RIO DE JANEIRO – University of Idaho graduate Kristin Armstrong conquered both the imposing weather and a strong push from a Russian challenger to win the Olympic gold medal Wednesday in a time-trial along Rio’s southern coast.
Under dark skies, the cyclists faced lashing rain and wind on the time-trial course. The conditions might have cost Ellen van Dijk of the Netherlands a medal. She slid off the road and got tangled in weeds before finishing fourth.
But the 42-year-old Armstrong (who turns 43 on Thursday) withstood the brutal course to edge Russian Olga Zabelinskaya by 5.55 seconds.
After the win, Armstrong’s 5-year-old son approached her at the finish.
“Mama,” Lucas asked, “why are you crying? You won!”
The American cyclist made it three consecutive gold medals. The ageless wonder had a time of 44 minutes, 26.42 seconds to beat the reigning bronze medalist, Zabelinskaya.
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.
“I’m going to have to explain that one to him a little later.”
Zabelinskaya earned silver just days after she was cleared to compete by the Court of Arbitration, while Dutch rider Anna van der Breggen added bronze to her gold from the road race.
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.
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’s latest gold medal was almost certainly her toughest.
“I’ve had the hardest journey this Olympics that I’ve ever had,” Armstrong 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.”
Armstrong led by nearly 5 seconds after 10 kilometers but dropped 3 seconds back of Zabelinskaya 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?”
She 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.”
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