The biggest juxtaposition about reaching the Olympics is it requires everyone and no one to help an athlete get there.
First, there's the Everyone: the mechanics at Fair Wheel Bikes that keep my machine working, the home stays, race directors and foreign team managers (often strangers) who have helped me while abroad, the Podium Legs (pictured above) compressing my muscles into fully recovered weapons, the emotional strength supplied by my husband and friends at my highest and lowest points. There is no way I could complete this Olympic quest on my own.
And yet, there's No One. When I'm on the start line of a race, it's just my bike and me. As the lone cyclist for St. Kitts and Nevis, I haven't had a team of riders to work with in races. No one is there to protect me from the wind, lead me out in sprints, fetch water bottles from the team car (seeing as there is no team car) or strategize about how best to win. That's just the way it is, and I've accepted the challenge and I do the best I can. I can't complain at all; I'm so grateful for the opportunity to be at these UCI points races and chase my Olympic qualification dream. Yep, just me and my little dream, trying to make our way through pelotons of six-person national teams. (My inner joke is if there is one athlete I can relate to most, it would be U.S goalkeeper Hope Solo. Or in my case Hope, Solo.)
You can imagine my surprise, then, when I received an email from a fellow pro cyclist I had never met before, offering to help me:
My name is Nicky Wangsgard. I'm a professor at Southern Utah University and professional cyclist. I race for Primal/mapmyride. I'm their sprinter. I'm also 39 and want to retire in one year. Need a St. Kitts & Nevis teammate? Thought maybe I could help St Kitts qualify as a country and help you secure a spot. Would love to race with a purpose before I retire ...
I knew Nicky by reputation -- her self-description as a "sprinter" was rather humble. Over her 10-year career in the sport, she has topped several podiums on the prestigious National Race Calendar circuit and collected a wardrobe of coveted Most Aggressive jerseys. This was one tough competitor, a tough competitor who, out of the blue, wrote an email to a total stranger offering to help her reach the Olympics. Hope, Duo!
I responded with a resounding yes. It's one thing to want to help someone; it's a whole other level of selflessness when a stranger says she's willing to pay her own way, battle strange foreign circumstances and sacrifice her own ability to win all in the name of someone else's dream. --* I now believe in angels, and they wear Lycra and chamois.
Nicky and I checked the UCI race calendar. She would be able to come with me to the four UCI races in Venezuela in May. Perfect, I thought; those are race courses I was already familiar with and I'd have a teammate to help me. I was all set. But I should know by now that whenever I think "I'm all set," the opposite is usually true. Sure enough, another glitch surfaced.
In the past, I've raced in Venezuela as a solo rider. This year, I got an email explaining that if I wanted to come to their UCI races, I'd need a minimum of four women to comprise a team. Where was I going to find two more women who were willing to spend thousands on a plane ticket to a country with difficult logistics for racing, eating, and sleeping, all for the glory of my own Olympic advancement?
Enter Hopes Trio and Quartet.
I learned one valuable lesson as a solo rider for one of cycling's underfunded nations: I am hardly alone. There are a lot of small nations with aspiring cyclists, yet they face the same struggles I do in attempting Olympic qualification. They have no teammates, no budget and often no way of getting into races that require teams of four or more. So I contacted two of my fellow Olympic hopefuls in the same predicament as me: Claire Fraser from Guyana and Tamiko Butler from Antigua. I told the ladies we could help each other; if they came to Venezuela, they could race on my team and we'd total four women and they could chase their Olympic dream, too.
Yes, they're my competitors; yes, they'll be on my team. Maybe they'll beat me and take the points I'm vying for. But unless we come together, we can't reach the start line at all. If there is one thing more important than my own Olympic dream, it is this: creating opportunity for change. Right now, the UCI doesn't do much to help small nations with individual riders succeed. But I can. Welcome to the Hope Show, Tamiko and Claire. May our voice be heard through our presence in Venezuela, whether we make it to the Games or not.
I was lucky to have a team of four, but I didn't expect a Hope Quintet. When Nicky's friend Rachel Cieslewicz came aboard as our fifth rider, I knew she represented the most important piece of the puzzle. In my intimate relationship with Murphy's Law, I know this sport well enough to predict that, with a team of four, it's far too likely someone will get sick or injured or have their bike lost in transit. Having Rachel swoop down in her angel chamois was the perfect antidote to potential problems.
As soon as I typed the words "potential problems," Mr. Murphy and his Law showed up in my inbox. Nicky was suddenly unable to go to Venezuela due to a family matter. With selflessness, generosity and true camaraderie, Nicky canceled her airline ticket and purchased one for her friend and fellow cyclist, Julie Cutts, to take her place so I am not left stranded with too few teammates. The Quintent would remain intact, and I am silently reminded that goals of Olympic proportion are never accomplished alone.
Speaking of angels and chamois, we were in need of a team kit for Venezuela. While I race for Team Colavita domestically, my attempt to get to the Olympics falls under my own jurisdiction. Luckily, I race for one of the nicest organizations on the planet. John Profaci, Tina Pic and Iona Wynter Parks donated a few extra jerseys and bibs so the Hope Quintet will look the part of an official team. I've practically lost count of which Hope we're on, but I can think of no better words than Hope, Fully for the amount of help and true belief that has come my way.
Onward to Venezuela, where our development team of individuals and angels will take on the national teams of Europe and the Americas. Let's take this Hope Quintent on the road. Julie, Tamiko, Claire and Rachel ... if there's a time for hope, this is it. Then again, because of you, I'm pretty sure hope has been here all along.
(* -- I would be remiss not to point out that Nicky was preceded in angelhood by Moriah MacGregor, who came to El Salvador to race with me. She is unable to make it to Venezuela, but must be recognized as a huge factor in my Olympic quest. Thanks Mojo!).
Kathryn Bertine is the author of two sports memoirs, "All The Sundays Yet To Come" and "As Good As Gold." You can follow her on Twitter @kathrynbertine, or check out her latest endeavor to help women's cycling.