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Amber Neben’s Olympic story isn’t that at 46, she’s a decade or two older than the other women who are vying for a spot on the U.S.’ road team. It’s that, at 46, she wants to win a gold medal.
“I wouldn’t have committed for this long if I didn’t think I could,” Neben told VeloNews. “It would be the most special one because of everything I’ve overcome to this point. The challenge to get here, the wait time, the feeling that I might be breaking through. It would be really special.”
The 2021 games, should she be selected, would be Neben’s third time racing for Team USA. She competed in the 2008 and 2012 games; in 2004, she was named an alternate. Her best result was seventh place in the time trial in 2012.
During her 20+ year career as a professional cyclist, Neben has won multiple national titles and two world championships in the individual time trial. She’s had victories in stage races, one-day road races, and, of course, time trials, where she is amongst the most decorated athletes in the history of the sport.
In speaking to her, however, it’s easy to get the sense that the most important result is one that has eluded her all along.
You see, Neben is one of those people who’s dreamed of winning Olympic gold since childhood, the type who would pursue any sport to get there.
“It would have been after the ‘84 Olympics — at the time, soccer was my thing,” she said. “I remember daydreaming on the couch instead of doing my homework, imagining myself scoring the winning goal in soccer. Soccer wasn’t even an Olympic sport yet for women! Then it was distance running. So I became really good at distance running. Then cycling came along. And then it was like, this is real.”
Neben has been around long enough and has waded through the murky waters of the U.S.’ Olympic selection process four times now, so she knows that going to the games is rarely a guarantee. Add in last year’s COVID delay, dearth of race results, and yes, her mid-seventies birth date, and 2021 seems like even more of a long shot.
Yet Neben doesn’t feel beholden to any assumptions about how things ‘should’ be.
“It’s this idea that achieving something, reaching a goal, accomplishing something you’ve dreamed about can take a really, really long time,” she said. “I think a lot of times people give up when it gets hard or takes a long time. It’s the one who perseveres the longest who succeeds. I’ve got one more shot.”
Neben said that the past year — from the cancelation of the 2020 games until now — has actually been more challenging physically than emotionally. Carrying a high training load for months on end in order to be ready for any race opportunity has been the name of the game for most professional cyclists for the past year. It’s tiring. However, Neben’s mental training load has been lighter.
“It was a long year of staying ready, but at the end I think it’s worked out well for this year,” she said. “Being long-sighted with my visions of what I was training to accomplish, I was OK with it.”
Neben’s certainty that she could win Olympic gold at age 46 displays something that most people find fairly uncomfortable — vulnerability.
Nevertheless, she finds wisdom in what others might see as a weakness.
“I’m pretty open with who I am and what I’m about,” Neben said. “To be honest there’s more people that can relate with that that can relate to dominating or always winning. Life is hard. Trying to achieve something isn’t easy. There are setbacks, and you might not get there. So the chase really becomes the conduit to everything else.”