The Dutchman himself described it as one edged with gold after a difficult season that saw him make a rare decision to temporarily leave the sport as he considered his future. At the time, Dumoulin described himself as feeling lost and wanting to figure out what it meant to him to be a professional cyclist.
Though some have left and found themselves happier away from the sport, Dumoulin discovered that he still had a desire to compete and returned to racing. After winning the Dutch national time trial title in June, his silver medal in Tokyo marks the true return to the top for the “Butterfly of Maastricht”.
It was clear how much it meant to him as he stood with his arms resting on his bike, gathering his thoughts before facing the world media. For him, this ride was more than just a silver medal.
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“It was my goal to get a medal today. The past months I really had no idea if that would be possible or not. I tried to enjoy the process as much as possible and it worked out really well,” Dumoulin told the press after stepping up onto the podium to collect his medal.
“The time trial itself went really well. In the first lap, I felt very strong. In the second, I felt the energy slowly draining away. In the last 10 kilometers, I was able to regain that power. Silver was the highest achievable today and, for me, this is a medal with a golden edge.”
Even in another year, it is hard to imagine Dumoulin having the pace to beat his trade teammate Primož Roglič and the silver he earned is no reflection on a year spent largely on the sidelines. On the contrary, it is the result of some very hard work over recent months.
Dumoulin’s silver is something to cherish for the Dutchman, but it takes on a broader significance given the decisions that American gymnast Simone Biles has had to take in recent days. Struggling with her own mental health, the 24-year-old superstar decided to pull out of the women’s team final Tuesday and subsequently the all-around final.
At this stage, it’s unclear whether Biles will compete again at this Olympic Games.
Biles is considered the best gymnast in the world and her consistency in performances can be relied on for delivering success. Her decision to pull out of two competitions has sent shockwaves around the sporting world but it has also led to an outpouring of support and compassion – as well as criticism from those who believe that taking care of yourself is a sign of weakness.
Superhumans are humans after all
While we sometimes may view elite sportspeople as different from us mere mortals and akin to superhuman, they are just humans after all.
Just because a person has the ability to push themselves to extremes physically, it doesn’t mean they don’t have insecurities. They have worries and fears just the same as we do.
Of course, Dumoulin and Biles are not the only sports stars to speak out about their mental health and take a step back in order to protect it.
Earlier this year, tennis player Naomi Osaka pulled out of the French Open and Wimbledon in order to protect her mental health. Recent Wimbledon champion Ash Barty did the same early in her career after suffering with depression.
While we don’t know what future choices on her career that Biles will make, Dumoulin’s trajectory – and Barty’s – shows that having mental health problems and taking time out to address them does not mean an athlete’s career and time at the top is over.
Opposingly, it shows that a caring sport can nurture elite athletes through their most difficult of times and build them back up. There is no need to churn and burn through people and discard them when it seems they’re mentally “not tough enough”.
Hopefully, Dumoulin, Biles, and other top-notch sporting talents can be examples for others — not only in sport but in all walks of life — that you don’t need to “tough it out” or “man up” and self-care is a sign of strength rather than weakness.
What the future holds for Dumoulin is unknown but his time away has allowed him to figure out what cycling means to him, and it has rekindled his love of the sport.
“I’ve enjoyed it the last couple of months, preparing for this again. I had a good time, focusing on this, doing all the training camps, doing Tour de Suisse and nationals,” Dumoulin said. “I was happy to be a cyclist again. That’s what I told my team also. I’m continuing. How exactly we do it, we still need to talk about it with the team.”
Dumoulin’s competitive spirit is back so much so that he has already been making plans for the remainder of the season. Exactly what his race program will look like has not been decided but it will not include the Vuelta a España. However, Dumoulin would like to ride the world championships in Flanders.
“I will continue. I’ve decided over the past few weeks that I really like it this way. I discussed my own path with the squad. How are we going to shape this towards Tokyo and towards the future? I like it very much in this way,” he told Dutch broadcaster NOS.
“We’re going to have a good time together about everything, which races I’m going to drive. That hasn’t been completed yet. But I do notice that I think cycling is a very cool sport and that I want to set the highest goals. I feel a lot of support from the people around me.”