After fighting to keep her spot in the US Olympic Team in arbitration, Mara Abbott proved that she was more than worthy of selection by leading the Olympic Games road race until 300m to go. That she was caught and out-sprinted for the medals by Anna van der Breggen (Netherlands), Emma Johansson (Sweden) and Elisa Longo Borghini (Italy) was an enormous blow for the Colorado native, but she kept her composure when faced with "stupid" questions from the media like "how does it feel to lose an Olympic medal on the line".
"I didn't believe it. I saw the 300m to go sign, and I thought 'holy shit - I mean oh my goodness - I can actually win this'. Then I looked under my shoulder and they were right there, and they passed me. There was a split second when I thought it and then... It feels awful, but at the same time you were supported by a team that worked so hard and did so well to give you a chance to win."
By "team", Abbott referred mainly to Kristin Armstrong. Both riders fought in separate arbitrations to keep their spots on the Olympic team. Abbott won an appeal by sprinter Coryn Rivera. Carmen Small and Amber Neben lost an appeal to be on the team that might have eliminated Armstrong.
In the end, they were the two riders whose performances stood out the most in Rio, with Stevens and Guarnier held in reserve for tactics that never played out.
"A lot of credit has to go to Kristin Armstrong," Abbott said. "She did a whole team's worth of work at the beginning of this race. She got in the breakaway, she helped me get in a good position, she was always there. She's an incredible leader for all of us. I think we look at her Olympic record - she already has two gold medals, and I can't say enough about the experience of being able to ride with her."
Of her other two teammates, Megan Guarnier - the number one ranked rider in the world - and Evelyn Stevens, Abbott said they were "with me the whole time".
"I admired the way they worked together as a team, and was humbled to be a part of that today."
While Abbott put on a strong face for the media, Armstrong was more emotional for her teammate and more defensive about her own role in the team.
"Mara ended up fourth after an amazing effort," she said. "I was hoping and praying [she] would make it to the line and win the gold. I can't imagine being in her shoes right now. She's going to have a lot of sleepless nights. Fourth is the hardest position. There's no re-do, it only happens every four years. This course was really special for her, there isn't usually a climb - and that's her speciality. She fought hard to be on the Olympic team and she made it. There wasn't one girl who didn't give everything. I felt like we gave everything for each other and we have to be proud of that."
Armstrong may have pulled out at the final feed zone at the base of the final climb, but said she had nothing left to give.
"I did everything, I got in a break, I chased everything. At the bottom of the climb, I was totally depleted. I was super satisfied... I actually pulled out at the bottom of the climb, that was the plan. I chased the break to the end, and in the feed zone, the coach asked me to pull out. It's only the second race I've pulled out of. I thought I was going to have a really hard time deciding if I should pull out or not. But there wasn't a second where I thought I could go any harder or any further."
Armstrong defended her inclusion in the team, acknowledging that before the race "there probably were some teammates of mine today that questioned my ability" to work for the team, "and there was definitely the public questioning my ability in the road race and whether or not I care.
"I hope that I don't have to say anything else anymore," Armstrong said. "It wasn't about proving myself, it was just doing what I do when I'm in this role."
Guarnier and Stevens rolled in for 11th and 12th, respectively. Stevens said Mara's ride was "pretty impressive".
"It's bad luck in a sense, but it's amazing she got that far," Stevens said. "We wanted something different, but that didn't happen. But I thought we raced as a team and we went out there and delivered. We went into this knowing Mara is the best climber in the world."
"The day had everything - rain, cobbles, wind, mountains, technical descents. You couldn't have asked for a more crazy, awesome course. Chapeau to Anna for winning, because I think it's the most all-around rider who won."