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Inside the mind of a champion: A chat with Georgia Gould

A candid discussion about the struggles elite athletes face — “the longer you race, the more hard times you’re going to have”

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What is it that defines a champion? Is it winning the most important events in a given discipline? Does one major victory constitute a champion, or is this a quality that’s defined by an era of domination? Is the title something that lasts forever?

Furthermore, how much of it is mental, rather than physical?

By almost any account, Georgia Gould would qualify as a champion. She’s been crowned the national champion on five occasions — four national cross-country titles and one short-track cross-country title. She’s never been a world or Olympic champion, but she’s medaled at both.

Other accolades abound. Gould has never been a national cyclocross champion — she’s finished second three times behind 11-time winner Katie Compton — but she won the series title at the U.S. Grand Prix of Cyclocross on three occasions. She’s never won a World Cup, though she was well on her way to victory in Windham in 2012 when a late puncture took the air out of that dream and saw her Luna teammates pass her at the finish.

When it comes to the pantheon of the greatest American women cyclists — Compton, Dunlap, Armstrong, Hammer, Demet, Holden, Furtado, Carpenter, Twigg — few would argue that Gould’s name doesn’t belong.

Gould is in Colombia this week for the Continental Championships. A victory would pair nicely with the gold medal she earned at the 2007 Pan American Championships in Argentina.

After her victory at the Iceman Cometh, I called Gould and got a window into the mind of a champion, a candid discussion about the internal struggles that elite athletes face — even the best, and the most experienced. Even a champion.

From double bronze …

Gould was buzzing, fresh off winning Iceman in Michigan, three minutes ahead of Canadian Emily Batty (Trek Factory Racing). Unlike some cross-country events, Iceman is flat and fast, a tactical battle where pure power reigns supreme. Gould opened a gap in a muddy section and stayed clear to the finish, where she was greeted by a large crowd, a confetti cannon, and a bit later, a massive party. It was, Gould said, “an awesome way to end the season.”

The weekend before Iceman, Gould had raced three days of UCI cyclocross at the Cincy3 Cyclocross Festival, finishing fifth and eighth, and finally third in the Pan-American Continental Cyclocross Championship, behind Compton and Meredith Miller (Noosa). They were decent results, but she hadn’t managed a win.

In 2011, Gould won a national title, five Pro XCT events, and a medal at the Olympic test event. The 2012 season brought a national title, several World Cup podiums, and bronze medals at the Olympic and world championships. Coming off her best seasons to date, Gould had struggled in 2013 and 2014. Her 2013 had been, in her estimation, “sucky,” and 2014 had been only marginally better.

At age 34 (she’s 35 now), Gould spent the 2014 season considering walking away from the sport. After her disappointing 2013 campaign, she worked hard during the 2013-14 off-season, intent on early results — to undo the damage 2013 had done to her confidence. It didn’t happen.

“In 2013 I had no good results,” Gould explained. “I really struggled at the World Cups. By the end of 2013, I was so sucky, I was so disappointed, that by the time I got to the World Cup finals, I was not even excited to race. I couldn’t even get up for it. It was hard to get excited, just to be disappointed. I was just ground into the dirt. So I busted my ass over the winter, just really focused on my training. I wanted to come out to the early races on top form. I needed the confidence. I wanted to come out of the gates swinging. Even if that meant I was sucking in September, so be it. I needed that feeling, to be back on top.”

… To rock bottom

Gould started her 2014 season at the Mellow Johnny’s Classic in Dripping Springs, Texas. Though she finished third behind Luna teammates Katerina Nash and Catharine Pendrel, the result doesn’t tell the full story. From the gun, she was “dropped immediately.” She finished 4:28 off the winning pace.

“It was not what I was expecting,” she said.

The disappointment of her 2013 World Cup season, compounded by her inability to race at the front domestically, came to a boil for her two weeks later — March 15, 2014 — at the Bonelli Pro XCT race in San Dimas, California.

During the race, Gould said, she’d gone deep into a negative space, so much so that she was ready to quit and walk away.

“For a few reasons, I overdid it the week before the race,” she said. “In the race, I started thinking to myself, ‘This is no fun; this is miserable. I quit. I worked this hard, over the winter, and if this is how I’m racing, maybe I need to just stop.’”

She finished eighth, 5:09 behind teammate Katerina Nash; it was her worst finish in a domestic cross-country race in several years.

