HADLEIGH FARM, U.K. — With bad luck behind her, not to mention a bad race start, Georgia Gould was all smiles as she pedaled across the finish line, her arms in the air.
Happy and relieved. A cool breeze blowing off the North Sea and Thames River estuary behind her.
The 32-year-old mountain biker from Ketchum, Idaho, had finally won an Olympic medal. It was bronze. But to Gould, it was gold.
“I’ve had some races where I was having a great race and the last lap some bad luck meant not winning,” said Gould, glowing after collecting her medal. “I definitely had that in my mind a little bit.”
Gould’s bronze was the first Olympic medal won by a U.S. mountain biker since Susan DeMattei’s bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Games, when mountain biking made its Olympic debut.
Julie Bresset, a 23-year-old from France, won gold. And 40-year-old Sabine Spitz from Germany, the 2008 gold and 2004 bronze medalist, rounded out her medal collection with silver. Bresset is the youngest Olympic medal winner ever in women’s biking; Spitz is the oldest.
It was a hugely emotional day for Gould who was a medal contender at the 2008 Olympics but finished a disappointing eighth. But she was still a relatively new rider — having discovered the sport about a decade ago after moving to her dad’s house in Idaho to put her angst-filled teens behind her.
Since Beijing, Gould has scored a handful of World Cup top three finishes, notably taking second at the Hadleigh Farm World Cup in 2011.
Then this season, after a slow start, she reached the front of three World Cup races. But each time, bad luck struck. At Mt. Sainte-Anne (Quebec) in June, she was leading the race when she cramped and had to slow down on the final lap. She held on for second.
In Windham in early July, Gould was leading the race again when she flatted in the last lap. She still managed to finished third.
Then the day after the 2012 Olympics opened, she took fifth in a World Cup in France after a rider crashed in front of her in the last lap.
Gould tried not to dwell on the bad luck.
“What I took away from that race (Windham World Cup) is more of a positive,” she said. “Hey, I’ve got the fitness and skills to win a World Cup or win a world championship or an Olympics.”
Now a seasoned veteran, Gould helped Olympic teammate Lea Davison, 29, know what to expect at an Olympic Games — to know that the Olympic Village can be over-the-top exciting, and that the Olympic race itself would seem like a World Cup race. Except with 20,000 fans cheering. And a helicopter hovering over the rolling farm fields that resemble Davison’s home mountain biking area in Vermont.
Still, on race day, it was Gould who was nervous.
The excitement fueled a fast start that caught both Gould and Davison in the wrong place — on the outside of the first turn in a pack that was charging as if the finish line were around the corner, not 29.26 kilometers and six laps away. After the starting loop, Gould was in 23rd, Davison in 26th — in a 30-rider field.
“All of a sudden we found ourselves at the back, and I’m thinking to myself, OK, Georgia, now’s the time to move up,” said Davison. “She obviously moved up a little bit more than I did, which is awesome!”
Rather than panic, Gould was patient, working her way to the top 10 in the first lap. Second lap, she made her move, joining a lead group of four that included Bresset, Spitz, and reigning world champion Catharine Pendrel from Canada.
They soon dropped Pendrel. Then Spitz crashed in the tricky Rock Garden drop on a scenic course punctuated by short, hard, but smooth climbs and difficult manmade technical sections.
“It looked like Georgia had been moving forward forward forward,” said USA Cycling mountain bike coach Marc Gullickson. “Then right at that crux moment, Bresset attacked slightly. There was a hesitation because of the crash by Spitz. So they came off the back there. Then it was a battle for second.”
While Bresset, the reigning U-23 world champion, built on her lead, Spitz and Gould stayed together, the German only a few seconds ahead of the American. In fourth, Irina Kalentieva from Russia was chasing hard.
Then came the last lap — the lap that had bedeviled Gould in her previous races. Spitz gapped her in the tricky Rock Garden. But Gould took no chances.
“I didn’t want to take any risks the last lap,” said Gould. “I still can’t believe nothing happened in the last lap.”
She crossed the line, smiling and punching the air as if she had won.
“I’m so happy to see her get a bronze medal,” said Davison, who finished 11th. “She really deserves it after a lot of bad luck in the World Cups this season.”
As Gould stood on the podium, ships plying the waters of the Thames estuary far in the distance behind her, tears streamed down to her smile.
“It’s hugely emotional,” she said. “You put so much work into it. It is just another race, but at the same time, it’s not just another race. It’s a race that everyone is shooting for and peaking for. You hope that the prep you’ve done gives you what it takes on the day.
“I’m glad I could have not just an opportunity to represent my country but bring home a medal.”
Peggy Shinn is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of the United States Olympic Committee or any National Governing Bodies.