Making the US Olympic team was by no means a sure bet for Sam Schultz (Subaru-Trek). A pro mountain biker from Missoula, Montana, he will represent the United States for the first time at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. Ever since he made the US team, announced on June 15, Schultz has been amazed by the response to his selection.
"All the sudden, people who don't care about cycling can recognize what it is to be in the Olympics. They are showing their support and doing what they can to help me out," Schultz told Cyclingnews.
"It's pretty unreal the amount of support I've seen from Missoulans, Montanans and Americans. People are psyched and it's super motivating."
At the Windham round of the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in late June, Schultz had his best World Cup result yet, a 10th place. He said the career best performance changed his mindset.
"I've known I could ride up there for a long time, but it's just actually putting it together," said Schultz, who recalled that he'd come close to such a result once previously. "It was three or four years ago now, but at a World Cup in Bromont, I sort of had that same feeling. I was riding in fifth place with one or two laps to go, and I flatted out of the race. I feel like I've been there before and while nothing is that much different, all of the sudden I'm riding the same pace as those lead guys, and it just sort of clicks into gear.
"I don't know what brings it on - if it's a mindset thing or the training just comes together. I'm hoping it stays around and is not quite so elusive as it was many years ago."
Schultz also finished 15th at the Nove Mesto round of the World Cup in 2011. "I felt good there, and the gaps were small at that race. I was in a similar spot. It was easier to comprehend making it from 15th up two minutes to the podium- instead of being 15th and five minutes down. Fifty seconds over an hour or more of racing - I can find a way to whittle that down."
Step 1: Get on the team
Getting onto the US Olympic team was a multi-year process that culminated with four rounds of the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup this spring.
Schultz wasn't taking anything for granted. "It's always hard to tell far out, but I had a good feeling about making the team. It seems like I've been progressing from year to year, and I was hoping to keep that going. I was definitely super optimistic, but I obviously I didn't know anything for sure.
"The qualification process this spring changed up a lot of people's programs for the winter. I think it got in our heads a little bit. We all sort of over-prepared and under-performed at the start of the season."
Schultz was more motivated than ever, but found himself struggling with back pain early in the season. "That was an issue that derailed me for a little. I got that sorted out. I wasn't quite where I wanted to be, but compared to the other Americans, but I was sitting fairly well.
"Of course, that's not what you want. I was hoping we'd all come out and make the automatic qualifications like top 15 overall or top five in one of the first four World Cups. I came into it thinking that's what I'd have to do to make the team because all the guys would up their game. Obviously it didn't work out that way, but I held in there strong enough to make the spot."
Schultz and Todd Wells were selected as discretionary picks to represent the US in London.
Actually making the team has taken some of the pressure off. "I got the hurdle of the big mental block of making the team done with. And now it's just like instead of having that negative energy, I can focus on the event. It's hard when you're trying to put all your eggs in the basket of making the team.
"It does feel a little like the pressure is off. I like it when there is little to no expectation and I can just do my thing. This is when I do my best. Every year I figure it out and every year I forget it again. The more fun I'm having, the faster I'm riding, and then in general, everything is better."
Step 2: Ride fast in London
Schultz called the team selection process stressful and noted that it's probably not the healthiest way to go into the Olympics, but with that behind him, he's been enjoying his improving form and a focus on the Olympic mountain bike race on August 12.
"Now I'm feeling like I'm on a high and I'm hoping to stay up there and ride the support and see what I can do. My preparation is kind of race heavy, but I like that."
Following his success in Windham, Schultz won the US cross country national championship, upsetting defending champion Todd Wells, and then won his home round of the US Pro XCT in Missoula. Last weekend, he finished 35th at the final World Cup in Val d'Isere, and this week, he is training in southern Germany with his US Olympic teammates.
Schultz will arrive in London on Monday during the week prior to the Olympic race. "I rode the course last year after the Dalby World Cup. I know sort of what I'm getting into it. It's cool we'll be there for the week before to get it dialed.
"I haven't gotten much advice, but I've been hearing great things, and I'm getting super pumped up. It's a crazy experience. The biggest thing will be to stay focused and not let myself get distracted by how awesome it is. That's a good problem to have."
The men's Olympic mountain bike race does not occur until the end of the Games. "We're the last day, which is interesting, but it'll be good," he promised.