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By Andrew Hood
Kristin Armstrong is enjoying the success that comes with winning the gold medal at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games, but she brings her game face to Varese.
Armstrong, 35, will always be remembered for her Olympic gold medal, but her proven consistency in the world championships with three consecutive medals, including the world title in 2006, makes her a five-star favorite for Wednesday’s race.
VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood joined a reporter from The Associated Press to talk with Armstrong ahead of Wednesday’s time trial. Here are excerpts from the interview:
Question: Was it hard to rebuild for Varese after Beijing?
Kristin Armstrong: After I crossed the finish line in Beijing, everyone asked me if I was going to the world championships. I didn’t really know. When I got home, I was so exhausted that I told my coach (Jim Miller) that I didn’t want to go to the world championships. I don’t want to just participate, I want to win. When I got home, I was too tired. He spun it a little bit and said let’s not talk about this right now. He said take 10 days, just ride your bike when you want to ride your bike. No structure and just take the opportunity to enjoy this moment because it comes once in a lifetime. He called me and said, OK, it’s time to get to work. I said, wait! I know it’s not day 10 yet, it’s only day eight! He said, if you want to win, you have to start to work right now. It’s only six weeks later and he did the math, it’s a very short window, but we can bring you back up. We have to hit it right on. He said either you’re 100 percent in or you’re out. I said, I’m in. When I was considering on whether or not to come to Varese, I was visualizing what it would be like not to be here. I cannot sit at home and watch some else take a medal.
Q.: Has it been difficult with your commitments and appearances to find time to train?
KA: I have a manager now who helps me with my schedule. And even since then, everything else is a second priority behind my training. All my appearances and media obligations come after I train, either at 5 or 6 o’clock, or whenever I’m done. I trained at home. I only raced once at home; that’s a hill climb where I can test my fitness and I had a PB, so I was happy. One week later I flew to Tuscany. The plan was to race four races just to get my legs back to race speed. That was perfect. When I pulled out, I said, now I’m ready. I just have to maintain.
Q.: What’s the difference between winning an Olympic gold medal and a worlds gold medal?
KA: In America, the pinnacle of all sport is winning an Olympic medal. There’s no other top, no other peak. The sport of cycling is interesting because, in European eyes, if you asked someone a year from now who was top three in the Olympics and who was top three in the world championships, they will know the world championships. I’m kind of split. To me, I grew up as American, as a swimmer and runner, and the Olympics are it. If you ask an American what the rainbow stripes are, they will have no idea what those are. If you wear the rainbow stripes in Europe, all of a sudden there is a different level of respect. For me, they were both important. I’m an American in a very European-based sport. The best will be here tomorrow. I’ve done everything I can to be prepared. I’m not here just to participate.
Q.: So there must be a big difference between preparing for Beijing and preparing for Varese?
KA: The road to the Olympics was such a long road. Every world championships is like a stair step to get to that. I was so grateful to have my day come in Beijing. I have the Olympic title, that’s what I am most proud of. Last year it was very difficult to finish second (in Stuttgart) and have the jersey taken away from me. Other than Beijing, all I was thinking about was coming back and retaking my jersey. I couldn’t win last year because Hanka (Kupfernagel) was so good. I’m just here because of last year.
Q.: What do you think of the course?
KA: I really like the course. It’s suited for the strongest girl to win. One-third is climbing, one-third is very technical and descending and another third is just really powerful. It’s a fair course. It’s not all just flat. That first climb is going to be a really hard 11 minutes. That’s a big change. I will have to get up that hill.
Q.: Do you feel like you have a win in your legs?
KA: Yes, I feel really good. As far as climbing goes, I am exactly where I was right before I went to Beijing, so I couldn’t be happier. It’s such a smaller, one-week window for Varese. Yesterday I felt good, so I am hoping that wasn’t the last day! I hope it’s not that small of a window!
Q.: How was the celebration after the Olympics?
KA: So many things happened that I could never imagine would happen. When I landed in Boise, everyone stayed in their seats and I had a police escort to get off the plane. I said, wait, this isn’t my personality! About 2,000 people came out to see me. A busload of kids came out to meet me and they all wanted to touch the gold medal. I hope that they have this dream. After that, the city had a huge party. I rode a mile from a YMCA to the city hall and the mayor presented me with a key to the city. There were about 1,500 people who rode with me, from 3 to 80 years old. It was just amazing. There were some neat people speaking about me and when I used to work for them. One of my old bosses told about how I walked into the office one day and said, I have to quit, I have to resign. I have to go race my bike. He was like, what is she doing? I used to be an aquatic director at the YMCA and he still had the letter of resignation. He read it out loud to the entire crowd. That was when I was converting from triathlon to cycling in 1999. In 2002, I switched to the road and in 2003 I signed the contract with T-Mobile. I jumped right in!
