E-ticket: So You Wanna Be An Olympian, Part 11Editor'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 is now entering its final days. Kathryn Bertine, a former competitive ice skater turned professional triathlete as well as an accomplished author, is still trying to earn a trip to the Beijing Games this summer. After failing to make the U.S. team, Bertine gained dual citizenship from St. Kitts and Nevis. She checks in with this "postcard" to update her pursuit.
March 4, the day I finally gain citizenship from St. Kitts and Nevis, is one of the best days of my life. Which makes March 5 one of the most hectic. I have less than three months to qualify for the Olympics in cycling, and there is this one slight problem to contend with -- I might not even be allowed to race.
Fortunately, after a careful reading of the 68-page guidebook from the International Cycling Union (UCI), I discover that although UCI cycling national teams need to be registered by Dec. 20, 2007, individuals on national teams can still compete in qualifying races if they are invited to join an established pro team. This means I can represent St. Kitts and Nevis, but only if a professional team asks me to be a guest rider. Guest riders aren't common, but occasionally a team with a sick or injured cyclist will bring in a reserve. (It doesn't matter what country a cyclist represents because all Olympic points are accrued individually, not by how a team finishes.) In other words, if I get lucky, I could be a pinch hitter in my own dream.
Between March 4 and May 31 -- the cutoff for acquiring Olympic points -- 27 qualifying races are scheduled on the UCI calendar. Some overlap. Some are single-day events, some multi-day stage races. Most of them are in Europe, Asia and South or Central America. The goal? To e-mail all the race directors and ask them for a list of competing teams, then to write all the competing teams and ask whether they need a spare rider (me), then to contact a local hospital and schedule myself for carpal tunnel surgery.
And what if I do get to race? Looking at this list of foreign races, it hits me like a freight train that I am going to need help. A lot of help. To book travel, to fly to all these cities, to find accommodations, to drag, assemble and disassemble two bikes to each event, to get myself to the start line, to find food while under the influence of "athleticoma," and to communicate with officials who speak languages I am unfamiliar with for the first time in my quest, the reality of trying to do this on my own overwhelms me. It is time to ask for help.
Help arrives in the form of Amanda Chavez, a 22-year-old cyclist and recent graduate of the University of Arizona. One night, at the dinner table of a mutual friend, the topic of my ESPN quest came up. "Hey, Kathryn, do you need a minion? Can I help carry your crap to races?" Amanda joked. She thought she was kidding. I thought she was brilliant. I hire Amanda to track down as many race directors/teams as possible and to e-mail and call them morning, noon, teatime and night. But the positive responses are not coming.
My heart sinks. Every day that goes by without racing is another day of Olympic qualification opportunity slipping away. After two years, all this effort, all this training, will the journey end here, with the ability to race but no team to compete with?
I call Winston Crooke, my hero, the architect of my St. Kitts and Nevis citizenship campaign: "Winston, I think we're too late. No cycling teams are responding."
"Kathryn, I have an idea," Winston says. "There is still another option."
"You and Greg [Phillip] are going to dress up as women, form a composite team for me, and we'll quietly infiltrate the UCI calendar?"
"No. Sorry. But there might be another way. Remember, I'm not just the head of the St. Kitts and Nevis Cycling Federation. I'm head of the triathlon federation, as well. You could race on the ITU [International Triathlon Union] circuit and try to get Olympic points in triathlon."
"Let me get this straight. Two years ago, I gave up triathlon to try to get to the Olympics as a cyclist, and now my only chance to get to the Olympics might be as a triathlete?"
"Yes," he says.
"That's not funny, Winston."
"Well, you can try."
The problem is, I did try. For three years. I wasn't fast enough to make Olympic qualifying times for the U.S. Then again, I am not sure exactly what the competition is like at races in the Caribbean and South America. And Winston has a point: I can try. I am, after all, a professional trier.
"OK, Winston. When is the first ITU race?"
"Oh, you've missed the first three races."
"Right. Of course I have. When is the next race?"
"Twelve days. In Nevis. And the next one is in Peru."
Twelve days? Nevis? Peru? I'll need to be able to swim 1,500 meters in less than 20 minutes and run six miles in less than 40 minutes to place high enough to win any ITU points. Those are fast, fast times, at least for someone who has spent all her time on a bike for the past two years. And, just for some added stress, if I don't finish within 8 percent of the winner's time, I won't get any points, even if I come in second. But if I'm able to bike my way up to the leaders, hmmm
I call my coach, Gord Fraser. "Gord, I have an ITU triathlon in 12 days. What am I gonna do?"
