Riding for the United States, Willow Koerber was part of an exciting women's cross country race at the mountain bike world championships in Mont-Sainte-Anne, Quebec, Canada, this past weekend. Koerber rode to a bronze medal, her second in as many years at the Worlds. In 2009, her medal marked a breakout, career-best performance; in 2010, there was more pressure to excel.
"It was different," said Koerber of this year's experience at Worlds. "It wasn't like I was a complete underdog.
"I felt more stressed about it, but it's fine. I realize I can handle that stress now. When you really want to win, the least you can do is get third."
A slip and fall on the final half-lap of a 5.5-lap race nearly cost Koerber, who was then riding in second place, a podium place, but she rallied to make a gutsy, last-minute pass to move herself up from fourth to third.
"In the last half lap, we were all getting tired," said Koerber who was racing for second place with Catharine Pendrel (Canada) and Irina Kalentieva (Russia) while Poland's Maja Wloszczowska rode off the front solo.
"I felt like I was really exhausted," said Koerber. "I didn't mess up on the hard section of the downhill (with the rocky chute), I slipped and got stuck in the fencing at the top. 'I can't go into this flustered,' I had thought. You start to get dizzy out there when you're giving it your all. It's a good thing, but you have to be careful.
"When I fell, I was like 'oh crap, what's going on?' I only have one downhill and one uphill to go. I had felt comfortable riding down that rock shoot every time, and when no one was there, I was riding down the "A" line no problem. On the final lap, I chose the "B" line."
When Koerber fell, Pendrel passed her. It took Koerber a while to free up her pedal, which was caught on a wooden stake. Back on the bike, 2009 World Champion Kalentieva then managed to get around both of them as all three riders slipped and slid along the track.
But in racing the mental game is really important and Koerber decided she couldn't give up. "At first, I was kind of panicking because I'd lost the entire gap I'd worked so hard for," she said. "My boyfriend Myles was on the right and said 'don't give up on a medal'. I was almost in tears. I was like 'what just happened?' I think he could see the pain in my eyes and I fought as hard as I could."
An inspired Koerber turned the frustration into energy. "I pretended all the Canadians were cheering for me, and I put my life on the line for that pass. I'm not sure how I did it. I just got the fire from somewhere and saw red and attacked. It was close.
"I think you need to go into Worlds wanting to win," she said, "but third place is good, especially since I was fourth until the last few seconds."
Koerber went home with the bronze medal, adding to her fond memories of racing at Mont-Sainte-Anne. "Here was where I got my first World Cup podium in 2004."