Kristin Armstrong has a problem, a competition problem, which really isn’t a problem when you’re winning Olympic gold medals.
“I’m just driven by competition,’’ Armstrong said in an interview with the Idaho Statesman on the eve of her departure for the Summer Olympics in Rio. “My family always tells me that I don’t always have to win at dominoes during Christmas, and I’m like, ‘Yes I do.’
“I need to win everything.”
Which takes us back to Rio, where she’s competing Sunday in the road race and Wednesday in the time trial, an event she has dominated at the past two Summer Olympics.
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Armstrong knows she doesn’t have a chance in the 87.6-mile road race because her job with Team USA is to help gold-medal favorite Megan Guarnier conquer steep climbs and win the nation’s first gold in the women’s road race since 1984.
The 18.5-mile time trial is a completely different story, the story of an uber-competitive athlete who hopes to win an unprecedented third straight gold in her sport despite so many obstacles that say otherwise.
Armstrong, who had multiple hip surgeries after London, turns 43 years old Thursday.
The oldest cyclist in Rio, who has retired twice, is competing against 20- and 30-somethings.
She has a 5-year-old son, Lucas, a job as the manager for community health for St. Luke’s Health System’s West Region, and is obsessed with the idea of reducing childhood obesity rates in her hometown.
She’s considered a medal contender in Rio, but not a gold-medal favorite, a distinction that belongs to Anna van der Breggen (Netherlands) and Linda Villumsen (New Zealand), both of whom beat Armstrong at the 2015 World Championships.
Armstrong, who finished fifth at the worlds, totally expects to be standing on top of a podium Wednesday morning. As the defending champion in a brutal one-on-one race against the clock, she’ll be the last rider in the field, which provides a distinct advantage.
“You’re taking a little bit of a risk here because you finished the last two on the top step of the podium, so wow, what would an Olympics be without a medal?” Armstrong said.
“I wouldn’t be coming back unless I was coming back to listen to the national anthem while I’m standing on that podium.”
Matt Wikstrom, who is Armstrong’s California-based agent, said her approach hasn’t changed over four Olympic Games.
“It’s total focus. Kristin doesn’t leave any detail unattended to,’’ Wikstrom said. “I think how she looks at this Olympic Games, compared to her first one, has definitely changed, though. She is in a lot different place in her life now. She is a mom, a wife, and I think that gives her a different perspective.”
You can’t control your competitors’ performances, so you have to make a promise to yourself as an athlete that you’re going to leave it all out there. This is your last results, you have to live with it.
Kristin Armstrong, two-time gold medalist on her final Olympic appearance
STRUGGLING, AT TIMES
Armstrong is a competitive machine, but she’s also human and was struggling with her body and her psyche in July. A third gold medal was far from a slam dunk.
She spent 13 hours in a Colorado room while fellow cyclist Carmen Small, during an arbitration hearing with USA Cycling, argued that she shouldn’t have been left off the Olympic team.
“Stress is not healthy,’’ Armstrong said, “and I wasn’t sleeping well.”
Three days later, she competed in her hometown Twilight Criterium, spending hours signing autographs and racing on the streets of Downtown Boise. It was a race that had very little to do with her Rio preparation.
Then it was off to Oregon for the Cascade Classic, a five-day stage race and her final tuneup for Rio. She finished third in the time trial (Small finished second) and second overall to a Canadian.
“I had a bad time trial at Cascade, bad for me because I don’t like to get beat,” Armstrong said.
Back in Boise, but feeling down and a need for rejuvenation, Armstrong had a long day on her bike July 28. The next day, she had the workout of a lifetime, she said.
“It was a super big workout, one of the best I’ve had in a long time. ... That was super important because athletes can’t pretend when you have a bad performance, like the time trial at Cascade,’’ she said.
“I was in such a bad mood Thursday, and my husband (Joe Savola) kept asking, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ I realized I was so nervous for that workout, almost like I am for a race, because I needed that workout, I really needed it.
“After the workout, I was like, ‘Hey, let’s go out to dinner. Let’s hang out.’ I was totally like relaxed Kristin again.”
Armstrong flew to Houston on July 30 for processing with the United States Olympic Committee. There, through a USOC ambassador program, she was asked to share advice with first-time Olympians who were also in Houston.
Later in the day, she encountered “five big guys from the water polo team. They thanked me for sharing my story, said it really resonated with them. I love the Olympic movement and I love that they let me share my experiences. That was so much fun.”
Armstrong arrived in Rio on Monday and immediately went for an easy bike ride. On Tuesday, she hit the Olympic course for the first time, after memorizing it over several hours with a detailed video.
Armstrong did not march in the Opening Ceremony on Friday night — “it’s a big field trip” — and is now fully prepared for her final Olympic moment.
She knows the women’s Olympic time trial race better than anyone in the world.
So what will it take to win a third gold medal, from the expert herself?
Keep nerves to a minimum: “Nerves mean that I care, but there’s a balance of having too many nerves and not enough nerves.”
Visualize: “You have to visualize yourself hurting so bad, like you’ve never hurt before because this race is going to be won by seconds, and lost by seconds, so I have to lay everything out there knowing it’s only going to be 40 minutes of my life.”
Keep calm: “Keeping calm goes hand-in-hand with confidence. The journey is finished, the training is in the books and done, and now it’s about going out and having that great day.’’
Which takes us back to that competition problem. What in the name of gold medals will Armstrong do to satisfy her ultra-competitive appetite after her racing career is over?
She’ll continue to be involved in cycling, she said, and Wikstrom said she’ll continue to endorse local and national companies. But she’s also thinking bigger thoughts about the most important thing in her life: family.
“I’m going to feel relieved, actually. ... Full on, my stress becomes my family’s stress, and there’s a lot of stress involved in going to the Olympic Games,” she said.
Armstrong shared a phone conversation she had with Savola while she was in Houston.
“It’s funny, Joe called me Saturday from home, doing nothing. ... He’s like, ‘It’s kind of weird without you here.’ And I’m like, ‘What, because there’s no stress?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to have to really figure things out when you’re done.’
“As long as I get my exercise endorphins, everyone around me will be super happy.”
Armstrong’s schedule in Rio
- Sunday: Road race, 9:15 a.m. MT (watch at stream.nbcolympics.com/womens-cycling-road-race)
- Wednesday: Time trial, 5:30 a.m.
Evolution of Armstrong’s Olympic career
Boise cyclist Kristin Armstrong is competing in her fourth Summer Olympics. “Every one has been super different,’’ she said. Here’s how she breaks down each experience:
- Athens in 2004 (eighth in the road race): “The first one, making my first team, pretty much the pinnacle of sport, participate and do the best you can.”
- Beijing in 2008 (gold in time trial, 25th in road race): “You win a gold medal and you end up being super hungry and you just want to win another, but it takes four years to go back.”
- London in 2012 (gold in time trial, 35th in road race): “Third time around, I just had a son and so that was really special to me because you have a family, and you have a new goal and you have a vision of bringing your 2-year-old to the Olympics with you. ... Can I do it, can I actually medal again, how strong can you be?”
Rio in 2016 (time trial and road race): “Because I can.”