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Tuesday, March 4, 2008
E-ticket: So You Wanna Be An Olympian, Part 9

By By Kathryn Bertine

Editor's Note: Just how difficult is it to make the U.S. Olympic team? Does it require a lifetime of training and devotion? Would an average person with an athletic background have any shot at all?

E-ticket decided to find out, embarking on a quest that's now in its second year. We tapped Kathryn Bertine, a former ice skater, professional triathlete and accomplished author, to see whether she could somehow find her way to Beijing in 2008. After failing to make the U.S. team, Bertine now is considering her other options.


Someone recently asked me how I plan on getting to the Olympics. I think we were both a little shocked when I answered, "Alphabetically."

From the Antilles to Zimbabwe, there are 163 nations registered with the Union Cycliste Internationale, cycling's governing body, which I've learned the hard way happens to be my best -- and probably -- only shot at Olympic glory. I scoot my mouse over the alphabetized list and randomly click on Cyprus. The address, e-mail and phone number of Cyprus' cycling federation pop up. This is good. I have 163 possibilities for athletic adoption. Daunting, but good. These nations are my only shot to continue my Olympic quest, but, as my efforts with Poland proved, trying to get adopted at the age of 32 is somewhat challenging. I might very well get 163 rejections. That's OK. I'm prepared. (High school really was good for something!)

After printing out the list of nations, I grab four pens and begin circling:

Red for countries to completely rule out because their cycling teams are so strong they don't need to adopt other cyclists.

Black for countries that, for political or cultural reasons, probably won't look upon me with favor.

Green for countries I know nothing about and would struggle to find on a map, but still ...

Blue for the countries, mostly island nations, that strike me as happy places with happy people who might be favorably disposed to adopt a happy 32-year-old.

Among the rule outs, we find 47 nations, from traditional Olympic powers like Germany, Russia and the U.S.A. (which has already ruled me out) to little-known cycling hotbeds like Estonia, Mauritius and Namibia.

My 30 black-pen encirclees are nations that are preoccupied by war or will not warm to a nonreligious white chick from the United States asking to cycle for their nonexistent woman's national team, like Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Pakistan and Sudan.

Then there are the 64 green-pen countries -- labeled "Maybe Just Maybe No. 1" -- which might or might not have women's cycling teams and which I might or might not be able to find on a map. These include Azerbaijan, Burundi, Benin, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Burkina Faso, Comoros, Cape Verde, Cyprus, Eritrea, Gabon, Liechtenstein, Macau, Madagascar, Malawi, Moldova, San Marino, Suriname and Togo.

In the final blue-pen category -- "Maybe Just Maybe No. 2" -- are 22 countries that seem exceedingly friendly, have an abundance of coconuts, appear to have no women's cycling team, and might therefore be receptive to my idea of starting one: Antigua and Barbuda, Aruba, Bahama Come On Pretty Mama, Barbados, Belize, Cayman Islands, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Fiji, Grenada, Haiti, Guam, Virgin Islands, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Malta, Monaco, Philippines, Puerto Rico, Seychelles, and Saint Kitts and Nevis.

And so I begin the process of drafting e-mails: who I am, what I do, my cycling results, my Olympic dreams and, most important, what I can do for each nation in return for citizenship. Instead of sending all the e-mails immediately, I decide to save them in the "waiting to be sent" folder so I can proofread them the next morning. The chance I might address, say, Angola's e-mail to, say, Andorra's president is quite high.

Slowly, the absurdity of what I'm about to do dawns on me. I'm about to e-mail 116 countries (163 minus the 47 red rule-out nations) in hopes that ...

  1. ... each e-mail makes it out of my AOL.com network and into e-mail accounts ending with .fz or .qr or .kn, and ...

  2. ... the recipient of each e-mail understands English, and ...

  3. ... the recipient individual and/or nation doesn't hate America, and ...

  4. ... tolerates females, and ...

