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By Timothy Carlson, Special to VeloNews.com
Lori-Ann Muenzer earned Canada’s first-ever Olympic cycling gold medal in the women’s match sprint on the boards of the Athens Velodrome Tuesday.
To reach the podium, Muenzer first had to reverse her world championship sprint loss to Australian Anna Meares in the semifinals and then dispatch Russian star Tamilla Abassova in the final.
In a sport which rewards youthful power and speed, where certified legends like Florian Rousseau (30) and Jens Fiedler (34) just retired, Muenzer climbed to her sport’s summit at 38 years of age and has no plans whatsoever to quit.
“Age is just a number on your license,” said Muenzer, an Edmonton resident. “I may be pushing the limits, but every day I get up to work out, I don’t feel old. I feel eager to go out and carry out my mission.”
Muenzer’s triumph left her to inherit the Olympic reign of the imperial diva of the sprint, Felicia Ballenger, who is still younger than Muenzer and four years out of the game.
“I’m floating on cloud nine,” said Muenzer. “Wow! This is a dream. Every race was a whole 100 percent. I left nothing on the track. Everything is right here, right now, in the moment.”
After qualifying a modest fourth-best behind Meares, Natalia Tsylinskaya and Abassova Sunday, Muenzer mowed through the quarterfinals on Monday and made short work of everyone but Meares.
“She had kicked my ass at world’s, but it took her three races,” said Muenzer. “One of those races she won by a pixel. So I kept that photo at home and used it for inspiration.”
In the semifinal against Meares, who set a world record winning gold in the 500-meter time trial on the first day at the track, Muenzer termed it “my hardest round.” Meares took the first race with an 11.802, and then Muenzer put the hammer down to the next two races in 12.101 and 12.185.
“I knew what I did wrong and went out and focused,” said Muenzer. “The thing is, I had confidence I could win from the front and win from behind. On this day, thank to the preparation I did with my coach Steen Madsen, I was smarter, stronger, faster, smarter.”
Meares was gracious in defeat.
“No one can say this ruined my Olympics,” said Meares. “Bronze is beautiful. And Lori-Ann was just too fast today.”
In the ride for the gold, Muenzer took on 21-year-old rising star Tamilla Abassova and won from the front both times.
“The first race she was too strong. But the second, I had an opening but I didn’t take it. I learned a lot in my first Olympics, and I am very happy with silver,” said Abassova.
Muenzer took both rounds of the final in 12.126 and 12.140.
In a rematch with her conqueror in the recent world sprint final, Meares took Svetlana Grankofskaya of Russia two straight — 12.042 and 11.822 — to earn the bronze.
But the day belonged to the Canadian dreamer who didn’t let a 1994 collarbone injury with severe tendinitis as a kicker, nor a 1999 mountain bike accident that knocked her out of training for eight months, nor a case of acute appendicitis dampen her love of the sport.
Muenzer started cycling for fun when she was a kid with bikes her grandfather James Leslie Abernathy repaired in the summers in Bancroft.
Back home in Toronto, on Morland Street, she was 10 years old and she and some friends would race for fun. “We would line up at the end of the street, someone would yell ‘Ready set go;’ and we would race as fast as we could to the last parked car on the street.”
She only started serious road racing at age 23, then turned to the track at 27.
Which may explain her current speed – she’s just making up for lost time.