and you have to run down and back basically running as fast as you can on a field for 30 seconds then rest 30 seconds,” said Capela, a 17-year-old who hails from Detroit. “I could barely breathe, and on the last one I collapsed. That altitude is super crazy.”
His struggles breathing in the thin mile-high air didn’t impact his overall performance in the NBC-broadcast talent search, however. Capela, one of the youngest of the 50 finalists who underwent testing at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Center, showed the staff from USA Cycling what they wanted to see and was selected to continue on in the track cycling program. He was one of six winners selected by national governing bodies during the show’s third season.
“I think I got stronger throughout the whole competition,” he said. “It was a fun experience, too. I was glad I met people from all over the country and it was good to hear about their experiences. They kind of influenced me to make decisions on what my future might be. Most of them were in college so I was trying to get a grasp on what their experience was like and all that stuff.”
Capela started riding bikes around the city with his mom and brother when he was 13 or 14 years old, he said. One day someone came to speak to his mom’s cycling club about a nonprofit youth organization that did programming at a velodrome in Rochester Hills, about 30 miles north of the city. That’s where Capela rode a track for the first time, he said, but he didn’t become seriously involved in the sport until the Lexus Velodrome opened in Detroit several years later.
Dale Hughes is executive director of the Lexus Velodrome and the nonprofit Detroit Fitness Foundation that runs it. He met Capela for the first time at the outdoor track in Rochester Hills and has since coached the teenager.
In 2018, Capela competed at the USA Cycling Junior Track National Championships, finishing in the bottom half, Hughes said. This year was a much different result.
Competing in the sprint competition, Capela finished eighth in the time trial and got the last spot in the head-to-head heats, Hughes said. That meant in the next heat he’d have to race the fastest rider and win, or else his competition was over. Capela won, kept winning and got all the way to the gold-medal race. He won the first race but lost the last two and claimed the silver medal.
“He really shocked everybody there at nationals,” Hughes said. “No one thought he was going to win. No one had seen this kid before. Being African American from Detroit you’re not looking like most of the other kids who are racing and you do sort of stand out.”
Capela’s strength is in his tactics, Hughes said. While he’s still working on his top-end speed and endurance, typical of cyclists his age, he’s very smart, very analytical and can figure out how to best play the game so he can win.
Rather than letting his youth intimidate him during the Next Olympic Hopeful competition, Capela said, his strategy was to stay quiet, observe what everybody was looking for, who he needed to look out for and where he could best put himself out there and show what he could do.
His sweet spot, not surprisingly, was on the track. Not one to just worry about his own performance, however, Capela helped his fellow competitors as well.
“When they were doing sport-specific testing they took us to the velodrome and it was everyone’s first time riding on the velodrome, so I did super good in that,” said Capela, who applied for the competition on the final deadline day after his mother found out about it and encouraged him to give it a shot. “I was trying to help people out to try and get comfortable with what they were riding on because I know if they came to the one in Detroit they’d be really scared. It’s way more banked than the one in Colorado.”
As the competition drew to a close, Capela said that initially he hoped they wouldn’t call his name. He feared that winning would come with a burden and that if he failed he’d be letting lots of people down.
He doesn’t feel that way anymore.
“I was praying a lot about it, talking to God a lot, and I was also given time to myself to think about it,” he said.
Another thing that helped was being selected to the Olympic Development Program after a training camp last month. The head coach in the sprint program saw something in him, he said, and that gave him more life. Later this month he’ll go with the team to race in the Netherlands. From there, he now believes, anything is possible.
“Now I know all it takes is hard work and God, and I know that I can do it,” Capela said. “I can train and push through all the struggles and problems. I have the confidence. Before I was scared, but now I’m not.”
Think you have what it takes to be the Next Olympic Hopeful? Season four will choose athletes in biathlon, bobsled, luge, skeleton and speedskating. Applicants must be 14 or older and don’t need to have any experience in any of the sports. Apply TeamUSA.org/NextOlympicHopeful through Sunday, Feb. 9 at 11:59 p.m. mountain time.