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Team USA bounced back from a rocky opener to take women’s Team Pursuit bronze at the Tokyo Olympics.
After qualifying in third, the quartet of Jennifer Valente, Megan Jastrab, Emma White, and Chloé Dygert was beaten by Great Britain in round one — despite setting a national record — but had the measure of Canada in the battle for the final podium spot in the Izu Velodrome.
The USA came into the Tokyo Olympics as one of the overwhelming favorites for gold as the reigning world champions. However, the team hadn’t raced competitively since that event in March 2020, and their ultimate form was unknown.
While it might seem like something of a demotion from the silver medal from Rio in 2016, there are still plenty of positives to take from the ride.
“The last year has been so difficult for everybody, filled with so many unknowns, and to finally line up after a year and a half without racing is a privilege in itself,” said Valente. “Because we haven’t raced in a year and a half, every time we’ve lined up together here at the Olympics we’ve improved in different ways in each ride, just trying to take something away from each one.
“I think we put it all together today and we’re really, really proud of our bronze medal.”
— USA Cycling (@usacycling) August 3, 2021
Bronze in Tokyo marks the end of a difficult Olympic cycle for the USA’s women’s Team Pursuit squad that has seen a lot of change and upheaval. Veteran American rider Sarah Hammer retired from racing after helping the team to silver in Rio, leaving a large gap in the squad.
In March 2019, the team also had to deal with the death of much-loved teammate Kelly Caitlin, a moment that has had a profound effect on the team.
Dygert and Valente have been the two constants for the team during that time as Team USA attempted to rebuild the squad ahead of Tokyo. The delay to the Olympic Games has given the team time to bed in new riders Williams, White, and Jastrab but a serious leg injury to Dygert at last year’s road world championships caused yet more uncertainty within the squad.
Gold was the ultimate ambition, but after five years of ups and downs, a bronze is still a sweet reward.
“We’ve just worked so hard to get here and I think we can all finally say that we’ve ridden the very best that we had, up to this point, and that we’re really happy with the bronze,” said Valente.
“I think anytime you come into the Olympics, you want to go for gold, and today we put together some of the best rides that we were able to, and today on the day it was bronze, and we’re really proud of everything behind that and what this bronze means after a year and a half of not racing and really just coming together.”
Team USA got off to a rocky start in the qualifying round for the Team Pursuit. Germany had already set out a strong benchmark in its run, breaking the world record by nearly three seconds. The USA set out to best that and was initially up on the time, only to crack in the second half of their effort and finish several seconds slower than the Germans.
Their time was enough to put them third quickest and set up a Rio rerun against Great Britain, which had also fractured under the strain of trying to beat Germany.
In an effort to give the team a boost, Jastrab was swapped in for Lily Williams — who had ridden in the qualifying run. It was a big moment for the 19-year-old Jastrab, who was making her debut in the event.
The former junior road race world champion honored the contribution of Williams, who would not race again, after the event.
“There’s four of us who finished this ride, but there’s really five of us on the team that contributed to this bronze medal, and we’re so proud to have Lily Williams on the squad as well. Although she didn’t ride the final round, she’s here, just as much of a teammate as each of us are,” Jastrab said.
I'll be racing my first ever Team Pursuit this afternoon at the Olympics 🤯!
— Megan Jastrab (@JastrabMegan) August 3, 2021
In the round one ride, the USA built up an early lead over the first 2,000 meters, but Great Britain turned the tide and took the advantage into the second half of the run.
The lead continued to swap between the two powerhouse squads, until the final 1,000 meters when GB surged ahead to set a new world record. Team USA had smashed the national record, but it wasn’t enough to go for gold.
The world record fell again when Germany took to the boards a few moments later, and then for a third time in the final as the German squad set a huge benchmark of 4:04.249. The USA’s ride against Canada for the bronze medal proved a much more straightforward affair.
Seeing the world record time tumble by close to six seconds has given the squad a big target for the next Olympic cycle.
“We knew records were going to fall, and [Germany] put up a very, very impressive time. We knew they were coming, and they put together a very good ride on the day, and it gives everyone across the world something to shoot for,” said Valente.