Olympic Dreams: Shelley Olds ’03

Photo by Sam Dean

Photo by Sam Dean

From the Roanoke College Magazine, Issue Three, 2012. View the entire Roanoke Magazine online.


What defines a champion? A split-second tap on the swimming pool wall? A victorious lean into the tape? Or is it overcoming odds to pursue a lifelong quest? Or how well one rises after the fall? Dick Emberger '60, Shelley Olds '03, and Peter Tainer '16 are three Maroons who embody "champion." Their stories are as different as day and night, sun and moon. But woven throughout is a common thread: an Olympic dream.

The 2012 Olympic Women's Road Race on July 29 gave spectators the kind of edge-of-your-seat drama that live athletic competition so often provides - an 87-mile chase through the streets of London, full of sprints and spills and blistering paces.

And Shelley Olds '03.

She was 22.3 miles from the finish, in the "breakaway," as they refer to the small group of riders who have opened a gap ahead of the main group. She was pedaling furiously in the driving rain with three others - Marianne Vos from the Netherlands, Lizzie Armitstead, of Great Britain and Olga Zabelinskaya, of Russia.

And then fate, happenstance, luck of the draw - call it what you want.

Call it a flat tire.

The rain-soaked race had been plagued by flats, caused partly by pebbles that washed onto the roadway, a TV commentator reported. Flats had occurred earlier in the race, forcing cyclists to pull over for a quick change of the thumb-width tires. But for a flat to occur at that moment, with an Olympic medal within Olds' grasp, was, she would tell a writer from Velo News shortly after the race, "so devastating."

The other three cyclists in the breakaway went on to sweep the podium. Vos took gold, Armitstead silver and Zabelinskaya the bronze. Olds placed a respectable seventh - the best finish for a member of a U.S. Olympic women's road race team member since 1992.

Within hours, headlines shouted from the Web: "Flat tire halts American cyclist Shelley Olds' medal dreams", "Shelley Olds rues bad luck that saw her flat out of winning break at 2012 London Olympics road race."

Olds sank into the heartbreak of what seemed unfair defeat, the unbelievably harsh fickleness of fate. Later, she poured her emotions into a blog post on her website, shelleyoldsusa.com, giving readers a moving blow-by-blow account of race day. Olds says her Olympic quest would have been impossible without the support of family, friends and fans.

Since the Olympics, Olds has competed in three World Cup events and in the World Championships in September in the Netherlands. Currently 5th in the overall World Cup rankings - the highest-ranked races of the year - Olds has her sights set on the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

"It will be a different course in Rio, better suited for those who excel in climbing," says Olds, who continues to live and train in Girona, Spain.  "Over the next four years, I will focus my efforts on becoming the best climber I can be and preparing for the Olympics in 2016."

Olds, a former women's soccer team captain at Roanoke, says the life lessons she acquired at Roanoke continue to gird her quest.

"At Roanoke, I learned a lot about discipline and sacrifice. I learned how to be a part of a team, how to manage my time, how to handle adversity, and how to succeed as a student athlete.  I learned that all of my choices had consequences, and that even though I was in control of my decisions, those decisions would always somehow impact the people I care about. I learned how to balance sports, work, and school. I learned how to respect differences in culture, background and ability."

"I believe I was prepared to become a professional athlete and Olympian by many of the experiences I had at Roanoke College."

Olds praises Philip Benne, women's soccer coach, who she says helped her to maintain structure at a time of enormous change her in life.

"It was a new world for me in college, far away from home," Olds says. "But I quickly settled into the soccer life at Roanoke. The team became my family. If ever I struggled or fell, Phil was there to pick me back up and keep me on track. He reminded me that I was capable of doing anything I put my mind to."

Benne "believed in me, and he allowed me to take the risks and make the mistakes that eventually led to me becoming an Olympian. There are some people in this life who really make an impact on us, and Phil is one of those people for me."

- Leslie Taylor

The Olympic Road Race

It has been 2 weeks now since I raced in the Cycling Road Race in the Olympic Games and it turned out to be everything I imagined it would be. Being an athlete participating in the Games is truly the experience of a lifetime.

