Kristin Armstrong, twice retired with three hip surgeries, returned to the Summer Olympics for a fourth time with one goal in mind:
Win an unprecedented third straight gold medal in the women’s time trial.
The Boise cyclist and University of Idaho graduate produced a golden effort Wednesday through wind and rain over a brutal 18.5-mile course that left her in an exhausted heap at the finish.
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Armstrong led by nearly 5 seconds after 10 kilometers but dropped 3 seconds back of the lead by the second time check. She made up the difference over the final, flat run to the finish, precisely the kind of terrain that suits her riding style perfectly.
“(My coach) kept on telling me, ‘This is it,’ ” she said. “And about 5k to go, he said, ‘Here we go. It’s up to you what color of medal you want.’ And I was like, ‘Well, it’s up to me?’ ”
Armstrong, the last rider in a field of 25, dismounted the moment she crossed the line, too tired even to celebrate the latest triumph of her decorated career. She covered the Rio route in 44 minutes, 26.42 seconds — with a bloody nose during the first third of the race — to top reigning bronze medalist Olga Zabelinskaya of Russia by the slimmest of margins: 5.55 seconds.
Anna van der Breggen of the Netherlands added a bronze medal to the road race gold she won Sunday.
Van der Breggen was born in 1990.
Zabelinskaya was born in 1980.
[Related: “What would the Olympics be without a medal?”]
Armstrong, the only American cyclist to win three gold medals, was born in 1973.
The oldest rider in the race turns 43 on Thursday and joins speedskater Bonnie Blair as the only American women to win three gold medals in the same event at any Olympics. Armstrong also won in Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012.
In the last 104 years, the United States has produced five gold medals in Olympic road racing. Armstrong owns three of them.
Armstrong was met by her 5-year-old son Lucas at the finish line in Rio.
“Mama,” Lucas asked, “why are you crying? You won!”
As for the tears, well, “that’s a great question from a 5-year-old,” Armstrong said with her now-familiar grin. “That’s what we do, we cry when we’re happy.
[Related: Armstrong seeks third Olympic gold medal “because I can.”]
“I’m going to have to explain that one to him a little later.”
Armstrong also explained that this was the most difficult of her four Olympics, starting with an eighth-place finish in the Athens road race in 2004.
“I’ve had the hardest journey this Olympics that I’ve ever had,” she said. “There was a lot of pressure, and I didn’t realize this until this year but third place was a really bad result for me. I had to win everything. … But I knew how to get it done on one day.”
Despite her pedigree, Armstrong was a controversial selection for the U.S. team.
She retired for a second time shortly after the London Olympics, then decided earlier this year to pursue a third gold medal. But she eschewed competing in the toughest races in Europe to spend more time with her family, much to the chagrin of rival riders who made the sacrifices of racing abroad.
[Related: Kristin Armstrong works hard early, doesn’t finish Rio road race.]
Then there were the accusations of bias: Her longtime coach, Jim Miller, also directs the national team for USA Cycling, though he recused himself from all deliberations over her selection.
Ultimately, two Americans filed for arbitration to try to make the team. One of the riders had beaten Armstrong in the national championships, putting her place on the team in doubt.
It wasn’t until a week before she departed for Brazil that Armstrong’s place was confirmed.
“When you’ve already been two times at the pinnacle of the sport, why risk coming back for the gold medal? The best answer I can give is that I can,” she said. “Today the stars aligned.”
Armstrong was embraced at the finish by Zabelinskaya, a controversial figure coming into the race.
The Russian tested positive for the substance octopamine in July 2014 and accepted an 18-month ban, and that doping violation was poised to keep her from the Rio Games when the International Olympic Committee set in place rules that barred Russian athletes for previous doping offenses.
“In the morning they told us we could participate. In the evening, they said we won’t. It was two weeks like this,” she said. “I had my ticket to go back to Russia.”
Last week, the CAS ruled the IOC’s rules were “unenforceable,” allowing Zabelinskaya to compete in Saturday’s road race and ride down the starting ramp in Wednesday’s rainy time trial. “I’m not the only cyclist that has a doping problem in the past,” said Zabelinskaya, who has always maintained her innocence. “I believe all athletes that they are clean.”
Now Boise is celebrating her win. Mayor Dave Bieter issued a statement shortly after Armstrong claimed her third gold.
“What an amazing accomplishment for Kristin. I know every Boisean shares my pride that Kristin is one of our own and honored that she provides our city, and especially its children, with such a powerful and positive example of hard work, dedication and community involvement,” he said in the statement. “We can’t wait to welcome her, Joe and Lucas back to Boise and celebrate her triumph.”
The city of Boise is in the process of planning a celebration to welcome Armstrong and honor her historic win. It’s not yet clear what the celebration will look like, but it’s happening, said Mike Journee, spokesperson for the mayor’s office.
“We’ll be recognizing that accomplishment. It’s a great one,” he said. “It deserves all the recognition we can give it.”
Armstrong plans to stay in Brazil until Sunday, and return to Boise on Monday.
“We’ve always come home right away,’’ Armstrong said about previous Olympic trips. “This time I promised (husband) Joe (Savola) we’d do something fun.’’