  5. ... doles out citizenships like candy, and ...

  6. ... has a national cycling team, and ...

  7. ... wants me on it, or ...

  8. ... has no cycling team, and ...

  9. ... wants me to be it, and ...

  10. ... can deliver me a passport by August 2008.

As I scour the Internet for cycling federations in places such as Burkina Fasso and Gabon, I giggle over typos and wonder what it would be like to have citizenship (and a bicycle) in some of these lands. I compile a list of things that intrigue me. For example, the Croatian word for "cycling federation" is biciklisticki. Out of 163 cycling federations, presidents of 23 have government e-mail accounts with Hotmail or Yahoo. The cycling organizations of Azerbaijan, Grenada, Honduras and Liechtenstein are headed by females. The winner of The Coolest Name of a Cycling Federation President Award goes to ... well, it's a three-way tie between Mr. Toots of Estonia, Mr. Moutouboulou of Gabon and Mr. Win of Burma. The prize for Countries That Sound Most Like Dessert is also a three-way tie, among Cameroon, Macao and Malta. The country that sounds most like a rock band is St. Vincent and the Grenadines. And the one that sounds most like a superhero and her sidekick? St. Kitts and Nevis. The country of Chile should not be listed as Chilis, but I wonder if I could use this typo as a loophole and legitmately represent the fast-food chain in the Olympics. I also wonder if it is noticeable to others that I use silly humor to deflect the truth of my situation: I want to go to the Olympics so badly it hurts. I don't want my quest to end here. I want a chance to keep racing. I'm not ready to give up. But the citizenship decision is outside of my control, all I can do is count typos and list ironies and put all my hopes and dreams into a folder marked "Waiting to be Sent."

This abundance of fascinating info notwithstanding, drafting 116 e-mails is not the most pleasant task. By the time I'm into the C's of my alphabetized country list, my hands are shaking and so is my leave-no-stone-unturned determination. What's the harm in skipping Comoros? But being quite familiar with Murphy's Law, I know if I don't send an e-mail to Comoros, this will likely be the one nation sitting around thinking, "Gee, I wish we had a female cyclist we could send to the Olympics." Then again, would Murphy's Law apply to nations that even Mr. Murphy himself probably couldn't find on a map?

I push on. Comoros. Costa Rica. Croatia. Cuba. Cypress. By Fiji I'm fidgety, by Hungary I'm starving, and by Oman I'm exhausted. Nearly five hours into my list, I've reached Peru and am barely halfway through. As I decide this is a good place to take a break, so, too, does my computer. The screen freezes, and a slow cold sweat breaks out all over my body. My "Saved on AOL" folder appears anything but. With choppy breathing and elevated heart rate, I call tech support. In a calm and gentle fashion, I explain the situation to the tech man in a calm and gentle fashion: My babies are trapped in there! Save my babies! Oh god, don't let me lose my Libyan Arab Jamahiriya!

Genius Tech Man unfreezes me, and for whatever reason, I only lose half my e-mails. And thus emboldened, I soon decide the "Waiting to be Sent" folder is for wussies. I position my finger over the "send all" button and with a bizarre combination of surging hope and terror, I launch my Olympic dream into cyberspace. All I need is one door to open, just a crack. Just one door out of 116.

Immediately, four e-mails bounce back undeliverable: (Guam, Grenada, Dubai, Eritrea. OK then, one door out of 112.

THE SPAM BOX FROM HEAVEN
For the next few days, I see the little "you've got mail" flag waving and I wonder: Will it be Zaire? Turkey? Bermuda? Hairclubformen.com offering to end my baldness? I feel like I'm dating online, only with entire countries.

On the third day after emptying my dreams into e-mail, I get my first response. It's from the Virgin Islands -- a pleasant thanks-but-no-thanks reply -- which is quickly followed by similar rejections from Puerto Rico, Bahamas and Costa Rica.

