Portrait of a champion: Jennifer Valente’s Olympic gold is the product of physical and intellectual strengths

Jennifer Valente's Olympic gold medal sprung from her physical and intellectual gifts, and from her lifelong background in track cycling. So, what's next for Valente?

Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

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Amid the crashes and chaos, Jennifer Valente saw a clear path to Olympic gold.

American cycling fans will always remember the thrilling final bicycle race of the 2021 Olympics — the Points Race leg of the women’s Omnium — as the historic coronation of Jennifer Valente. Over the course of 20 kilometers, Valente marked Japanese rider Yumi Kajihara; she monitored dangerous moves by Amalie Didericksen, Kirsten Wild, and others; and she even crashed to the wooden boards and remounted her bicycle.

After 20 minutes of chaotic battling, Valente earned enough points to claim the gold medal and become America’s first female Olympic champion on the velodrome. The image of Valente sitting on the velodrome, draped in an American flag, crying tears of joy became the lasting image of the 2021 Games for U.S. cycling.

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In the days after the race, VeloNews spoke to Valente’s coaches, teammates, family members, and friends — as well as to Valente herself — about the milestone win. What emerged was the portrait of a victory that sprung both from Valente’s supreme natural gifts and her long history in the sport, and also from specific elements of her personality.

Valente battled for points in the Elimination Race during the women’s Omnium. Photo: Greg Baker / AFP) (Photo by GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

“You’re continually learning and improving, and the more mistakes you make, you try not to make them again,” Valente told VeloNews. “And then there are decisions you can’t really think about — they have to be made on instinct in the Omnium.”

With her win, and her new place in U.S. cycling, Jennifer Valente is potentially primed to lead women’s track cycling into a bold new era. And Valente’s success in this new situation may rely on a completely different side of her character.

The thinking person’s bike racer

The Olympic Omnium, with its arcane set of rules, and scoring sheet based on four individual events, appears to be custom-fit for Valente’s physical and intellectual strengths. Riders compete in a Scratch Race, a Tempo Race, an Elimination Race, with their placing in each adding points to their overall total.

Then, in the final event, the Points Race, every point earned during the 20km race adds to that final total. It’s an event that caters to endurance riders who can also generate extreme power for mid-race sprints, before resting and recharging for the next event.

Valente has the ideal physiology for the repeated efforts, said her longtime coach, Benjamin Sharp.

“She’s incredibly strong and carries a lot of muscle, and she’s able to utilize that,” Sharp said. “She has a tremendous anaerobic capacity and good repeatability. Her acceleration is phenomenal, whether seated or from standing, and few people that she’s racing with can match that rate of acceleration.”

Benjamin Sharp (left) congratulates Valente after her gold medal win. Photo: Zhang Hongxiang/Xinhua via Getty Images

Those physical attributes, Sharp said, stem in part from her long history with the Team Pursuit, where the effort requires riders to accelerate to breakneck speed, maintain a punishing tempo, and then slot back into the group, before repeating it again. Legs and lungs aside, Valente also has a personality and racing intellect that is custom fit for the mathematical challenge posed by the Omnium and its points chase.

Those who know Valente best use similar words when describing her character. She’s analytic, inquisitive, and highly intelligent.

“Even when she’s ordering tacos, Jenn is analyzing stuff,” said Chloé Dygert in 2017. “Jenn thinks like an engineer thinks.”

Indeed, Valente is pursuing a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Colorado, and in conversation, she speaks with a literal and almost mathematical view on situations — that is, when she speaks at all. Valente can come across as understated and even shy in social situations. Those who know her best stress that, behind that quiet demeanor, there is an observant and curious intellect that is always absorbing and calculating information.

“She is very observant and she studies every situation she’s in,” Sharp said. “She calculates. She knows the rules. She knows the points. She’s analytic and will study every situation as it evolves to see where she can win.”

“She’s the most informed person I know,” said teammate Emma White. “I don’t know where she gets all of her information, but she knows everything about, um, well, anything.”

Outsprinting rival and favorite Laura Kenny, Jennifer was able to take points in the final race. Photo: Casey Gibson

Learning track cycling’s strategy has taken years, yet Valente’s analytic personality has been present for her entire life. Tom Valente, her father, said that the unaccustomed often mistake Jennifer’s quiet nature with her being shy or uninterested. That’s not the case. Valente is simply taking in everything she sees and hears.

“She keeps her cards close to the vest,” Tom Valente said. “That is who she is. It may come across as shy and unassuming. Let me tell you, she’s analytical, and really a thinking person’s bike racer.”

During a track race, these calculations occur in split seconds. Throughout the Olympic Omnium, Valente’s tactical decisions were often overshadowed by the whirring of wheels and movement of the camera. Yet again and again throughout the event, Valente made the correct decisions, even though fans may have missed them.

Sharp points to two specific moments that required her to make flash decisions that ultimately won her gold. In the first memory, Valente held a lead in the overall standings going into the Tempo Race, but early in the event, a dangerous breakaway attacked, forcing Valente to decide whether to react or stay tucked in the field. She attacked.

