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Kristin Armstrong, Idaho’s Olympic champion, discusses drive, determination

Kristin Armstrong, center in “USA” t-shirt, met with University of Idaho athletes on Friday. (Peter Harriman / FOR THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Kristin Armstrong, center in “USA” t-shirt, met with University of Idaho athletes on Friday. (Peter Harriman / FOR THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Peter Harriman For The Spokesman-Review

If there is one characteristic that separates the highest of high achievers from everyone else, even naturally gifted individuals, it’s a belief life doesn’t just happen. Life is what you make it.

For them, this isn’t a slogan or even an aspiration. At a bone deep level it is how they approach whatever they do. In a rambling narrative about her athletic career as a three-time Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong tried to convey this to a group of about 30 University of Idaho athletes Friday afternoon.

She framed her talk with lessons learned from each of her Olympic triumphs in time-trial cycling. But more impressive than the lessons or her anecdotes about competition was the intensity with which delivered them. In an austere UI classroom she all but created a glowing aura around herself when she spoke.

Armstrong, who graduated from Idaho in 1996, returned to Moscow to accept an honor. In a ceremony Saturday at 2 p.m. in the Fan Zone before the Idaho-UNLV football game, Armstrong will have the portion of the Paradise Path bike and pedestrian trail that runs through the UI campus named for her. There will also be a cycling and information fair, and Armstrong will be available for photos and autographs until 3:15 p.m. If her remarks at the event are anything like what she told the Vandals athletes, everyone in attendance will immediately want to jump on a bike and set a personal record on the newly named trail.

Armstrong made her first Olympic team at age 31 in 2004 in Athens. A friend, she says, cautioned her “don’t forget to compete,” but caught up in the experience of simply making the team she finished out of the medals.

“I want to challenge you on your goals,” she told the Vandals. “We have goals. We don’t ever have a vision. A vision provides clarity. Clarity provides goals.”

Armed with a vision of winning an Olympic gold medal, when Armstrong made the team in 2008 in Beijing, she said she succeeded in accomplishing that goal because she surrounded herself with a supportive team. “I learned to let my guard down and become accountable to people other than my coach.”

In London in 2012, Armstrong was driven to win by a desire to have her two-year-old son on the medals podium with her. She approached training and competition as a family experience to be shared with son, Lucas, and husband Joe Savola. “You have to have balance in your life,” she said. Focusing on family instead of simply cycling made her a better cyclist.

She retired after London but could not extinguish her competitive fire. After three hip surgeries she got on a bike again in 2015. Armstrong was selected to compete in the 2016 Games and defended that pick in a legal battle that cost her $32,000 when a competitor left off the team challenged her selection. Armstrong put aside doubts about whether she really belonged, and on a day when the competitors raced in treacherous rain that slickened the roads on which they raced she won her third gold medal at age 43, becoming the oldest cyclist to do so.

“You have to stop listening to naysayers. You have to believe in what you believe in, and you have to be mentally tough.”

Armstrong did not even take up competitive cycling until her late 20s. An enthusiastic but not highly regarded athlete as a child, in college she walked on to the UI track team as an 800 meter runner. She walked out of collegiate sports when she learned she would also have to run cross country. Armstrong did triathlons after college but took up competitive road cycling when arthritis in her hips ended her running career.

Her rapid ascent in the sport suggests Armstrong is naturally talented. But she insists her mental talents outweigh the physical.

As a competitor, she embraced “the pain cave.

“I would tell myself the quicker I am in pain the better. The quicker I will get out of it” and force herself through to the state of being entirely in the moment and locked in on racing.

Her tough-mindedness extends to the scourge of cycling, performance enhancing drugs. “If I had my way, if you are at fault the best punishment is you should be banned for life.”

She has a similar disdain for sports psychology. Cyclists she knew who worked with sports psychologists “couldn’t naturally compete anymore. They’re so robotic.” Psychologists “try to fix everything. They open wounds, floodgates. The problem you thought you had? Now you have 10.”

Armstrong, who still lives in Boise, recently accepted a direction as endurance performance director with USA Cycling. While she fended off probably two generations of cyclists to chase her own dreams, now she embraces the idea of passing on the torch and giving current competitors the benefit of her experience.

But they better be ready for a dose of tough love. Near the close of her race in London, Armstrong told the Vandals, she rose up out of the saddle and drove herself to the line with a painful sprint. Why? “I had to live with the results.”

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