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Some athletes. when handed the kind of bitter pill that Mari Holden had to swallow four years ago, would have burned their uniforms and left the sport forever. Certainly, when Holden won both time-trial selection races for the Olympic women’s cycling team before the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, she expected to race for the red-white-and-blue in front of her home-country audience.
Instead, USA team selectors determined that her road-racing skills were suspect, and thought that 1984 road-race silver medalist Rebecca Twigg was a better strategic bet.
“I cried, I was bitterly disappointed, but I never ever felt like quitting,” said the 29-year-old Holden on September 30, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. A good thing, since she now wore a silver medal around her neck, after a stunning performance against a star-packed field in the Olympic cycling time trial.
Holden, the 29th-ranked UCI road racer and top American, came within 37 seconds of chasing down the now legendary Netherlander Leontien Van Moorsel-Zijlaard, whose 42:00 finish in the 31.2km time trial capped off an unprecedented three-gold, one-silver Olympics.
While Zijlaard achieved untouchable status with her domination of the Games, Holden whipped the likes of Diana Ziliute of Lithuania (ninth and l:39 back of Zijlaard), Anna Wilson of Australia, and the defending Olympic road racing gold medalist and time trial silver medalist Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli. Longo the Great eked out a bronze medal, 15 seconds after Holden, and six seconds ahead of the epically frustrated Wilson, who also finished the cruelest fourth in the road race.
Wilson had come oh so close again: On her first of two laps, she had the third fastest split (21:14). The Aussie was 14 seconds in front of Longo and just two seconds behind Holden — second placed and far back of Zijlaard, who had clocked 20:46.
Then, inexplicably, Wilson did not hear from her coach James Victor, who could have given her splits and encouragement by radio.
“I was thinking I must be 20th or something,” she later said, adding that she had been wavering between, “not wanting to hear I was 10th, and I really wanted to hear I was at least in sight of a medal.” When Victor finally did let her know she was in range with a few kilometers to go, Longo had struck like a cobra and was in the process of riding 21:23 last lap to Wilson’s 21:43. Letting Victor off the hook, Wilson said, “l was totally gone when I finished, I don’t think I could have pulled out any more.”
Still, the Aussie couldn’t help thinking, “If I’d come away with a medal today, the road race wouldn’t have mattered so much now But the way things turned out, I’d like to have run that one again.” The Z8-year-old lawyer said this would likely be her last Olympics.
Holden’s charge came days after she suffered three flat tires, a change of bikes and the ignominy of a withdrawal in her first Olympic appearance, the road race. “I was very depressed at the time, having spent four years focusing on making the Olympic team, but it ended up the right decision,” said Holden. “Actually, only my boyfriend [and mountain bike team manager Dean Golichl and I thought I had a chance for a medal. But … I had prepared very well, and I knew if I ran a flawless trace, I could medal.”
With that medal now in hand, Holden mused for a moment to decide if it gave her as much satisfaction as finally beating Longo.
“Jeannie is my friend and someone I admire so much, but still dreamed of beating her one day. This season, I had come closer and closer, but to do it at the Olympics is incredible!”
Longo smiled a wry smile and told the press with Gallic precision: “This was a good performance not a great one. But I met my goal of gaining a medal. Leontien? She was far stronger than all of us and she made cycling history today.”
Longo confessed that she had gone into the final event in a bad mood because her road race had gone so poorly. “It was hard for me to understand that,” said Longo. “I misread the weather conditions and dressed for a hot day. An hour before the start, the sun came out. When the rains carne, it was cold and wrecked my plan. I wanted to attack late in the race, but by then I couldn’t do anything. My muscles in my legs were frozen so they felt like bones. I couldn’t even move my lips. So now I think I should have attacked the first laps to destroy the field, and maybe there is hope I could have ben there in the end. So it was psychologically very difficult for me to race today.”
Nonetheless, Longo was satisfied with third” “Leontien is in wonderful shape, and I did my best. I couldn’t beat her,” she said. “Also, I had an inflammation on my gluteus muscle, so I had a pain in my hip and my left leg wasn’t really good. I couldn’t pull a big gear, so I was incapable of winning.”
Holden, who started her athletic career as a triathlete and was diverted to cycling after training with cyclists at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs in 1992, said philosophically, “If I had made the team in ’96 and had a bad Olympics, it might have been hard to recover. But my boyfriend Dean [Golich] said, ‘Use it for motivation and focus.’ So I went to Europe to ride and learn, and I learned a lot. In the past year, I rode in the U.S. with [Timex] and learned even more.”
USA Cycling team official Sean Petty claimed that the importance of Holden’s performance against such a tough field could not be underestimated. “Not to downgrade at all what Connie Carpenter Phinney and Rebecca Twigg accomplished in 1984 by gaining gold and silver at the Olympic road race, but Mari’s silver may be even more impressive, because it came against such a tough field in a non-boycotted race,” Petty said. “You have to go back a long way to find a comparable performance.”
In fact, Holden was the better of two ex-triathletes on the American time-trial team in the 20fi) Games; her silver trumped Lance Armstrong’s bronze.
According to Zijlaard’s husband Michael, *When Leontien first saw the course [in January], she said, ‘Oh shit! What is this for? For a race? How can they do this? They must have designed this forAnna Wilson.’ Then she went home and worked on her cornering.”
The winner apparently made peace with the many twists and turns of Sydney’s eastern suburbs. And, her husband added, his wife put little pressure on herself: “Before coming, she told me: ‘If I leave Sydney with one medal in my palm,I will be happy.”‘
Now, Zillaard’s three golds and one silver overshadows even Longo’s great Olympic career. The 41-year-old French champion has totaled one gold (1996 road race), two silvers (1990 time trial and 1992 road race) and one bronze (Sydney 2000 time trial). Of course, no one rules out a curtain call atAthens at age 45.
It was husband Zijlaard and star Dutch swimmer Inge de Brujin who helped Zijlaard keep her gold-medal focus. “I stayed with Inge in the Athletes’Village,” said Leontien. “And I saw her keep her focus with all the publicity. So I learned a lot.” Also, she wanted to party after her first gold, but Michael stopped her. “I told her, ‘You would regret it for the rest of your life that you partied now if others take your gold medals,”‘ said Michael. “You can party for three weeks when you get home.”