“Halfway through the race, I had checked out,” she said. “I was just riding around, and I hate that. It disrespects other people who are trying hard. I was embarrassed with myself. I started taking this asshole attitude, ‘Oh really, now she’s gonna pass me?’ The way I was reacting. It was so shitty. I don’t want to be that person. And I started thinking ‘Maybe this isn’t for me, if that’s how I’m going to be.’ It is an ego thing, not riding where you want to be riding. I had busted my ass, I had worked so hard, and it wasn’t just that I didn’t win — I wasn’t even in the race.”

Gould said the period following following the Bonelli race was among the toughest of her racing career, which began in 2004.

“I was super bummed after that race,” she said. “I talked to my brother on the phone, and I told him, ‘I think I’m just done. And he told me, ‘you need to get your shit together. You’re a professional. That’s your job, racing against people who are fired up. They’re fired up to race, and they’re fired up that they’re beating Georgia Gould. You need to get rid of your ego, and just race like you’re racing. So go and put one foot in front of the other, even if they are little steps.’”

It wasn’t what Gould had wanted to hear. “It wasn’t sympathy,” she said. “It was basically, ‘Take your big shit pile, turn it into a little shit pile, and then square your shit away.’”

Gould said the problems she was having at the domestic level in 2014 were only exacerbated when racing at the international level.

“I had lost my confidence,” she said. “I was questioning myself. ‘Do I still know how to do this? Maybe I used to be better at going hard, at digging deep … What’s the problem?’ At World Cups, other riders were super aggressive with me. Some riders were basically like, ‘Get out of my way! You’re not fast any more.’ It really affected my confidence, and at the end of 2013, I felt like what I needed was to have some good momentum — not continue spiraling with bad momentum.”

That didn’t happen, and Gould looked to her coach, Jim Lehman, for answers; they’d started working together midway through her dismal 2013 season. He recommended that she have her blood tested, which she did, four times — twice through mandatory UCI monitoring, and twice individually. There were no discernible indications of what might be wrong.

“Jim was like, ‘check your iron levels … what is wrong with you?’ When there is a whole season like that … you want to have some sort of explanation. When I looked at my power numbers, they were all good, and that was the hardest thing. I wish there was something to explain it away, like quitting gluten, or some issues with my iron, but it wasn’t that simple.”

While her 2013 season was, in her words, “sucky,” 2014 was not without its struggles. Sub-par international results continued, but she also had top-five finishes at four of the seven domestic Pro XCT events. Specifically, Gould took second at the national cross-country championship in July, just 15 seconds behind Lea Davison (Specialized). She followed that up with a pair of wins the following day in the Super-D and short-track cross-country races. She was, once again, a national champion.

“The first few World Cups of 2014, I didn’t do that well,” Gould said. “I came back to the States, and the Colorado Springs race was good for me, I almost won the cross-country race, but Katerina passed me on the last lap. I won the short-track cross-country race, that was my first win in a year or so. That was cool. I raced well tactically, and I was feeling good. [Cross-country] nationals went well. I didn’t win, but I didn’t lose by much.

“As for the World Cups … maybe being there, at the venue, for so long before racing, I think that might have hurt me more than helped me. The courses have jumps and stuff, and you want to have enough time to see it, but part of it might be that, by the time the race came around, I was just cracked. It was like, ‘If I have to ride this one section, one more time. … Honestly, I don’t know what the problem was. I would have a decent race in Vermont, racing against Lea and Katerina, and they were on the podium at World Cups, a week later. I don’t know what the disconnect was at World Cups. My results, on paper, weren’t where they could have been, but based on my training … I had some good training rides. I had confidence from my training, and that made the sting a little less from the race results.”

A different perspective

Last year, Gould started working with a sports psychologist from the U.S. Olympic Committee in Colorado Springs.

“He works with different athletes, so he brings a different perspective, from outside of cycling,” Gould said. “It’s useful, to have someone to talk to that is not following every race I’m in, or doesn’t know me so well. He can pick up on things, like what I first start talking about when we meet, or how I bring him up to speed on things. He’s an insightful guy. He’s really helpful. I was hoping he would tell me, ‘in the race, repeat this mantra …’ or something that might just flip the switch. But I’m realizing it’s not like that, it’s doing the best you can with what you’ve got.”

When I spoke with Gould in November, her mood was reflective, but positive. She’d just won Iceman, she’d placed fifth at Cross Vegas, and she’d had good cyclocross races in Boulder and Madison, with podium finishes at both, though she didn’t register a win.