Two weeks go by. No new e-mails come in. Feeling dejected, I flick around the Web, distracting myself with sites that have nothing to do with sports or the Olympics. In the corner of my screen, an icon pops up asking if I'd like to open my spam folder. Yay, spam, that should cheer me up. I click, but miss the "X", and end up opening the spam folder by accident. There, at the top of the list of spam, I see a familiar subject line that reads "Re: From US cyclist, Kathryn Bertine." I hit "read." And read I do.

I don't know whether there is a God. I don't know whether I believe in fate or karma or chance or luck. But I now understand that the purpose of human existence is to ask questions, no matter how outlandish, and seek answers, no matter how much the odds are against you. Ask, ask, ask. And when you can't find the answers to life, check your spam box. Hope hides in the strangest of places.

"NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE"
My Olympic dreams now lie in the hands of a man whose last name is Crooke. But his first name begins with Win. Fate clearly has a sharp sense of humor. Time, however, will deliver the punch line.

Winston Crooke and I continue our e-mail correspondence, which soon graduates to phone calls and then a planned meeting in Florida, where we will attend an upcoming race. He asks if I've ever been to St. Kitts and Nevis, and I admit I have not. He asks why I contacted him, and I say truthfully that I thought a smaller island nation could help me with citizenship more easily, and in turn, I could help build a grassroots cycling program more easily, too. Winston understands. He is also extremely upfront about the potential marketing benefits implicit in my situation. Being linked with ESPN could provide some pretty darn good publicity for his country, which is looking to promote itself as a premier tourist destination.

"I understand completely what you are trying to achieve, Kathryn, and the spinoff for our small cycling nation could be hugely beneficial in shining a light on us," Winston tells me, in an unmistakable British-Caribbean accent. "I will tell you straight up that I will be looking for optimum publicity benefits for St. Kitts and Nevis. If I can make this happen, I will. A year is a short time, but one can but try. Nothing is impossible."

I like this man.

"You know how I know you're OK, Kathryn?"

"How, Mr. Crooke?"

"You have a British boyfriend, so you can't be all that bad!"

I make a mental note to send Steve flowers. I had no idea an international boyfriend would come in so handy.

KATHRYN FINDS A WORLD-CLASS MENTOR
Because my first face-to-face meeting with Winston is not for another six weeks, and because nothing is set in stone, I do the only thing an athlete with a dream can do: prepare. With renewed energy and motivation, I re-evaluate my training schedule. My dreams might be in someone else's hands, but I'm still in control of body.

For reasons I can't explain, this strange state of Maybe has doubled my determination. Six days a week, I'm on the bike, riding around Tucson in 50- to 100-mile stretches. I hit the gym, because I know those world-class cyclists in Europe are doing the same thing. Good food goes into my body. If someone sneezes, I run the other way. During local training rides, I see myself among my international competitors, on the start line, in the pack, at the finish. I am there. I am trying. I am still on my quest. There is snot flying out of my nose. Everything feels real. Visions, images, thoughts, ideas ... I don't know the difference between what's real and half the stuff my mind comes up with. But I'm certain about one thing: we owe it to ourselves to show up to our own dreams. No matter whose hands they're in.

But no matter how steadfast the dream, sometimes change is the only way to achieve it. As much as I love working under the tutelage of Coach Jimmy, I've come to a coaching crossroads. Jimmy, with his talent, knowledge and unique humor, has a lot of other things going on in his life. We both agree I need someone a bit more hands-on, someone who can improve my training, my technique, my racing skills -- especially my sprinting, which needs a lot of work. Jimmy suggests Gord Fraser at Carmichael Training Systems. This is the cycling equivalent of someone suggesting Gretzky work on your slapshot.

I've been aware of Gord for years. I have often seen him fly by during group rides around Tucson. Local cyclists simultaneously love and dread when Gord turns up at a training session, since trying to keep up with him puts everyone in the hurt locker. The Canadian-born sprinter has been to the Olympics not once but three times ('96, '00, '04) and rode in the 1997 Tour de France for Motorola, garnering a seventh-place stage finish among four top-15 stage placings. One of his teammates was a 23-year-old kid named Lance Armstrong.

