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Anna Kiesenhofer: The mathematician who carved an unconventional path to Tokyo Olympic success

Anna Kiesenhofer was far from the radar of the big favorites for the women's Olympic road race, but the Austrian took gold and did it strictly on her own terms. Who is the new Olympic road race champion?

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Anna Kiesenhofer dreamed the impossible dream and achieved it.

Through the discussions of miscommunications and negative racing, the Austrian took on the biggest names in cycling and got one over on them. Whatever mistakes they believe they made, she played it perfectly and came out with the gold they so desired.

Kiesenhofer’s story is one that defines the Olympic dream, where a relative unknown can come out and take glory from a field of favorites.

Also read: Anna Kiesenhofer surprises the Dutch with huge breakaway win

It is a story about an athlete who didn’t know that they could even contest for the medals but laid it on the line, nonetheless.

“It is still difficult to understand. Somehow, when you repeat in the interviews that you are an Olympic champion, it becomes a little more true,” Kiesenhofer said after her win. “I think that’s the heaviest medal I’ve ever had around my neck. Today everything was just right.

“In a road race, luck always plays an important role. I had the courage to attack, and in the end, I was the strongest of the breakaway women. The element of surprise was definitely on my side, they wouldn’t have given a better-known rider that much advantage.

“It wasn’t until I got to the finish line that I realized what I had achieved. Until then, I was at the limit. Many people have suffered hardship for my cycling career. I am glad that I can now give back a little with the medal.”

Kiesenhofer’s story has gripped sports fans, even those who have little interest in cycling, and it has already spread far and wide.

The 30-year-old from Kreuzstetten came in as the only Austrian rider in the women’s road race and one of only four from the country in the road events.

Despite being a triple national time trial champion – a discipline that no doubt helped her hold off the baying pack Sunday – it was hardly surprising that some of her competitors weren’t aware of her talents.

Kiesenhofer has had just one year at the professional level, in 2017 with Lotto Soudal, and hasn’t ridden a UCI event all year – except for the nationals.

Also read: Communication breakdown won’t overshadow Hollywood ending for Anna Kiesenhofer

While there will be scores of teams lining around the block to sign Kiesenhofer for her first pro contract in four years, her position as an amateur was never one caused by a lack of interest in her abilities. Kiesenhofer – who only began her cycling career in 2014 after injuries prevented her from contesting triathlons and duathlons – is not overly interested in racing as a pro, and it will take a determined manager to get her to change her mind.

“It was my choice, I’ve been on a professional team before. I need my freedom to control my own things and choose the races myself,” she told Austrian publication Kurier on Sunday.

Kiesenhofer’s desire to carve her own path was evident Sunday as she attacked from the gun, and then decided to go solo on the final climb by attacking her remaining two breakaway companions.

At the time, it seemed like a strange move. Three riders are often better than one when you have a determined peloton behind, but it turned out to be the perfect move. In the fog of war, the Dutch had lost count of the attackers while Kiesenhofer was able to set her own pace and utilize her time trialing abilities to hold off the best in the world.

From PhD to Olympic gold

Like many of the riders in the women’s peloton – even those that ride for so-called professional teams – Kiesenhofer has another life outside of cycling.

She has a degree in mathematics from the Technical University of Vienna, a Master’s from the University of Cambridge, and a doctorate from the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, which she earned for her thesis on “noncommutative integrable systems on b -symplectic manifolds”.

Kiesenhofer is now a lecturer at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.

Her aptitude and passion for numbers and data were self-evident in a series of tweets she posted at the start of July, detailing her heat acclimation work ahead of the Tokyo Olympics. It showed a meticulous preparation for what would become the biggest result in her unconventional career.

“Yes, I’m an amateur, but in my life, cycling takes up a lot of space. Not money-wise, I earn my income in a normal job. But for the last one-and-a-half years, I was completely focusing on today, not even knowing that I had a chance, but I was sacrificing everything for a good result, which could even have been coming 25th,” she said.

“I plan the training myself. It’s not so sophisticated, I did not do any altitude training camp and I stick to the basics. I’ve stopped believing in miracles.”

A further post on Kiesenhofer’s Instagram also shows her willingness to push herself. In a caption posted with a picture on June 27, she wrote “seek discomfort and you might find happiness”. She clearly had to go deep Sunday, perhaps deeper than she’d ever been, but it brought success for her against the odds.

Kiesenhofer does things her own way and her future is in her own hands. Any team manager that hopes to snap up the Austrian talent will have to give her the freedom to travel her own path.

“Don’t trust authority too much. There’s always this danger. I was a victim of it myself. You’re young and you have a coach, and they say you have to do this or that. I believed people,” Kiesenhofer said Sunday when asked to give her advice to young hopefuls.

“Now I’m old, 30, and I started to realize that all those people who say that they know, just don’t know. Especially those who say they know, don’t know, because those who know, will say that they don’t know. My advice is: do not necessarily believe your coach.”