They are Canada’s super subs. Five female athletes from very different sports who reinvented themselves as track cyclists and came together to win Olympic bronze in the four-kilometre team pursuit Saturday.
In a head-to-head race for third against New Zealand at the Rio Velodrome, the Canadians jumped out to the lead on the very first lap and never let it go, finishing in a time of 4:14.627, shattering the national record by three seconds. Team Great Britain took the gold in a world-record time of 4:10.26, almost two full seconds ahead of the second-place Americans.
“We knew it would be fast,” said Calgary’s Allison Beveridge, as she sat on her bike post-race, still perspiring. “It’s my first Olympics and it’s true what they say. The Games’ atmosphere really brings out the best in people, and everything comes together.”
The 23-year-old was once a competitive swimmer but transitioned to cycling after a back injury in her early teens. Jasmin Glaesser, 24, from Vancouver, took to the bike after hurting her hips as a runner. Georgia Simmerling, 27, of Vancouver, competed for Canada as an alpine racer in the 2010 home Olympics, then in the ski-cross at Sochi four years later. She switched to cycling after shattering her wrist in January 2015, starting training within a week of coming out of surgery. Kirsti Lay, 28, from Medicine Hat, Alta., was a speed skater for 14 years until she was forced to retire in 2012 due to an ankle injury. And Laura Brown, a 29-year-old from Vancouver who raced in qualifying but not the final, was a gymnast until she too hurt her back. (She was not on the podium for the victory ceremony but still receives a bronze.)
Lay said she believes that the team is stronger for its sporting diversity. Glaesser’s running background gives them endurance. Beveridge brought sprinting talent from the pool. Brown is an all-rounder, and Simmerling, now in her third Olympics in her third different sport—a Canadian first—is unshakeable. As for herself? “I had to rely on everything I learned in 14 years of speed skating and apply it to cycling,” said Lay. “There are technical differences, but I’m still using the same engine. I still have all the tactics of being a high performance athlete. That definitely transfers over.”
Craig Griffin, Canada’s national track endurance coach, said he was impressed with the way the pursuit team handled the pressure and the expectations. After a silver at last year’s world championships, this was an Olympic medal that the country was counting on. They’re such competitors,” he said “We’ve wanted this for the last three years. We expected to be on the podium.”
Four years ago in London, Canada also took the bronze—although Glaesser is the only hold-over from that squad.
Griffin said he expected that New Zealand would try to push the pace early and trick Canada to pouring it on too soon, hoping for them to burn out in latter stages of the 16-lap race. But the Canadians remained focused, took a lead on the first lap and steadily built upon it during the next four minutes. “My words to the girls were, ‘Just go out there and do it. We’ve done it a hundred times,’ ” said Griffin. “We just stayed calm and it showed. We got rolling nicely.”
Simmerling, who reached her first Olympic podium Saturday, said she never imagined that they could reach such lofty cycling heights in such a short time period. But as the team began to gel, and win on the world cup circuit, they realized they had to potential to medal in Rio too. “The path was clearer and clearer as we trained and it led to today,” she said.
Racing in a velodrome is far different than bombing down a ski slope, said Simmerling. “You go to very, very dark places cycling on the track. It’s just pain. It gets progressively worse and then you go to a place where you can’t feel anything. But it’s the most rewarding thing ever because when you get off the track you’re just so proud of yourself for doing what you did.”
Strangely though, setting a record pace on the ride to bronze hardly hurt at all. “I think that’s because I made the least amount of mistakes,” she said. “I’m getting better every time I’m on my bike and I’m learning from these girls.”
Simmerling’s Summer Games are over with the medal. Now she begins preparing for a return to ski-cross with her sights set on Pyeongchang 2018. Upper body workouts start tomorrow, and she’ll get back on snow next month.
Given the results in Rio, maybe she should convince her teammates to come along.
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Canada's Andre De Grasse, left to right, Brendon Rodney and Aaron Brown watch the scoreboard following the men's 4x100-metre relay final.