As if that wasn't cool enough, in 2005, at the age of 37 (10 years after most pros retire), Gord had such a stellar season that he was named the best sprinter in North America. His good nature and sharp sense of humor only give way when cars come too close; Gord has a quick middle finger. It is also a good idea to get his name right: It's Fraser-rhymes-with-laser, not Frasier-rhymes-with-Kelsey-Grammer.

In early October, I gather up my courage and ask Gord if he has the time and desire to work with me. He doesn't sugarcoat the reality of my situation. "You have to pay your dues in cycling," Gord says. "You can't just assume you're going to get really good really fast and go to the Olympics."

I assure him I've figured that out, but that I want to try anyway. Not just for ESPN, but for myself. Gord says he has seen a lot of athletes take a brash, cocky attitude toward Olympic goals, thus completely disrespecting their sport and the competition. "But I don't think you're that type," he says.

"Gord," I level with him, "I have nothing to be cocky about."

"I don't know if I agree with what you're doing, trying to find another country to race for," Gord adds. Okay. Honesty. I like that. And I understand it, coming from someone who has been to the Olympics three times. I can only imagine what he's thinking: Here's this woman trying to do in 18 months what it took me 20 years to do. What a jackass.

Still, he takes me on as one of his athletes.

Over the next few months, Gord settles me into his methods of coaching. Watt calculations, pedal cadence, heart-rate monitors and the daily downloading of my Power Tap data become routine. Every revolution of my wheels is recorded in a little yellow computer that sits on my handlebars and has tiny elves inside who scribble down the math and mileage. I then take the elf box and plug it into my laptop and send the files to Gord, who knows how to translate the scribbling and can evaluate my performance. Better, however, are the days when Gord rides with me. Sometimes in groups, sometimes alone, Gord will sit behind my wheel and bark orders and advice and knowledge: Your watts are too high, back off. Hands in the drops. One gear down. Cadence up. Pedal, pedal, pedal. Why are your shoulders bouncing? Stop bouncing.

Despite the normal coach-to-pupil sadism Gord regularly bestows, moments of humor and genuine friendship seep into our training. We argue our accuracy of Led Zeppelin lyrics, swap our favorite Chris Farley quotes, have an ongoing debate about which of us is taller (it depends on our daily choice of shoe). Like Jimmy, Gord prefers a less than politically correct manner of offering instructions and praise. Instead of wishing me luck among my female competitors, he decrees, "Kick 'em in the ass." In lieu of encouraging me to stay strong and ride hard, I'm instructed not to "ride like a p----." He's not treating me like a woman, he's treating me like a cyclist. I've been led behind the iron curtain of male motivation, and I like it.

And his coaching seems to be working. On group rides, I keep up with the men who once dropped me. I employ tactics and skills that eluded me just months before. I can now fly around corners and jump over potholes. Just the other day, at 25 mph, I bunny-hopped over a two-by-four lying in the bike lane that, had I run into it, would have knocked me to Jupiter. My confidence has doubled, as have my U-turn skills. And not just in training but in races.

In September, I win the silver medal in the time trial event at the Category 1-2 Arizona State Championships. In October, I win the state title for the road race event. The state title? Ten months ago I didn't even know how to pin a race number on correctly. I've always been a late bloomer, but I never would have guessed I'd be a state champion at age 32. That totally makes up for not getting asked to the prom. And then, somehow, I earn enough points to get my Category 1 license, more or less the black belt of cycling. In other words, while there are still plenty of women who can kick my butt on a bike, I'm now legitimately good enough to get my butt kicked by the best.

