RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP) — Veteran American Kristin Armstrong completed a remarkable Olympic cycling hat trick of gold medals by winning the women’s 29.7-kilometer time trial in Rio Wednesday.
Just a day before she turns 43, Armstrong added to her gold medals from Beijing and London to become the first cyclist to win three Olympic titles in the same discipline. She’s also tied with speed skater Bonnie Blair as the only American women to capture three gold medals in the same Olympic event.
In wet and windy conditions, Armstrong posted a time of 44:26.42 to edge out Russian Olga Zabelinskaya, who only returned from an 18-month doping suspension last year, by 5.55 seconds. Olympic road race champion Anna van der Breggen of the Netherlands took third at 11.38 seconds back.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Armstrong told NBC afterward. “I decided to come back for my second time … it was probably the hardest journey that I’ve been through. That’s why I think we keep coming back and trying to get to the pinnacle of the sport, which is the top step of the podium.”
Armstrong hit the first time check atop the 1.3km Grumari climb after 10km with a 4.9-second lead over Elisa Longo Borghini of Italy and 6.32 seconds over Van der Breggen.
Zabelinskaya was sixth at that point, but by the second time check, at the top of the 2.1km Grota Funda climb and 10km from the finish, the Russian was first with leads of 2.88 seconds over Armstrong and 6.98 seconds over Longo Borghini.
Armstrong, though, finished the strongest and pulled back the time she’d lost on the second climb to streak down the final descent and claim the gold medal.
“The last 5k, I knew it was close,” Armstrong told NBC. “My coach behind me said, ‘You better decide what color medal you want today.’ The last 5k was for my road team. It was for Mara [Abbott].”
Abbott nearly won Sunday’s road race but was caught 150 meters from the finish line and did not earn a medal.
After crossing the finish line Wednesday, Armstrong appeared to ask aloud if she had won. Upon realizing she had captured another title, she unclipped from her bike and laid on the pavement, exhausted from her golden effort.
“I hurt so bad out there today and when my coach keeps on telling me to go deeper and deeper, I have to keep on telling myself that I can go deeper and that this is a result I have to live with,” Armstrong said. “This is a result that I want to end with and this is a result that any athlete wants to end with — top step of the podium in the Olympic Games. I couldn’t be more proud.”
The treacherous conditions caught out 2013 world champion Ellen van Dijk, who skidded off the road and into a ditch. The Dutch rider didn’t fall off her bike but the mishap led to a fourth-place finish, 11 seconds behind Van der Bergen.
Zabelinskaya was only allowed to race after the Court of Arbitration for Sport reversed an IOC ruling that banned Russian athletes from the Games that had already served a doping suspension. Four years ago in London, she won bronze medals in both the time trial and road race.
“It’s very important, because it’s the Olympic Games,” Zabelinskaya said. “It’s important for me, and for Russia.”