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What can American cycling learn from Jennifer Valente’s Olympic journey? ‘Make it fun’

Jennifer Valente says her Olympic success has its foundations in San Diego's cycling community, where fun and learning overshadowed victory.

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What can American cycling learn from Jennifer Valente’s journey from junior rider to Olympic champion?

A long and successful career in cycling should have its foundation in fun.

“Not having such a competitive environment from the beginning changed my outlook on sport, and what it could mean,” Valente told VeloNews. “The community, and making it fun. It sounds like a cliché, of ‘Oh, don’t forget to have fun.’ Chasing an Olympic medal or an Olympic dream is such a stressful and taxing thing to do that if you don’t have that foundation of enjoying some part of it, and finding the good things, it’s hard to continue.”

Valente, 26, is our guest on next week’s episode of The VeloNews Podcast, where she will take us inside the thrilling moments of her recent Olympic title in the Omnium event. In winning the race Valente became the first U.S. woman in history to win an Olympic title in track cycling. She etched her name in U.S. cycling history with the win.

After winning the Scratch Race, the opening event of the Olympic Omnium, Valente rode smart and collected races in the Elimination and Tempo races, placed her into the pole position for the Points Race. Not even a crash at the race’s midpoint could derail her effort, and she collected enough points during the event to take the Olympic title.

After the race Valente sat on the track and soaked in the moment, tears of joy streaming down her face as she draped a U.S. flag on her shoulders.

“Leading the Omnium from the first race your mind continually jumps to the end, and you have to continually bring it back to the moment,” Valente said. “Back to the moment. What am I doing? What’s going on right now. Not letting my mind wanter to the end. And when I finished and knew I had won, it hadn’t really set in. And then it was extremely overwhelming.”

Long before she was an Olympian, however, Valente was a teenager from San Diego who caught the cycling bug as a kid. On Thursday she discussed her upbringing in the San Diego cycling community, where she was a regular on the Wednesday group ride through Camp Pendleton, the Thursday night races on Fiesta Island, and a stalwart at the San Diego Velodrome. Valente said she laid the foundation for her future professional career within the community, and it was the coaches and fellow racers who helped her cultivate a passion for cycling that took her all the way to the Olympics.

“Really learning the whole process of things. Racing all kinds of different races locally — points races, sprinting, Kerins, scratch races, and random stuff that happens at local veldromes like snowball races and win-and-outs — as well as learning to work on your bike and the gearing and what it feels like to ride different gears, and to motor pace. These were all part of the journey and it all contribute to the gathering of knowledge. Whether you realize if it impacts anything — I think it does.”

You can hear more from Valente in next week’s episode if The VeloNews Podcast.