“My attitude was better at the end of season,” she said. “I just let go. I was not so wound up about my results. I had gotten myself so … After Bonelli, that was a sad time. I was not doing very well. It was good to pull through that.”

Heading into 2013, she’d done almost nothing, coming off an exhausting and successful 2012 campaign. Heading into 2014, she’d gone full-blast after a disappointing 2013 season. Heading into 2015, coming off an up-and-down season that had ended well, she basically did whatever she felt, whether that meant ripping singletrack, racing cyclocross, or riding motorcycles near her home in Fort Collins, Colorado. What she wasn’t doing was adhering to any sort of training schedule. It was unstructured, and it was working.

“I needed a mental break, as much as anything,” she said. “I can’t just repeat my 2011 or 2012 season in 2015. I’m not the same person. I’m not the same athlete, and really, the beginning of 2012 wasn’t awesome for me — I had a bad race in South Africa. It’s about not forcing it, or trying to recreate it. That won’t work for me. It’s about, ‘How can I be happy, and healthy, and hopefully make it to the Olympics, and hopefully win the damn gold medal this time?’

“One thing I’ve learned is that when I start doing things out of fear, or panic, that doesn’t do good things for me. At the Cross of the North [last October 12], I was racing with Katie Clouse. The week before, I had been riding motorcycles in the mountains, not training for bike racing at all. I made a last-minute decision to race, and suddenly this 13-year old is riding at the front with me, and challenging me … and I started thinking, ‘So a 13-year old is going to beat me?’ It was one of those things where no one really cares about how I do … unless I don’t win. But you know what? Good for her if she beats me. She’s racing on fire, and I’m racing out of fear. That can’t be my mindset. No anxiety, no fear … I mean, sooner or later, she is going to beat me. And I have to accept that.”

New year, new attitude

Gould traveled to Austin, Texas in January for the national cyclocross championship, finishing fourth. Her mountain bike season started on March 14, in Bonelli, where she’d bottomed out a year earlier. This time around, she finished third, 1:05 behind Batty and 27 seconds behind world champion Pendrel.

Had she erased the ghosts she’d left behind one year earlier at the San Dimas event?

“This year at Bonelli was pretty much diametrically the opposite,” she said. “I was comfortably riding with the top three, but then I crashed, and I had to stop in the tech zone. I basically took myself out of the running with one and a half laps to go; I lost contact with the top two riders. But I was feeling good, like I might do something to try to drop these guys. It was the feeling of being in control, versus at the mercy of everyone else. My confidence took such a blow in 2013 and 2014, I think I still need some more races to build that up. I’m comfortable in the lead group, but I’m not yet sure if I want to attack or try to hold on.”

On March 21 in Fontana, Gould finished second, nine seconds behind Nash. She’s currently in Cota, Colombia, at the Continental Championship. She’ll head home for a week, and then back to Bonelli, with, hopefully, an increasingly improved perspective.

Gould also knows that, ultimately, her time at the top cannot last forever. Her competitors are significantly younger. Two-time national champion Lea Davison, whose name may soon be on that list of all-time American women, is 31. Batty is just 26, and seems to get incrementally better each season. Soon enough, a phenom like Katie Clouse could become the next Juli Furtado. By the time the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics roll around, Gould will be 36 and will have been racing for 13 seasons. Asked if one more Olympic medal is the end goal, Gould said that, yes, for now, that was the farthest horizon she could see.

“My contract is through 2016,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll be racing World Cups after that. I don’t think I’ll just retire; I like racing too much. As far as being elite, at the World Cup level, that might be over. The Rio Olympics are still pretty far away. Oh God, that’s exhausting just to think about … It was such an amazing experience. I’d love to go again. But the way I rode in 2013 and 2014, I just needed to get through the season. I’m trying not to think about the disconnect between where I want to be and where I am. I’m trying to not be so hard on myself, and hope that brings me incremental progress through the 2016 Games.

“I just need a few more races, to keep building on the start that I’ve had,” Gould continued. “Success, failure — it’s always a combination of things, all these little things. A lot of people think the pros have it all figured out, but that’s not always the case. Maybe some people have it all figured out, and if they do, they should let me know. Your body changes, the way you respond changes, your mental motivation changes. You have to be able to adapt to that, and the harder times, they make you reevaluate, why am I doing this? What is it that I’m getting out of this? Do I want to keep doing this? It makes you come to terms with all of that. And the longer you race, the more hard times you’re going to have.”

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.