“She made the very quick decision to bridge across, and that isn’t normally her style of riding — she tends to lurk in the background and take points that are easier to get,” Sharp said. “But top riders went up the ‘road’ and she was able to get across and take a lap with that group.”

Valente on the rail, followed by Kajihara, at the start of the elimination race. Photo: Casey Gibson

The next moment of brilliance came during the Points Race, where Valente needed to shadow Kajihara, but also keep tabs on half a dozen riders who were within striking distance of her lead. One by one, riders attacked into dangerous breakaways, and Valente either put in effort or saved her legs in the field, based on which riders made the moves. She allowed nonthreatening riders to attack and freely gobble up points, knowing that it put her closest rivals in a deficit.

Had she attacked too soon, Valente may have worn her legs out for Kajihara’s final sprint. Had she sat back, Wild may have leapfrogged her in the points standings.

“When you start off, everyone is a threat,” Sharp said. “Jenn knows the points spread of the riders, and all rider’s strengths and weaknesses. She knew exactly what she needed to do to be successful.”

“Make no mistake,” Sharp added. “She’s a killer.”

Product of San Diego cycling

Perhaps the defining moment of the Olympic Omnium came long before Valente’s dogged chase in the Points Race. During the Onium’s opening event, the Scratch Race, Valente found herself boxed in on the inside with just four laps remaining. Then, a lapse in concentration and touch of wheels sent nine riders careening to the track at high speeds. In a fraction of a second Valente maneuvered onto the track’s black center, then back onto the track.

Three laps later, she won the sprint to take maximum points in the first of four events.

Valente right) earned a medal at the 2012 junior world track championships. Photo: Teaukura Moetaua/Getty Images

Three thousand miles away, Tom Valente watched the race at his home in Scripps Ranch, a bedroom community northeast of San Diego, California. The crash and aftermath brought back memories of Jennifer’s experiences in San Diego’s topsy-turvy Fiesta Island bike races when she was a teenager.

“It’s a mass-start thing and it can be fairly crazy; it’s all about power and bike handling,” Tom Valente told VeloNews. “Jenn would do the Tuesday night races at the velodrome, then the Camp Pendleton Ride with me on Wednesday, and then Thursday night was Fiesta Island.”

That intense three-day bloc of training and racing helped Valente forge the legs, lungs, and love of bike racing as a teenager — an age when young cyclists often discover passions and pursuits outside the sport. Valente stuck with cycling and credits the San Diego cycling community for helping her stick with the sport, and develop a love for bike racing.

“Not having such a competitive environment from the beginning changed my outlook on the sport,” Jennifer Valente said. “The community and making it fun — it sounds like a cliché, because people say ‘don’t forget to have fun,’ but chasing an Olympic dream is such a taxing thing to do that if you don’t have that foundation in it, it’s really hard to continue.”

Cycling became Valente’s favorite sport at age 12 after the family took what would become an annual summer trip to Mammoth Lakes, California to ride mountain bikes. Within a year or so Jennifer was going on road rides with her father, and at age 13 she started taking kids classes at the San Diego Velodrome, which has nurtured a junior racing community since its construction in the late 1970s. There were kids races and instructors, as well as the thriving Tuesday night racing scene, where elite riders mingled with newbies in a fun and low-pressure environment.

“It was fun and informal and everyone would go out for pizza afterwards,” Tom Valente said. “She’d be down there choosing her own gearing and changing her own gears. I think it was an important scene for her.”

Valente blossomed early, and graduated from the newbie category into more advanced groups. An important element of the Tuesday Night races was how athletes were grouped by ability and not by age or gender. Riders start in the “D” category, and then work themselves up to “A.” As a teenager Valente regularly battled with adult men and women in the “A” category, and the experiences helped her develop the fast-twitch reactions and strategic mindset required for track racing. In junior races she often faced off against a handful of other teenaged girls, but in the Tuesday night velodrome events, Valente faced riders at her level.

Ralph Elliott, who has been involved in San Diego’s cycling community as an event organizer for years, was the race announcer for many of Valente’s early events. After a few years of racing, Elliott said, Valente had become famous for her abilities to contend with the strongest riders on the track.

“Nothing was more satisfying than watching her on the front of the A group riding a bunch of guys off of her wheel,” Elliott said. “They think they’re hot [stuff] and there is this teenaged girl beating them. It was pretty spectacular. You can see a star shine in a group like that.”

In high school Valente juggled water polo with bike racing, but by 2011 and 2012 she began to show national and international success on the track and road. In 2011 she claimed two junior national track titles, and the next year she won the junior world title in the Scratch Race. Those results helped push her to pursue bike racing full-time, and Valente joined the then Twenty12 pro road team as a development rider.

Relaxing and keeping her legs up in the team pit, Jenn Valente preps for one of her many events. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

Another element of the track that helped push Valente forward was her first coach, famed U.S. track racer Mark Whitehead. Known as a hothead during his own pro career, Whitehead was famous for his booming voice and stern approach as a coach.

Whitehead died from a heart attack in 2013, and Elliott said he saw Whitehead’s no-nonsense approach impact Valente throughout her early years in track cycling.

