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Olympics 2021: Ruth Winder closes in on a complex Olympic dream

Ruth Winder heads into the U.S. Olympic selection process with a healthy perspective on how Tokyo 2021 fits into her professional goals.

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How best to describe Ruth Winder’s relationship with the Olympics?

A few words come to mind. “Complicated” is one, “strained” is another.

The last word is probably the most accurate: “Healthy.”

“If I go, I’ll be really excited about it,” Winder told VeloNews. “But I’m not going to put all of my eggs in this one Olympics basket. That’s a ton of pressure to put on yourself. I’ve been there before, and I realize that there’s just a lot that is not in my control.”

Winder is the reigning U.S. road champion and one of the nine members of USA Cycling’s long team for the women’s road race. On paper, she is among the top favorites to be chosen for Tokyo. This spring Winder won the De Brabantse Pijl road race in Belgium, and the victory against such a strong international field should resonate with the committee that chooses the team for Tokyo.

Still, Winder isn’t ready to commit all of her emotional energy to the games, just in case she isn’t selected.

“For me, the win is good, it will help, but we have a lot of strong riders, which is a good thing,” Winder said. “I think it doesn’t hurt me to win races. It doesn’t make me a guarantee for the Olympics as well.”

Winder was the Olympic alternate in 2016 in the women’s Team Pursuit. Photo: Brad Kaminski

Winder’s perspective on Olympic selection stems from her time in the U.S. development program in the lead-up to the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro. Winder was in her early 20s back then, and she was focused on track racing instead of road cycling.

With her big engine and powerful legs, Winder was selected to ride on the famed U.S. women’s track pursuit team alongside Chloé Dygert and Sarah Hammer. After being identified in a talent identification camp, Winder was sent to Colorado Springs, where she lived and trained for two years with an intense focus on the Rio de Janeiro games.

Every waking hour of Winder’s life revolved around Rio, and how the upstart Americans could unseat the reigning champion British.

“We were in a very cutthroat program, and for me, personally, it felt very controlling, and it felt like many of us just wanted it to be over,” Winder said. “The environment painted the entire experience for me.”

Winder was a member of the U.S. team that grabbed sixth place at the 2015 UCI track world championships, and the next year she was the alternate on the team that won the world title. While Winder was the alternate, she still had to train and prepare as if she was going to the 2016 games.

Olympic rules allow nations to bring five athletes to the games for the event, even though just four compete in the races. Winder traveled to Rio de Janeiro with her teammates, and stayed in the Olympic village with the other American athletes. She knew that she might not be selected to compete in the races in Brazil, but she still had to be mentally and emotionally ready to go at any moment.

On the day of the Olympic qualifying rounds, Winder was informed that she would not be racing. After years of preparation and work, she watched the U.S. compete from the sidelines.  In the finals the U.S. women scored a silver medal, losing to the British by just over one second.

Olympic alternates do not receive Olympic medals. So, Winder left Rio de Janeiro without any hardware.

Still, she collected plenty of lifelong memories and experiences, and also a new outlook on the Olympic dream.”

Sometimes decisions get made that you cannot control — whether you’re the fittest on the day or the strongest on the day or not,” Winder said. “It taught me that there are a lot of variables in the system. Even if you feel in control of your own destiny, punctures can happen, crashes can happen, bad weather can happen.”

Her biggest takeaway was to avoid placing too much emotional weight onto any single event or race. Instead, Winder now spreads her focus and energy across all aspects of pro cycling, from the day-to-day lifestyle and process of training; to her efforts around teamwork on the Trek-Segafredo pro women’s squad; to trying to win big pro races that may not carry the same mainstream acceptance as the Olympic games.”

If you put so much pressure on yourself for that one day, and then something bad happens, then it’s out of your control,” Winder said. “You’ve put so much investment in one day and it can explode, and you will be devastated. My personality is to go for it, and be cognizant that anything can happen.”

Keep an eye out for Ruth Winder in these weeks before USA Cycling chooses the Olympic team — she’s likely to score a big result at pro races across Europe. After all, every victory counts.