"Better start running."
Despite my lack of swimming and running and the high risk factor of coming in last (and the fun of writing all about coming in last for the Worldwide Leader In Sports), I decide to compete in the triathlons in Nevis and Peru. Worst-case scenario, I come in last and get nary an Olympic point. Best-case scenario, I discover cycling has been a good cross-trainer for swimming and running, and I manage to pick up a few Olympic points. Besides, what else am I going to do? Sit around and wait for cycling teams not to call me?
No way. Three years ago, I was working crappy jobs and living paycheck to paycheck as a substitute teacher, pet sitter and lunch-shift waitress, saving every penny I could while training up the wazoo to be competitive enough to make the world circuit as a professional triathlete. Now, ESPN is giving me this opportunity to chase my dreams. Even though my heart is in cycling, maybe my body still has a few triathlons left in it. All I know is that it would be a slap in the face (my own, and the face of every scraping-by athlete) not to try.
On March 16, I head down to Nevis, my beloved new country. Winston and Greg do what they can to escape my hugging them every five minutes, but they are unsuccessful.
For the rest of the weekend, I don't see much of Winston, as he is swamped with the demands of being race director for the Nevis Triathlon. Still, I find time to confess to him a bad case of nerves. What if I come in last? Wouldn't he be embarrassed? I can almost hear the race announcer: Well, ladies and gentlemen, looks like Kathryn Bertine of SKN is last out of the water wait, what's this? she's pulling away on the bike oh, scratch that, she just faded to last on the run. "Just do your best, Kathryn," Winston says with his big old Winston smile.
As you might have guessed, 12 days of triathlon training aren't going to get anyone to the Olympics. I come in 10th out of the 10 elite women in the race. Between the 90-degree heat and my body's complete shock at being asked to use rotator cuffs and sneakers, I put up a pretty amateur result. Even my bike split is slow, as my body was so drained from the sprint-paced swim. No Olympic points here.
"Kathryn, you're just getting warmed up," Winston consoles. "Try one more race."
I call Amanda to see whether any cycling teams have gotten in touch with her. None has. OK, then. One more go at triathlon. I head to Lima, Peru, to try again. This time, things go better. I come in ninth out of 10. Better still, I have the fastest bike split and my time of 2:14 is only about five minutes off my personal best when I was training as a full-time triathlete. Not too shabby, but still no points. And now it is April 9. Only 52 days left on the Olympic points cycling calendar. There is no way that leaves enough time for cycling teams to pick me up as a guest rider.
Yet, at the same time, 52 days still seems like too much time to give up hope. I can't figure out whether my dream is giving up on me or I am giving up on it. Maybe I need to consult a dream counselor.
I can't find one in Peru, so I decide to take a quick side trip to Machu Picchu to see the Incan ruins. Maybe take my mind off racing, dreaming and Olympic questing for two days. Sometimes just breathing is the best training one can do.
At the base of Machu Picchu Village, I find an Internet café tucked into the base of the Andes Mountains. Geez, are we really that dependent on technology?
Apparently so. An e-mail from Amanda the WonderMinion informs me that two foreign teams have asked me to be a guest rider in five UCI races in Venezuela and El Salvador. "Kathryn, these races are before the Olympic points cutoff date," Amanda writes. "You still have a chance. Get home quick."
If I have learned one lesson on this quest, it is not to be afraid to ask the universe for what you want. There is no harm in asking. The loudest "no" will always sound better than the quietest "what if?"
In addition to Amanda's news, I receive an out-of-the-blue e-mail from Sarah Tillotson, one of the talented riders I met last year at track cycling camp: "Kathryn, I'm a guest rider on a team heading to a 5-day stage race in China. They need an extra cyclist. Can you do it?"
Can I make it? To China? To the very country I've been attempting to get to for two years? Um, let me think about that for a nanosecond.
And just like that, the dream is revived. There isn't any time to pontificate on the wonder of that. No time to write poems. Done. The dates are set. Races in China on April 24-29. Then races in Caracas, Venezuela, in the first week of May. From there, Amanda (who will interpret and, if necessary, scrape me off the pavement) and I will hit Montevideo, Uruguay, and then the capital of El Salvador for 13 days of racing. That'll bring me to the end of May and the end of my Olympic points quest. Or maybe it'll be a whole new beginning.
Time to find out. March forth. Let's go to China.
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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