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What a short, strange trip it’s been for Emma White.
This coming Monday, White will make her Olympic debut as a medal favorite on the U.S. women’s Team Pursuit squad. The moment will bookend White’s rapid three-year transformation from a budding cyclocross star and college kid, into one of the fastest velodrome racers on the planet.
Throw in eight months of pandemic isolation, the tragic death of a dear friend, and world championship stripes, and you end up with an overwhelming period of emotion and personal growth for White.
“It’s all happened very fast for me,” White told VeloNews. “I don’t really know what I’d be doing if I hadn’t signed up for this. I’d probably be doing more cyclocross. Honestly, I think everything I’ve done over the past few years has led me to where I’m supposed to be. And that’s a good feeling.”
A life-changing phone call
The launchpad for White’s transition happened just after the 2018 cyclocross world championships, where White scored a 7th place finish in the women’s Under-23 race. At the behest of her coach, Kristin Armstrong Savola, White attended a track talent identification camp in Colorado Springs — Armstrong Savola told White that the track cycling efforts would improve her cadence and sprinting. White said she struggled to pilot the fixed-gear bicycles, but after a few days, she got the hang of the short and intense efforts.
As White sat in the airport after the track camp, her phone rang. It was Gary Sutton, coach of the U.S. Team Pursuit squad.
“He pretty much told me that if I committed to the team I’d have a good shot at the Olympics — that was a phone call I didn’t expect to get, and I had to make a really quick decision,” White said. “I didn’t think I’d ever forgive myself if I didn’t try it.”
The retirement of Sarah Hammer at the end of 2017 had opened the door for the Team Pursuit to bring on a new rider, and Sutton believed White could fill the spot.
White called her team manager, Stu Thorne of the Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com team, and told him that she was leaving the squad to take on the new opportunity. That summer she moved to Los Angeles and began training with the team, trying to learn the nuances of track cycling on an extremely compressed schedule. The 2019 UCI world championships were just six months out, and White needed to mold her body and mind into the new discipline.
“I’m a cautious rider on the road in general, so riding right next to people with no brakes and not being able to stop with so. much speed was definitely something I had to get used to. It came down to knowing that I was training with the best in the world, so I just had to keep a straight line because I knew they’d do the same,” White said. “I liked track because if you do the same thing every time, you’ll get the same result. Speed and aerodynamics can be changed, so if you duck your head a little bit, or change a gear, things change by a millisecond, which I really like. The thing that was hardest was riding so close to people at that speed.”
From tragedy to triumph
Throughout her first year with the team White shared a room with Kelly Catlin, who was her teammate on Rally Cycling. Catlin was a veteran member of the team and owner of Olympic silver from Rio de Janeiro. She became a confidant and mentor for White on the track, doling out advice, and support, during and after training sessions. When the pressure to perform got to be too much, Catlin was quick with a joke to ease the stress, White said.
“She was my biggest support system,” White said. “We laughed so hard. She really calmed me when I thought I should be at home, or training for cyclocross, or doing something else. I really have her to thank for getting me through those tough times at the beginning.”
The U.S cycling world was delivered a blow in early March, 2019 when news spread that Catlin had died by suicide at Stanford University. Her death sent shockwaves throughout the entire U.S. cycling community. Within the insular world of the women’s Team Pursuit program, Catlin’s death landed like an emotional bomb. She had been a powerhouse rider, as well as a friend and teacher, for White and other riders on the squad.
“There are no words to really describe how it impacted me, because she’s probably the reason that I’m still on the track team, and the reason that I got through those first months,” White said. “It took a toll on everyone’s mental ability. It shed a light on [the fact that] you have no idea what anybody is going through. In the months leading up to that, I was rooming with her and I had never known she was struggling at all.”
It may take years for White and her colleagues to fully process and emotionally recover from Catlin’s tragic death. The sporting world gave them little time to move on, and as 2019 wore on, White, Chloe Dygert, and Jennifer Valente had to prepare for the upcoming World Cup and world championships. Multiple other riders had slotted in on the squad, from Kim Geist and Christina Birch, to White’s road teammate Lily Williams. For the 2020 world championships Sutton selected Williams, White, Dygert, and Valente to ride for the win, and the four did not disappoint.
They qualified fastest, setting up a battle with reigning Olympic champions Team Great Britain in the final. In the finals, the Americans sprung out of the gates first, and White took control of the front after 1,000 meters to take a long pull. The early speed stuck, and the U.S. took a commanding win, and White earned world championship stripes.
After the finish, television commentators stood in front of the women’s team, and the first question went to White. In few short minutes, White had become one of the shining stars of the U.S. track program, and a world champion.
White said it was the first moment when she realized that her lifelong dream of becoming an Olympic athlete might actually come true.
“It was like, ‘wait a minute, this might actually happen for me,’” White said. “I never wanted to get my hopes up, and I never assumed it would happen. It was always a dream but I never thought I’d get there through track cycling.”
Waiting out the storm
White and her teammates earned their world stripes on February 27, 2020, and they were unaware that their race was one of the final events held prior to the COVID-19 shutdown. White returned to the dormitories at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs suffering from the flu, and coaches placed her in quarantine away from her teammates. When she emerged from her isolation, White learned that the world was rapidly going into its own quarantine, due to the spread of the virus.
In a matter of days the Olympic Training Center was shut down, and athletes were given a choice: Stay in Colorado Springs or go home. White, Williams, and Megan Jastrab decided to stay. The short stay turned into four months. The women and their coach, Gary Sutton, waited out the quarantine as a pod, riding and barbecuing together in Colorado.
“Honestly, we had a great time. We rode more than ever, and when you’re not preparing for something you get to know people in a different way,” White said. “Megan and I were roommates and I think we plowed through the entire Grey’s Anatomy series. We had painting nights and we played cards. We all really bonded quite a bit.”
Those bonds could prove fruitful over the next week, as White and her teammates strive for Olympic gold. Unlike other squads, which participated in World Cup races in 2021, the U.S. riders have not raced, opting instead to forego travel in an effort to stay healthy. When White and her teammates line up for the women’s Team Pursuit qualifying rounds on Monday, they will be racing for the first time since their gold medal run in 2020.
Whether the U.S. riders win or lose is yet to be decided. White knows that the process she’s gone through to get to the start line in Tokyo has ultimately shifted her life’s trajectory, and provided her experiences that will stay with her forever. Amid the tragedy and triumph, White said there’s nothing quite like the actual experience of racing a Team Pursuit on the track. Four riders, who have trained and suffered and triumphed together, become one.
“When it’s done perfectly, you get off the track feeling like you’re all one person — like the whole team of four has just been completely in the same headspace,” White said. “It’s pretty fantastic when it comes together, and honestly, that’s the best part.”
And that experience, perhaps more than any other, is what will stay with Emma White forever.