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Olympic Moments: 2000 - Nothstein, the last great American sprinter

With just 50 days until the start of the London 2012 Olympic Games, Cyclingnews continues its recap of some of the greatest moments in Olympic cycling history by taking you back to the Sydney Olympics of 2000, the site of the USA's last track gold medal winning performance.

At the same time Lance Armstrong began his domination of the Tour de France, another American was also at the top of the world of cycling: Marty Nothstein. While Armstrong enjoyed fame, notoriety and ultimately fortune, Nothstein achieved something Armstrong never did, winning Olympic gold. But he did it in the relatively obscure sport of track sprinting.

There is no equivalent of the grand tours in track cycling, there is only the Olympics. And few American riders have targeted the Olympics with the sense of singular purpose like Nothstein. From his first world championship titles in the sprint and keirin in 1994 through to his 2000 success, Nothstein channeled his competitive nature into a laser-sharp focus on Olympic gold.

After suffering a crushing defeat in Atlanta in 1996 at the hands of German Jens Fiedler in the gold medal sprint round, Nothstein pushed himself and his relationships to the brink over the next four years ahead of the Sydney Games, often training through the track World Cups and even World Championships in order to reach that one objective.

It worked: his performance in Sydney was flawless. After qualifying fastest he dispatched Fiedler in the semi-final and then went on to win in two straight matches over Frenchman Florian Rousseau. Nothstein writes about his journey to gold in his new memoir, The Price of Gold: The Toll and Triumph of One Man's Olympic Dream:

Excerpt from The Price of Gold:
Rousseau is a prodigy who fulfilled his promise and then some. He owns 10 Olympic and world championship medals, including a gold medal from these Games in the team sprint. In a country that's synonymous with cycling, Rousseau ranks as one of the most accomplished racers of all time.

And in the match sprint, Rousseau is a silent assassin. He isn't known for his tactical prowess or deft bike handling. He doesn't play games. He isn't an aggressor. I'm told he hates racing me because he doesn't like getting physical. Rousseau wins by riding faster over the last lap of a match sprint than anyone else in the world. To beat Rousseau, I must ride the fastest final 200 meters of my life - twice.

Many sprinters perform exaggerated mental preparations on the start line. With a series of heaving breaths and snorts, they transform themselves from mere competitors, into predators. Rousseau's routine is recognized worldwide. His porcelain-smooth skin draws tight across his face as he flares his nostrils and widens his eyes. He clenches his teeth as if he's ripping into a tough steak. Over a series of inhalations, Rousseau's eyes grow wider and wider, until they're nearly bulging from his skull.

Me, I look as if I couldn't care less. During the '99 season I completely changed my start line routine, a mental preparation similar to a pitcher's wind up, or a basketball player's movements on the free throw line. I don't strut and prance like a fighting cock thrown into a pit. I'm ready to throw down whenever, wherever. As Rousseau performs his interpretive dance on the start line, I sit stoically on my bike, a look of sincere boredom on my face. I take a handful of deep breaths, roll my shoulders, and stare off into space. I always make sure I'm the last rider to grab my handlebars.

I wait for Rousseau to reach down for his drops. Then I count backward for 10 seconds, 10, 9, 8,...before grabbing my own handlebars. I look over at Rousseau and stare him directly in the eye. Let's fucking race, I think. Rousseau grabs his handlebars. The official blows the whistle. You first, I think.

Rousseau rolls into the lead.

He rides at a measured pace at the bottom of the track. No games. No tricks. We'll just ride as fast as we can ride. I sit behind Rousseau, a bike length off his back wheel. One lap goes by, then two. The bell clangs. Rousseau rises from the saddle. I stand on my pedals. He's going now, and I'm coming.

I'm at Rousseau's wheel by the start of the second turn. I'm in his draft. One, two, three pedal strokes and I'm beside him. One, two, three pedal strokes and I'm a half-wheel in front of him. We enter the third turn, our thick arms braced against our bars, our legs firing with every muscle fiber we can muster.

We're riding for Olympic gold. I'm riding for my life.