Looking back on my race, I can be very satisfied that I went to the Olympic Games 100 percent prepared to race and perform at the best of my ability. I feel that I was ready for the challenge physically and mentally and that I was truly able to live in the moment during my time in London. Unfortunately, destiny played its hand and a stroke of bad luck robbed me of a very good chance at a medal.

The day started with sunshine, but just before the race, the rain started coming down.  I took the start line with the 65 other riders from over 20 different countries as we heard the thunder in the distance and the rain was starting to get worse. The whistle blew and the tension was already extremely high.

For the first 50 km of the race, crowds lined the sides of the roads as we rode out of London city center. The cheering was incredible. I couldn't hear anything but the sounds of the crowds yelling and clapping, and it was like nothing I had ever experienced before. It was amazing to have so many people supporting us for so much of our race, especially when ours is a sport that often has so few spectators.

I tried my best to appreciate the cheers and soak it all in, but the noise made it difficult to focus and find my rhythm. And the rain just kept getting harder. The roads became more and more slippery and with little visibility for us all, the peloton was a dangerous place to be. I was waiting for the race to really get going so it would be safer. It took a lot of focus to tune out the noise and the conditions. But once I did, I was locked in "the zone."

.... I was 3rd wheel behind the Germans and when the Dutch team attacked, I was able to just follow as the German girls closed the gap. Then came some more attacks by the British team and going over the top was a very aggressive attack by Marianne Vos again. This time I was on her wheel from the moment she attacked and I knew this would be the decisive move.

As we crested the top of a short but very steep little climb, I looked back only to find Lizzie Armistead, a British rider, with us. We started to ride immediately, with Vos doing most of the initial work to establish the breakaway. After a few minutes we had one more rider with us, the Russian, Olga Zabelinskya. The rain started to come down even harder as our gap began to increase. We started to ride together and the gap was holding at 20 seconds. I was sure this was the move that would make it to the finish line together and that I would have an excellent chance at a medal.

All of the pain started to go away as I realized how close I was to my dream of medaling at the Olympic Games. I started to find my rhythm and changed my focus to how I could win in the sprint. However, all of that focus and excitement shifted again when I felt my front wheel start to go soft. I looked down in front of my bike and saw the flat tire and my heart sank. I only had one option and that was to stop and wait for the motorbike behind me to give me a new wheel.

The change came but it was like everything was in slow motion. The rain was pouring down now and I knew there was only 30 seconds or less between the break and the chasing peloton. I knew the change had to be fast if I was even going to get back into the field. But it wasn't. The change was probably the slowest change I have ever had. It took almost a minute for the support to give me a new wheel. After the group passed I finally got a push back onto the road and began chasing the back of the peloton. My team dropped back to help me re-connect with the bunch and I was there again, but devastated.

...I tried desperately to keep fighting and stay near the front, in case the break came back or just to contest the sprint for 4th place. But I was dying inside, both mentally and physically. I could not believe what happened. I kept position until the end near the front, but having worked in the break and then chasing to catch back onto the group, I had already burned too many matches. I began my sprint alone, on the opposite side of the road from the sprinters, and finished behind them all in 7th.

When the race finished, I sat down in the rain on the side of the road. My teammate, Evelyn Stevens, came and gave me a hug and I hung my head on her shoulder and cried. Together we sat in the rain in our dirty, wet cycling clothes as I continued to cry. It was so hard to pass all the media who were crowded around the medalists. I wiped the tears from my eyes and held my head high, congratulated the winners, and walked on. At the end of the line, a reporter from Cycling News who I know and respect stopped me and asked for some words. With tears in my eyes, I gave her my story.

I have spent the last 2 weeks wondering why this happened and trying to come to terms with how close I was to success, but there is no changing what happened and I have to move on. I gave it everything I had, I executed my plan, and I came prepared to compete with the best. What happened to me was completely out of my control. This is the nature of our sport.

Watching all of the Olympic sports on television now in my home in Spain, I am reminded of how bittersweet sport can be...Opportunities don't come often, so you need to take advantage of every chance that you get, because it may be a long time before all the pieces fall into place again.

Thanks for reading. Shelley

Web extra: Click here to watch a video interview with Shelley Olds.

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