Boise cyclist Kristin Armstrong takes fourth Olympics for a spin
Kristin Armstrong has been to four Olympic Games, and at each one, the world-class cyclist and juggler of time showed up with a competition plan and an exit plan.
Return to Boise as fast as possible to celebrate with the people she loves.
This time, probably for the final time, the exit plan is different. Armstrong and her family — husband Joe Savola and 5-year-old son Lucas — are staying in Rio de Janeiro until Sunday. They’ll take in a few Olympic events (probably whatever Lucas wants to see) and return to Boise on Monday.
“We’ve always come home right away,’’ Armstrong said. “This time I promised Joe we’d do something fun.’’
Like celebrate an unprecedented third gold medal? Or relive the perfect execution of Wednesday’s time trial, where Armstrong dominated the windy and rainy roads of Rio and a field of elite riders to win a race that very few expected her to win? Or embrace a future as America’s most decorated Olympic cyclist, a plot that is thickened by her age and her ability to balance racing, family and a real job.
Armstrong, the oldest rider in the field Wednesday, turns 43 on Thursday and, yes, there will be some celebrating in Rio. There will be even more after she returns to Boise next week.
Mayor Dave Bieter is on board for a gold-medal party in his city of proud cyclists.
“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,” Bieter said in a statement. “We can’t wait to welcome her, Joe and Lucas back to Boise and celebrate her triumph.”
Armstrong, a former University of Idaho cross country runner who has retired from cycling twice and endured multiple hip surgeries, is suddenly a big deal in more places than just Idaho, even though women’s cycling is never that hot of a topic at the Summer Olympics.
But Lance Armstrong — yes, that Lance Armstrong, who is no relation — checked in Wednesday from the Twitterverse: “Yes!! Congratulations Kristin!!” he wrote.
So did former baseball star Barry Bonds, a cycling fan: “Congratulations Kristin Armstrong 3 time gold medalist.”
With her victory, Armstrong joins speedskater Bonnie Blair as the only American women to win three gold medals in the same event at any Olympics. Armstrong, who earned a $25,000 bonus check from the United States Olympic Committee, also won in Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012.
“She will definitely have some opportunities commercially and mediawise to consider coming off of this,” said her agent, Matt Wikstrom. “So many story lines people want to identify with — a mom, a wife, someone who has balanced a professional and athletic career, and on top of that being the best in the world now for three straight Olympics.”
In a sport often decided by a few seconds, Armstrong won her three Olympic races by a combined 45 seconds.
She led Wednesday’s race by nearly five seconds after about 6 miles into the 18.5-mile course, but dropped three seconds back of the lead at a 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 with 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, crossed the finish line and immediately asked herself, “Did I win?” She then dismounted into a heap on the wet pavement, too tired to celebrate the final triumph of her decorated career. She covered the brutal Rio route in 44:26.42 to top Olga Zabelinskaya of Russia by 5.55 seconds.
Anna van der Breggen of the Netherlands added a bronze medal to the gold she won in the road race on Sunday.
Van der Breggen was born in 1990.
Zabelinskaya was born in 1980.
Armstrong, the ageless wonder, was born in 1973.
“We’ve been told we should be finished at a certain age, but there are a lot of athletes out there who are showing that’s not true,” said Armstrong, who overcame a nosebleed that started early in the race.
And what about that bleed? “I’m not sure why. I sometimes get them in dry weather, but this, I don’t know,” she said.
Here’s what we do know: In the last 104 years, the United States has produced five gold medals in Olympic road racing. Armstrong owns three of them.
“Her secret is ultimate focus ... and she proved again today why she is one of the fiercest competitors out there,” Wikstrom said.
Said Armstrong: “I hurt so bad out there, and when my coach keeps on telling me to go deeper and deeper, I have to keep on telling myself that I can go deeper and that this is a result I have to live with.
“This is a result that I want to end with and this is a result that any athlete wants to end with — top step of the podium in the Olympic Games. I couldn’t be more proud.”
She was met by Lucas at the finish line.
“Mama,” Lucas asked, “why are you crying? You won!”
“That’s a great question from a 5-year-old,” Armstrong said. “That’s what we do, we cry when we’re happy. I’m going to have to explain that one to him a little later.”
In meeting with the world press after her race, Armstrong also explained that this was the most difficult of her four Olympics, an era that started with an innocent 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. … But I knew how to get it done on one day.”
Armstrong was a controversial selection to Team USA.
She retired for a second time shortly after London, then decided to pursue a third gold medal. But she eschewed competing in the toughest races in Europe to train in Boise and spend more time with her family, much to the chagrin of rival riders who made the sacrifices of racing abroad.
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 two weeks 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.”
And now we wait for that final celebration somewhere in Downtown Boise. The planning has started but specifics haven’t been finalized, said Mike Journee, spokesman for the mayor’s office.
“We’ll be recognizing that accomplishment,” he said. “It’s a great one. It deserves all the recognition we can give it.”
Statesman wire services and Olympic media news services contributed to this report.