From THE PRICE OF GOLD by Marty Nothstein with Ian Dille. Copyright © 2012 by Marty Nothstein and Ian Dille. Published by arrangement with Rodale, Inc.
Nothstein speaks of relief at having won the gold medal, of pressure lifted from his shoulders, but it was not until years later that he grasped the scope of his achievement.

"The Olympic year brings back great memories. Four years ago I was watching the Olympic Games with my kids and it finally hit me how big of an event it really is in the world of sports," Nothstein tells Cyclingnews from his chair as executive director of the Valley Preferred Cycling Center, his home velodrome in Pennsylvania.

"Up until that point I was in the moment, and as an athlete and in particular for me it was all about winning the Games. You never grasp how large it is. You know it's big, you know it's the Olympic Games, but to sit back on the couch and watch it, it just kind of struck me. And as my children got older they noticed: 'Dad, you were there, you won the Olympics'. At that point I realized this is a very special event."

Having retired from competition in 2005 after a not-so-successful attempt at a transition to road cycling, Nothstein now focuses his efforts on developing the next generation of track talent at the same venue where he once found the sport that was uniquely suited to his temperament.

Intensely driven, fiercely competitive, often dangerously aggressive, Nothstein also possessed the ability to thrive on pressure and reason through strategy while stoking the coals of his ever burning rage. His desire to be an Olympic gold medalist became so strong that Nothstein says if he had not won gold back then, he might be heading to London to try and win it 12 years later.

Failing to achieve that goal in 1996 was what drove Nothstein to train harder, push more weight in the gym and give up junk food to drop five kilograms in order to become quicker than his opponents. But the efforts also to depleted him to the extent that he had no energy for his wife and young family and, by his own admission, became barely tolerable to be around.

"In '96 I felt like I let a lot of people down: I let my mom and dad down, my wife and son down, my sponsors, USA Cycling. I let a lot of people down. That's why I was so driven to go back in four years and, I don't want to say redeem myself, but to get some payback. What started as a childhood dream quickly became a mission."

What the public saw following the sprint finals in Sydney was a huge, muscular American hoisting his small six-year-old son into his arms for a gold-medal victory lap, but until now few knew of the torment behind the triumph.

The struggles, the pain and the glory of winning the Olympic title are still fresh in his mind, however, and have now been recounted in frank and honest detail in his memoir.

"I'd tell stories of my struggles and how I got involved in cycling and my desire to win the gold medal. People were urging me to put it in writing. That's how it started," Nothstein said.

"Most people don't realize that the life of a cyclist, a track cyclist in particular, is lonely. There's a lot of blue collar grunt work that nobody gets to see.

"[People] don't realize how broken you were during your training times, how difficult the struggles were. You're beat up, you're tired, it's hard. Things aren't always good. That trickles down to your family as well. You miss their first day of school, their first steps, all sorts of stuff, all because of the desire and drive to win the Olympic gold medal.

"I've always viewed the Olympics as the biggest event of my life. Expecting it to be faster and harder than anything I'd ever done, and I prepared accordingly. I've heard athletes say they're going to treat it like any other event: no - this isn't just another event. This is THE event."

Today, Nothstein focuses on developing the next generation of track racers, including his son Tyler, but is disappointed that the USA's national federation has not done more to continue his legacy. This year, the country will send riders to just four events in the London Games but have little chance for a medal in the sprint.

"This year is a complete and utter embarrassment. End of story. To not even qualify a team sprint squad... personally I would classify it as embarrassing.

"America has always had a strong sprint presence at the Olympic Games, and the past couple of Olympics have not been very strong for us, and that's been worrisome. I really think we have some talented riders coming up and we need to continue with this strong tradition."

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Managing Editor

Laura Weislo has been with Cyclingnews since 2006 after making a switch from a career in science. As Managing Editor, she coordinates coverage for North American events and global news. As former elite-level road racer who dabbled in cyclo-cross and track, Laura has a passion for all three disciplines. When not working she likes to go camping and explore lesser traveled roads, paths and gravel tracks. Laura's beat is anti-doping, UCI governance and data analysis.