“I remember he told Jennifer that it doesn’t matter how many times you fall down you can always get back up and still win,” Elliott said. “I thought of Mark when I watched her in Tokyo.”

The stern Whitehead, plus the foundation she’d forged on the San Diego Velodrome, helped galvanize a love for cycling that became invaluable in her later life. Pro cycling hands out setbacks and disappointments to all elite racers, and the most successful ones are able to navigate those moments to forge on. Valente said that the love of cycling she cultivated in San Diego has been invaluable in her career.

Valente has stayed with the Twenty24 pro cycling team since she joined the road program in 2011. Photo: Hyoung Chang/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images

“I think as a junior, Mark Whitehead as well as all the people who helped me and were around me as I was a junior coming into it,  of learning the whole process of things,” Valente said. “Learning about the track and the racing. Racing all kinds of races locally — Points Race, Keirins, sprinting, Scratch Races, and random stuff that happens at local velodromes like snowball races and win-and-outs — learning work on my bike. All of these things were part of the journey. I think that all contributes to the gathering of knowledge.”

A quiet leader with a growing platform

Olympic champions are rare in U.S. road and track cycling, and the country has crowned just two Olympic gold medalists in the past 30 years. Both of those riders — Kristin Armstrong and Mary Nothstein — used their respective victories to build platforms for themselves in the sport. Nothstein became director of the Valley Preferred Velodrome in Trexlertown, before running for public office in Pennsylvania. Armstrong has built a thriving nationwide coaching business, and she’s a figurehead for youth health and wellness in Idaho.

How will Valente use her platform? It’s a question that Valente admits she has yet to fully consider.

Valente (right) helped mentor Megan Jastrab in the Madison. Photo: Sebastian Gollnow/picture alliance via Getty Images

“It’s going to deserve a lot of thought in the coming weeks and months,” Valente said. “I haven’t had a chance to process everything.”

While the answer may take a while to come, there are hints in Valente’s recent past that she has the personal skills and personality to coach, direct, and help others learn about track cycling. From 2018 through 2021 Valente was integral in the rebuilding of the U.S. women’s Team Pursuit squad, following the tragic death of Kelly Catlin and the retirement of Sarah Hammer. Valente became the captain of the program, and she used her years of experience and confidence to nurture new riders Emma White, Lily Williams, and Megan Jastrab.

The proof of Valente’s leadership can be seen in the team’s results. They won the world championships in 2020, and then captured Olympic bronze in 2021 despite not having competed for more than a year.

Gary Sutton, the team’s head coach, said there were elements of the event that even he struggled to get across to the riders. The guidance required someone on the team and inside the event, and Valente took on that role.

Valente (far right) helped lead Team USA to the world championships win in 2020. Photo: Tim Goode/PA Images via Getty Images

“When people first come into this team, it’s really difficult. You feel uncomfortable,” Sutton said. “The technique of Megan or Lily — when I first came in, I just shook my head. I’m not shaking my head now, and a lot of that is from [Jenn]. Her honesty with the team has kept this team together.”

White, who also joined the track team from road cycling, said she struggled with multiple elements of the Team Pursuit, from the effort, to the exchanges. Valente was quick with feedback, she said, and her coaching style was direct and positive.

“The way she gives feedback, it’s easy to latch onto it and she gives it in a way that’s easy to listen to,” White said. “She’s been around. She’s been doing this since her junior days so I trust her completely.”

Jastrab, who joined the squad when she was just a teenager, said Valente’s leadership strength shone through in her self-confidence. Her guidance helped Jastrab shrug off the pressure of competing on the world stage in an event she had just started.

“She’s always been so supportive of me, just being like ‘you’re a good rider, trust yourself, don’t have doubts, and just go race your bike — you know what you’re doing,’” Jastrab said. “She’s shared so many tips with me, too.”

Valente lives and trains in Colorado Springs, home of the U.S. Olympic Training Center. Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Jastrab and Valente were paired with each other for the Olympic Madison event, and the juxtaposition of the two was evident early. Jastrab is a recent junior world road cycling champion, and she entered the program as a teenager. Valente, a lifelong velodrome racer, is in her mid-20s. Still, Valente took Jastrab under her wing and gave her both tactical advice and emotional support as she learned the event through trial and error.

“My first World Cup, I was so stressed,” Jastrab said. “She’s like ‘nope, you know what you’re going to do? You don’t have to worry about anything. We’re just going to race our bikes and have a good time.’ And we got on the podium. I was really nice to have that reassurance.”

It’s a quality that’s not always found in top champions, yet it speaks to an element of Valente’s character that could provide opportunities for her long after her cycling career comes to a close. At 26, Valente has plenty of bike races left in her legs, and in three years she will undoubtedly line up to try and win the Olympic Omnium again, and to help power the U.S. women’s Team Pursuit squad to another medal. But in 2024 one thing is bound to be different — the rest of the world will be watching her.

One thing is bound to be the same in 2024: Jennifer Valente is bound to be the same quiet, calculating, cool bike racer that she’s always been.

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