In late November, Carmichael Training Systems opens an office in Tucson. Chris Carmichael, famed coach of Lance Himself, spends a few days in Tucson hanging out with Gord and his other employees. I am invited along on an 80-mile ride with Chris, and we spend part of the four hours swapping stories of publishing, athlete gossip and training plans. I tell him about the possibility of racing for St. Kitts and Nevis. Chris says, "Kathryn, if you need anyone to help carry your luggage to the Caribbean, just let me know."

I'm sorry, did Chris Carmichael just offer to carry my luggage? And is it just in my imagination that I hear him say he'll pack Lance into one of those suitcases? I'm now one degree of separation from Lance, and I'm planning to close the gap.

A DOOR OPENS, AND KATHRYN WALKS THROUGH
Six weeks later, while waiting in the restaurant of the Radisson Hotel in Clearwater, Fla., I hear Winston Crooke before I see him. He has a hearty laugh, and it precedes him into the restaurant. All meetings should start with laughter. Winston stands just over 6 feet, and has the build of an endurance athlete, but with a more muscular upper body than most cyclists. While technically 50, Winston has reaped one of the benefits of an athletic lifestyle -- he appears at least a decade younger. With him is the secretary of the St. Kitts and Nevis cycling and triathlon federation, Greg Phillip. Greg handles all publicity work. Also a cyclist, he, like Winston, has a smile and laugh that give off good vibes. As we sit down to dinner, I feel that, out of all the nooks and crannies in the universe, this is exactly where I'm supposed to be right now -- here at a roadside Radisson restaurant in central Florida during the Tuesday night all-you-can-eat king crab special.

For the next couple of hours, Winston, Greg and I discuss how they can best entice their government to grant me dual citizenship. Winston wants his country to set up cycling camps. I can help with that. Greg wants to bring a new level of coaching to the cycling and triathlon programs. I can help with that, too. I'll do whatever it takes. I'll move to St. Kitts and Nevis. I'll train there. And I will respect their country, always, in my cycling and my journalism. I tell Winston and Greg these things, knowing they have little reason to trust a woman they met only an hour ago. We scratch our heads trying to think of negatives, but come up with very few.

Greg then asks me a question, which hits me like a punch in the stomach: "What will you do if our government says no?"

"Well, if St. Kitts and Nevis doesn't offer citizenship, I will look elsewhere," I say. "I can't give up on my dreams 'til I'm sure I've tried everything. But at the same time, I don't want to race for anyone else. I want to race for you, because you believe in me. Because you answered my e-mail. Because this feels right."

All of it is true, but I sound like a cornball. Then I realize this is the one chance I have to let them know how much I want -- how much I need -- this path to continue. I look both men square in the eye, which is difficult because they are sitting on either side of me, and acknowledge my absolute dependency on them. "My Olympic dream is in your hands," I say.

Looking down, I notice that in each of my hands is a crab leg, with which I've been gesticulating for the past half hour. I'm glad these men are from the Caribbean. They seem unfazed by crabversation. Somehow, they still want me to race for St. Kitts and Nevis. But wanting isn't enough ...

Winston and Greg tell me they will put together a presentation about my project for their prime minister and other government officials. Citizenship is always a long shot for foreigners, Winston explains, but an in-person presentation to the prime minister could really help.

"You're going to your prime minister?"

"Yes, his office is right down the street."

"Down the street from what?"

"From everything. From where we live and work."

"And you can just walk in?"

"Well, you have to let him know you're coming."

Oh, OK. By all means, let him know we're coming. I indulge myself in an improbable daydream -- I am chatting amiably with the highest-ranking political figure in the land, he is offering me dual citizenship, I am offering Sports Beans. ... Suddenly, Winston interrupts my daydream with nine small but unfathomable words:

"When can you come to St. Kitts and Nevis?" he asks.

Up next: Kathryn travels to the Caribbean.

Got a question or a comment? Send them to Kathryn at: ESPNOlympian@aol.com. Kathryn is sponsored by Team Sport Beans/NTTC, TriSports.com and Trek Bicycles.

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