Kristin Armstrong hit back at critics who doubted USA Cycling's Selection Committee's decision to appoint her as a member of the four-woman team that represented Team USA in the women's road events at the Olympic Games in Rio. She lay all judgments to rest after winning her third consecutive gold medal in the time trial on Wednesday.
"I've had the hardest journey this Olympic Games that I've ever had," said Armstrong, who won gold medals in the time trial in 2008 Beijing and 2012 London, and returned to the sport from retirement in 2015 with a goal of winning a third in Rio.
The Selection Committee chose Armstrong and Evelyn Stevens, for both the time trial and the road race, along with Megan Guarnier and Mara Abbott for just the road race.
The decision to include Armstrong was heavily criticized. Some said she hadn't competed enough internationally within her less than two-year return to warrant a spot on the team. Others questioned her coach Jim Miller, who is also USA Cycling's vice president of athletics, weight in the team selection. Although he had recused himself from the process, there was still a question of bias since he developed the initial criteria. USA Cycling says it aims to revisit this issue along with providing clearer selection criteria in future. But some questioned whether she would selflessly work for her teammates in the road race given the time trial was held three days later, while others said that at the age of 42 she was too old.
There was also the fact that she was third in the US time trial championships behind winner Carmen Small and Amber Neben. Small and Neben challenged Armstrong's position on the team in a highly publicized arbitration, but their efforts to overturn the initial team selection were unsuccessful.
"Coming back within 18 months was difficult, and there was a lot of pressure," Armstrong said. "I didn't realize that third place [at the 2016 US time trial championships] was a really bad result for me – That's what everyone else thought at least. I had to win everything, and if I won, it wasn't by a big enough margin.
"It was really difficult. I felt like people were really hard on me.
"But I had a support team that believed in me, and I believed in myself. And I knew that I knew how to get it done on the day. I knew it. It was really hard, but that being said it was the most fun Olympic experience I've ever had - Maybe because it was so hard for many of us. It was hard for Evie, Mara and Megan, we had that in common, but we came together and the team was amazing. I'll always have these new relationships with women that I knew prior to this, but this week has been super special."
Confidence under rainy conditions
Armstrong played a big factor in the road race on Sunday, and did much of the domestique work so that Guarnier, Stevens and Abbott could focus on the final climb and a medal spot. Abbott was on her way to a gold medal, solo off the front, but was caught by a chase group of three with under 300 metres to go and was forced to settle for a heartbreaking fourth place. Anna van der Breggen took the gold medal for the Netherlands.
Armstrong said in a pre-time trial interview two days later that her efforts to help her teammates in the road race served as a good opener for the time trial.
It was a challenging time trial course, a 29.9km route on the Grumari Park circuit that featured in the road race, and it included steep climbs and a paved-over cobbled section. Everyone knew it would be tough but no one predicted the rainy conditions that appeared in the morning of the event, which made the course slick and even more technical.
"I looked out the window and thought 'oh my gosh.' We don't train really hard to wake up to pouring rain on the time trial bike, let alone on a technical course like this," Armstrong said. "I had a choice at that moment to either take it and get super nervous or I could take it and say, 'You know what, I've probably ridden my bike in the rain on the time trial bike more than any one out here.' So I kind of tricked my mind and gave myself confidence because everyone else had to go with this."
Armstrong went out strong and led at the first time check at the top of the Grumari climb, but by the second time check, she was 2.88 seconds behind Olga Zabelinskaya (Russia). Although Zubelinskaya continued to gain time on her rivals and finished with the new best time, it was Armstrong who stormed through the finish line with the fastest time of the day with 44:26.42.
Armstrong noted in her post-race interview that part of her motivation in the last half of the race was to win for compatriot Abbott. After finishing just out of the medals in the road race, Abbott continued to show her team support for Armstrong ahead of the time trial by leaving notes of inspiration for her in their athlete quarters.
"On the top of the second climb, I was down three seconds and my coach told me that we had some time to gain back. At about 5km to go, he said it's up to you what colour medal you want. I thought of my race on Sunday and I thought that I had to give it everything for my team and give it everything for Mara," Armstrong said.
"For the past 24 hours, Mara has been leaving me notes. I found one in my coffee cup yesterday telling me I'm a champion. I found another one on my brush. There was another one on my pillow and another one on my podium bag. The support she's turned around since her race on Sunday has been phenomenal and that is what a team is all about.
"I feel that we're all genuinely happy for one another and it's given me great pleasure to represent the team. I haven't experienced this in all of my years."