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Carmen Small on Olympic snub: “It makes me sick”

When Carmen Small won the 2016 national time trial championships, she thought she had punched her ticket to the Rio de Janeiro Olympics. The result came on the heels of a strong European campaign for the 36-year-old Durango, Colorado resident. And while Small hadn’t earned an automatic selection onto the American team — only Megan Guarnier had achieved that — she believed her results would elevate her over the country’s other best time trial riders in the eyes of USA Cycling’s selection committee.

Small was wrong. Last week, USA Cycling named the four-woman team for Rio: Kristin Armstrong, Evelyn Stevens, Mara Abbott, and Guarnier.

This week, Small launched an official appeal to the decision. She and her lawyer, longtime sports attorney Howard Jacobs, have requested arbitration. VeloNews caught up with Small to discuss her decision to go to arbitration.

VeloNews: Why are you appealing USA Cycling’s decision?

Carmen Small: I’ve spent the last three years of my life gearing up toward [the Olympics] — especially the last four to five months. It’s one thing if I didn’t make it because I’m just wasn’t good enough. But I’m not making it because someone decided someone else should go over me. That’s why I’m not going down without a fight. There’s so much grey area in the [selection] process, and I just don’t think it’s fair.

VN: What specific performances will you reference as proof that you were the best choice for the team?

CS: My nationals win wasn’t a fluke. I won by 23 seconds to Amber [Neben] and 1:08 to Kristin [Armstrong] and two minutes over [Evelyn Stevens]. Given, it’s just one race, but if you look back at the past four nationals, I have been consistent. In 2013 I won, in 2014 I was second, in 2015 I was second, and this year I won. It’s not like I have a bad track record on a long TT course. That is the only part of the season we get to do long course like the one [at the Olympics]. This shows that I’m medal-capable in Rio. But then there’s my spring. I had a great spring campaign and I think just that alone they’d want to take me for the road race because I can be an incredible support rider.

VN: What was your initial response when the team was named?

CS: I was doing wind tunnel testing in London. We receive emails before the news comes out in the public, so at least I didn’t have to find out via social media, which would have been much worse. I was shocked — absolutely in shock and dismay. I went through every bad emotion in 30 minutes.

VN: You knew going into this that there was a chance you could be overlooked, right?

CS: Absolutely. I would be dumb not to think that. I was more confident after nationals that I wouldn’t be overlooked. That head-to-head competition was so important. I just don’t know how you can’t take it into account when it’s only eight weeks away from the [Olympics]. I always knew it could happen, but it still hurt.

VN: So if you were to be on the Olympic team, that means one of the riders named by USA Cycling would be off the team. Which rider’s place do you think you deserve?

CS: I don’t want to name names.

VN: That’s fine, but I want to push back on you on a point here. Since only one rider [Megan Guarnier] made the team, USA Cycling has to choose the other riders. For the TT team they chose a rider who has an established European track record who also just set the new hour world record, and another rider who has shown she can peak for the Olympics.

CS: Look, the bottom line is that USA Cycling’s selection criteria says international and European WorldTour competitions are most important. So why are certain athletes not doing international and European WorldTour races? Why is that overlooked in some people’s cases and not others? Why would the hour record be part of it? It’s a totally different discipline. We all read the selection criteria, we all know that European races are important. And those are the races that I’ve been doing and having good results at. [USA Cycling performance director] Jim Miller has always made a push for us to do European competitions, and that’s why I spent the last four years of my life racing over there. I was told it would make me a better athlete. I was told it would help me make national teams. I could have just raced over here. So why aren’t other riders being held to that same standard, while others are not? This is where it really upsets me.

The current [Olympic team] choice is basically saying that it’s OK to just stay domestically and race in the U.S. and you’ll get chosen for the team. That’s not great for developing riders. You’re taking some people who primarily race domestically, and setting a precedent that it’s OK to do that. A lot of up-and-coming pro riders ask me for advice, basically ask if they should look for a European team or race over here. I always ask them what their goals are, if it’s to make an Olympic or worlds team. If that’s their goal, I tell them to go race in Europe on a European team. That’s how you’re going to improve. So now what do we tell them? Well, USA Cycling has now set a precedent that you don’t need to go to Europe and be on these elite teams. That’s where I get my undies in a bundle. It makes me sick when I really think about it.

VN: There’s a growing number of athletes who have challenged USA Cycling’s decisions on national teams. Did you reach out to any other riders who have done this before?

CS: There are several who reached out to me, which was nice. This is what happened last year at worlds. I was afraid to speak out about it then, and I should have. It’s a long time coming. There needs to be some change here. If my case does that, then I’m happy to have helped out.

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