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Canada’s Catharine Pendrel races for Tokyo, this time with a newborn in tow

The decorated XC racer is making her final bid for the Olympics, just four months after becoming a mother.

“Mentally, it was easier than I thought to handle a result I’m not used to, because I know that there’s a lot of room to go in my training,” Catharine Pendrel tells me over Zoom, her 4-month-old baby, Dara, bobbing in her lap.

I’ve reached Pendrel in the Czech Republic, on the heels of her first race in 20 months, in Albstadt, Germany. Usually based in Kamloops, British Columbia, she’s now posted up in Europe for the summer, so she can compete. At 40 years old, the two-time world champion and Olympic bronze-medal-winner is making her fourth and final bid for the Olympic Games, after more than a year off racing, with a newborn in tow.

Before COVID-19 hit, Pendrel was slated to represent Canada for XC mountain biking at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. When that plan got squashed by the virus, she thought that might well be the closing note on her competitive career. Not knowing the future, and with time pressing against her then-39 years, she decided to start a family. She gave birth to baby Dara in late January 2021, right around the time the president of the International Olympic Committee announced the Tokyo Games would go ahead this July, after a one-year postponement.

Catharine Pendrel at the Rio Olympics
If Pendrel holds onto her Tokyo spot, this Olympics will be her fourth, including Rio in 2016.

Given that Canada has had strict travel restrictions and no events, and thus no mountain bike races since the onset of the pandemic, the odds for Canadian athletes in general are tough this time around. Add to that mix a baby, and one more lap around the sun, and the odds might seem even slimmer for Pendrel. But this past month, after a winter of training, she strapped her baby to her chest, flew to Europe, and is now two races deep into her final fight for a spot on Canada’s 2021 team.

“It’s been a very odd Olympic lead up, and obviously I’ve had some special circumstances,” she says with a joyful chuckle, Dara cooing in her arms. “Canadians only got three race opportunities last year. Canadians, in general, are very under-raced, and it’s going to take us a while to get up to speed. It’s a tight timeline, for sure.”

Under those circumstances, Pendrel finished 52nd in Albstadt—not her usual place in the pack. For someone who had 40 World Cup podiums between 2008 and 2017, that’s quite the gap to close to find her former competitive self. But with the support of her partner and trainer, Keith Wilson (who trains several other Canadian Olympians, and also splits childcare duties while on the road), she’s been able to hold that in perspective.

“I know that the best in the world train at a very high level,” she says soberly. “And throughout my pregnancy I was able train at 70-percent volume, without the intensity. So, absolutely, I haven’t been able to do the work they did, at this point in time. However, with 15 years of training at that level behind me, I’m hopeful that in a couple months I’ll be able to catch up to a very high level.”

Catharine Pendrel in the World Champion jersey, holding the Canada flag
Pendrel has already had a decorated career—here she is in the Rainbow jersey 2011 World Champs in Champery, Switzerland.

Pendrel won’t know for sure she has a spot on Team Canada (and thus one of those gaudy uniforms) until July. But as of now, the chances of her getting bumped, based on the weight of her past points accumulation, are low. That means she’s already feeling the pressure of her performance in the context of the Olympics, where — as Wilson jokes — some of her competitors will be closer to their baby’s age than hers. But that can also come with a fair bit of advantage, says Dave McLaughlin, the general manager of Clif Bar’s athlete Pro Team, which Pendrel’s been a part of for 15 years.

“Athletes competing at more advanced ages—while possibly lacking peak physical attributes—have the advantage of experience over younger, less experienced competitors,” he argues. “Kateřina Nash, Sabine Spitz, and Gunn-Rita Dahle Flesjå, all World Cup winners in their 40s, have demonstrated that women can remain competitive against today’s youth. They know what to do and are not distracted by the noise and uncertainty that less experienced athletes may face.”

Catharine Pendrel holding the Canada flag and wearing an Olympic bronze medal
On the podium in Rio.

On the fact Pendrel didn’t retire after having an impromptu baby, McLaughlin says he isn’t surprised—it’s not in her character. And while Pendrel says many were skeptical she’d ever get back to racing as a mom, now that she has, most everyone is putting their full support behind her. Even her adversaries.

“I know a lot of my competitors have been following and really curious to see what level a sportswoman can come back to,” she says. “A lot of the time, women end their careers to have a family. For female athletes who want a family but they also want their careers, it’s nice to know that it doesn’t necessarily have to be one or the other.”

As to whether that’s a point she’s specifically aiming to prove, Pendrel remains somewhat non-committal. For someone who’s been in the rhythm of peak performance for so long, it seems it’s just not that easy to step out of it. She admits her parental duties do take away the space she would usually have at home to mentally train, but she says there’s a release in that. Being less singularly focused has let her body bounce back in ways it never has before. According to all metrics, she is responding to training far better now than when she was in her 30s, and didn’t have a kid.

Putting the trajectory of her comeback in the spotlight is the finish she recently posted at Nové Město, in which she moved up 29 spots from her Albstadt results to finish in 23rd—a 50-percent improvement in one single race.

Pendrel racing over rocks
Pendrel on her way to a Top-25 finish at the Nové Město World Cup race last weekend. 

“When racing got cancelled it was really good for me,” she posits. “Getting to take a mental and physical break from high performance really helped my mindset. When you come in with a different perspective and you’re looking for progression rather than a result, you can be patient that the results will come.”

And indeed they are. However that manifests under specter of those multicolor rings remains to play out, but the fighting form Pendrel is showing the world right now is a victory in and of itself, and may well have a legacy as important as any medal she might bring home.

Photos: Michal Cerveny

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