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Phinney, changed by the Games and in search of a medal

Taylor Phinney reflects on the tough training he's endured to be Olympics ready, on the meaning of training, and how important a Rio medal really would be.

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RIO DE JANEIRO (VN) — Revenge and redemption are powerful motivators. Taylor Phinney was twice fourth in London; surely getting on an Olympic podium is all that matters and all that motivates. Surely those steps and that medal would exterminate Olympic demons. Surely.

But that’s not where Phinney’s demons come from.

As Phinney sat in a hospital in Chatanooga, his left leg a limp pile of broken bones and torn ligaments, he thought of the Olympic games. He did the calculation: He’d have more than two years to return to strength before Rio. Perhaps it was revenge that drove him then. But it’s something else now.

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The young American spoke on Tuesday, less than 24 hours before he will set off from Pontal to punctuate a season’s worth of focus and pressure and pain with a single ride. He’s changed, he said. He was, according to those close to him, a rider who was considering retirement and questioning his place in pro cycling. Preparing for this Olympics changed his perspective and provided a new sense of self and a new source of motivation.

“The experience that I’ve had preparing for this event has changed my life and changed my outlook on what I do, what this sport means to me, and what the Olympics, in particular, mean to me as an athlete,” Phinney said.

“I’ve waited a long time to be able to line up tomorrow.”

Phinney’s preparation for this time trial was not traditional. He didn’t do the Tour de France, he didn’t even race the usual July filler, the Tour of Poland. He hasn’t raced in Europe since the ZLM Tour in June. Instead, he was at home in Boulder, sitting behind a scooter driven by Allen Lim for hours each day, almost every day, for the last six weeks. He’s chased the brothers Morton, Lachlan and Gus, through the Rocky Mountain foothills. Apply pressure, recover, repeat. It was a singular focus unattainable by his competitors due to race schedules, travel schedules, team requirements. Phinney had no such complications.

Every Wednesday, he entered a chamber at the U.S. Olympic Center in Colorado Springs and turned the temperature up to Brazilian-hot, the humidity to dripping. Last week, he put his head down for a 52-minute, race-pace effort.

“You’re just closing your eyes and you’re exploring what pain is, and what that threshold is, what that redline is, what it looks like, what it feels like, and how you can push it; how you can further evolve and adapt,” he said. “I was doing workouts like that. Really intense workouts like that, every week, every Wednesday. Nobody is doing that. Nobody is doing stuff like that.

“I think that I understand dedication a lot more,” he said. “I understand what it takes to deliver a strong performance in a time trial of this duration. The mind games …”

Phinney said he’s physically prepared, just as he’s mentally prepared. He feels good. His left leg, formerly shattered and now scarred, is returning to full strength. The constant nags, reminders of its weakness, have faded.

“Just in the last couple days I’ve really started to feel — or not feel — the absence of that discrepancy between my left and right legs that has been such a protagonist in my life over the last two-plus years,” he said.

Sure, the process is important. But a medal would be nice. That’s what he’s here for; that’s what the scooter time and heat chamber time were for. He wants that podium, he admitted. It sparked the preparation that changed him. And if he stepped on that podium, he’d be “over the moon,” he said.

“I’ve spent a lot of time visualizing that, meditating on it, just thinking about what kind of ride I need to deliver in order to do that,” he said.

“Just being here is the cherry on top of the whole cake that I’ve been eating for the last six weeks, making me feel very good about where I am in my life. A lot of gratitude, for sure.”