It's the most asked question of every athlete in every sport: Did you win? The answer is usually a cut-and-dry yes or no. And then there is cycling, where winning and losing is complicated; individuals and teams blur the line of what it means to truly win.
From the domestique who DNF after helping a teammate get into winning position, to the best rider in the field who flats before the sprint, it's hard to bestow the title of winner and loser. There is also a diverse classification of sprint points and prize money that adds various layers to the definition of winning. So when the inevitable, "Did you win?" came this past weekend at the Tour of Elk Grove, Team Colavita's last official bike race of 2012, I answered the spectator as honestly as possible: "We didn't finish first."
We didn't win, but at the same time, we didn't lose. Our team was saved from sponsor-withdrawal extinction at the last minute and came into the race season in May instead of January. Our journey was different than most.
Powerhouse squads like Exergy TWENTY12, NOW/Novartis, Optum/Kelly Benefits, TiBCO and Specialized-Lululemon fielded full-calendar rosters with international champions whose mission was to dominate every race. We, too, signed international riders and craved world domination, but we were largely a team of rookie pros. We knew the truth: Our job this year was to try. Our job was to compete with grace and promise and effort.
Our mission was to go into battle among the Goliaths, and see if we could pull off a David now and then. Sometimes we did. More often, we almost did. In a sport where teams struggle to maintain financial sponsors, just existing was an enormous win.
At our last race, Chicago's Tour of Elk Grove, Team Colavita's all-around rookie star Jamie Bookwalter finished in the top-20 in the prologue, sprinter Joanie Caron snatched a top-10 finish in the circuit race, Mary Zider threw down an enormous effort to lead out Tina Pic in the criterium and Moriah MacGregor retired her pro career with a top-20 placement in general classification. With these results, I can't say we didn't win. We just didn't finish first. And while we're at it, here are some other things Team Colavita didn't do this year:
• We didn't mind giving a guest rider spot for Tour of the Gila to a young rider named Jasmin Glaesser. We also didn't mind when, a few months later, Glaesser couldn't come to Tour of Elk Grove because she was busy at the Olympics, winning a bronze medal for Canada in the team pursuit event.
• We also didn't see it as anything less than awesome when our teammate Leah Guloien journeyed to London, too, to watch her sister, Krista, row to a silver medal in the Canadian women's eight.
• We didn't give up hope when only two teammates and a guest rider filled our roster for Nature Valley Grand Prix in Minnesota.
• We didn't complain when the rain poured down at Exergy, and the final stage was whittled to a field of 34 riders.
• We didn't sulk when budget cuts trimmed a few races from our roster. We didn't cower when the big UCI teams showed up. We didn't ever believe we were less important, and we didn't do anything other than try our best every single race. Sometimes that's a lot more important than winning.
As our team rested in the hotel between events at the Tour of Elk Grove, we watched the Olympics unfold its fascinating, heart-wrenching stories of glory and defeat. Caron found a quote from an athlete that summed up our entire season. When the coxswain of the U.S. women's eight, Mary Whipple, was interviewed about her boat's gold-medal performance, Whipple told USA Today, "I just told them to breathe, enjoy this moment and feel each stroke. Just be present. We were present the whole time."
Joanie and I agreed this is how every journey in sport should be counted. Whipple nailed the gray area that falls between winning and losing: Sometimes just being present and remembering what it means to live the dream is the greatest victory.
On behalf of my teammates, thank you, Team Colavita, for allowing us to be present in our long-awaited, often elusive, hard-fought-for dream of being a professional female athlete. We most certainly won.