Answering the dreaded 'what happened?'

One of the high points of being an elite athlete is that those outside our sport seem impressed with our lives, as if we're victoriously awesome all the time, prancing around with yellow jerseys and champagne bottles, winning everything we do. This couldn't be further from the truth. Especially in cycling, where some of the best riders often appear low in the results, after they've physically gutted themselves to help a teammate win. Or gotten a flat tire, or eaten too many sports gels. Sometimes, we just have bad performances. It's part of being human.

So when someone asks, "what happened?" I usually have a primal urge to -- immaturely -- reply, "what happened to you, stupidface?" But the reality is, after my temper has cooled and I've made peace with being human -- I remember there's a gift hidden inside a bad performance: incredible life stories. These wonderful, beautiful nuggets remind me I may have sucked today, but alas, I have truly lived!

When I look back on my athletic career, from figure skating to time-trial racing, some of the best, funniest, and most character-revealing stories I've collected have come from mishaps and mistakes, from flailing instead of flying and from tripping instead of triumphing. Here are my top four "what happened?" moments and the life lessons they teach:

1. Figure skating, Princeton Open, New Jersey, 1993

A couple days before I was scheduled to compete in the junior ladies long program at the Princeton Open, I collided with my mom in the kitchen as she carried a kettle of boiling water. It spilled on my inner left elbow. My skin sloughed to the floor. We bandaged the second-degree burn, and I fully believed I'd be fine competing, despite the fact skaters desperately need elbows when rotating on every jump and spin. With my, "I'm fine denial" in full swing, I headed onto the ice, only to spend the next three and a half minutes playing the part of the Zamboni with my sequined derriere. Unable to rotate, I flopped out of every jump and spin with rhythmic gusto. I kept going until the end of the music with chunks of ice clinging to my nether region.

What happened: I got injured. But I tried.
Life lesson: When life gives you hot tea, water and ice, make iced tea. Or at least collect the ice cubes with Spandex.

2. Wildflower Triathlon, California, 2001

In my first half-Ironman race, I unknowingly took the bad advice of fellow athlete to drink as much water as possible in the day before the race. Feeling a competitive urge to be the best water drinker ever, I downed gallon after gallon, not knowing I was depleting all my sodium and electrolyte stores -- a condition known as hyponatremia. I discovered this at mile 52 on the bike, where my body started to shut down. It took me an hour to bike the last four miles. Attempting the run, I staggered to mile two and collapsed in the arms of a spectator, who later asked me on a date. (Ladies, never underestimate the power of salt, urine and vomit-stained skinsuits). The medical personnel asked my name. When I said Tucson, they began the first of the three IV bags needed to bring me back to self-recognition. Four years later, I turned pro in triathlon. That's probably when my electrolytes regained balance, too.

What happened: I got sick. But I tried.
Life lesson: The body is 90-94 percent water. Do not try to make it 95 percent.

3. Ironman Canada, 2006

Ironman races are a funny thing. 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile marathon. No matter how precise the training, race day always brings its own challenges. On this day, extreme heat on the bike, and some food that didn't agree with me, led me to a tough decision on the run: Do I try to push on through to the finish, despite a bloated body, a digestive track from hell and a throbbing knee? After thinking of all the time, training, money and effort it took to reach British Columbia, I decided to finish. I took a 20-minute nap on someone's lawn midway through the run course, then hobbled, limped and walked my way through the marathon to a 14 hour finish -- four hours over my normal Ironman time. I just don't like quitting. Despite finishing last in the pro field, I actually got a roll-down spot to Ironman Hawaii, which goes on file as the greatest personal "do-over" in the history of sport. Shortly afterward, stricter Ironman Hawaii qualification procedures were set. I think the Ironman corporation quietly calls this "The Bertine rule" in its office meetings.

What happened: I got sick and injured. And awfully tired. But I tried.
Life lesson: Never give up. Finish what you start. Walk if you have to. There could be a do-over.

4. UCI Cycling World Championships, Australia, 2010

In 2007, I began my cycling quest with ESPN.com, to see if I could make the 2008 Summer Olympics. My column "So You Wanna Be an Olympian?" ran for two years on the site and was later published as the book, As Good As Gold. What started as an assignment soon changed my life. I fell in deeply love with cycling. When the 2008 quest ended with ESPN.com, my personal 2012 quest began: to make the London Olympics. The journey has brought me to three world championships and the fourth is next month in Denmark. Last year, in Australia, I came down with a nasty fever 36 hours before the start of the time trial. I'd flown across the world to race, so I decided to try anyway. The result? About 100 watts less power, a super-slow time and a second-to- last place finish. I felt like I'd embarrassed my country. I also felt like there were rainbows and unicorns everywhere. That was likely the fever, although Australia is pretty magical.

What happened: Saturday Night Fever doesn't always star Travolta.
Life lesson: Last year, I had the fever and I came in second to last. This year I've got the fire, and I'm coming in second to none. Or top 29. That'd be cool, too. Either way, I'll give it my all.

What I've learned in my three-decades long existence as an athlete is that the best life stories come from all sorts of events and outcomes -- victories, last-place finishes, Zamboni-esque wipeouts, or hallucinogenic fevers. So the next time you have a bad race, a less-than-perfect event or the downright detonation of a dream deferred, just remember the best answer when someone asks "What happened?" is that something happened. It's the solid answer of all those who have tried. No matter what, it'll always be better than those who look back on their life stories and have to answer, nothing happened.

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