Q.: The race couldn’t have gone better?
KA: I had so many different scenarios. Everyone was saying I am the favorite, but I said, no, there are just as many girls who are there working as hard or even harder than I am. I didn’t go into the race thinking I was the favorite. I never do. I always think there is someone out there better than me. There’s always someone out there who’s ready to beat you. I love that. That’s what keeps me going.
Q.: What was the biggest surprise after winning?
KA: I always wondered what would have happened if I were to win. I thought I would get a lot of opportunities, I would sit back and take a few months and wonder what I want to do. Instead, all the opportunities are right now – can you do this tomorrow? I was like, I need a manager! I need help to schedule my life, please!
Q.: What’s been the most exciting thing you’ve done since taking gold?
KA: I went to the Oprah show. That was pretty cool. I wasn’t the Michael Phelps, or the Dana Torres or the gymnastics team. If Oprah was in Europe, I would be center stage. But it was fun to be part of all the Olympic medalists of America. They treated us well, we had a great hotel, nice dinner, we got to meet Oprah. It was just really fun. There’s been a lot of other fun things. We were doing a whole campaign with the state of Idaho, with makeup artists, reading from a teleprompter, just getting a script 20 minutes before I have to go on camera and going over it 20-30 times. This is what Hollywood must be about – it’s not even a 10th of it. Now I understand why the big-time people go into clinics and all go off the deep end. I’m doing a tenth of this and I couldn’t imagine more. I haven’t had a chance to spend time with my true friends. I’ve had a lot of time with strangers. You always have to have your face on. When I go to the grocery story, it’s no longer a 20-minute shop, it’s a 45-minute shop.
Q.: How has winning the Olympic gold medal changed you?
KA: My husband told me, “Kristin, this is so fun for me.” I asked, “Why? I am stressed out about the time trial.” He said, “No, you’ve changed. I’ve been with you at previous championships and now you just have this new confidence. You’re relaxed, you know who you are, you know what you’ve done. You have a different aura about you. You’re very calm.” I’m at peace with myself. The greatest thing, you don’t have to have such big goals next year. You can just race your bike and have fun. If it’s not you for the win, you can be around teammates who can win, too. You have to enjoy riding your bike for a year. Nobody can take it away from me. There won’t be an Olympics for another four years. I will always be an Olympic champion.
Q.: Where do you have the medal?
KA: Someone asked me if I was going to put on the wall. I said, no, because I have so many fun engagements, it can change their perspective with young and up-and-coming athletes, it’s important to be able to physically see it. I want to share this experience with so many people. I never see myself putting on the wall or locking it away somewhere. If I want to share this experience, I want to share the medal as well.
Q.: Will you defend your Olympic title in 2012?
KA: I know that I am not going to 2012, but I ask myself, if I would have gotten silver, I wonder if I would have ridden in 2012. People ask me, what’s your next goal? My next goal is tomorrow. I’d love to win the rainbow jersey and the Olympic medal in 2008. That’s what I say now! Who knows? I remember when I was racing triathlon when I was in mid-20s, I said to someone, if I am doing this when I’m in my 30s, just tell me to quit! Now I just turned 35, what am I still doing? But you have so many goals out there. Hopefully I will be coaching the next gold medalist in Chicago (in 2016).
Q.: What your immediate plans for next season?
KA: I haven’t decided anything yet. I have some different opportunities. After the worlds I will make a final decision. I haven’t made a decision yet on what I am doing for a team yet.
Q.: What will you do after Varese?
KA: I go back home. I have a lot of fun events, some fund-raisers, some celebrations. I want to enjoy my winter. One of the things is that I’ve been counting down my winters toward Beijing. I really love Nordic skiing and I’m looking forward to changing some of that cycling structure, take a deep breath, and enjoy my winter. In January 2007, I had knee surgery, it was probably the best thing that could have happened to me. My life had become so structured. If my coach said ride four hours, I rode four hours no matter how cold it was.