Chris Jongewaard took another step in his return to the highest level of mountain biking last weekend with victory in the cross country and short track events at the Australian MTB National Championships but admits there's a long way to go before he's ready to tackle next year's London Olympic Games.
Jongewaard has been in sensational form recently on both the road and the dirt and confirmed this with a dominant display to overcome adversity in the race and in his personal life since returning from a jail term last year.
The 31-year-old South Australian was sentenced to nine months in jail over a hit-run incident involving former Australian representative rider Matthew Rex in 2007, which left the latter with serious injuries and Jongewaard facing an extensive break on the sidelines of the sport.
And Jongewaard was quick to praise those who had helped him through the regrettable period in his life following his fifth national title last Friday. "For me, I guess I owe it to a lot of people who got me through the tough times and I owe this race to them," he said. "It's been a pretty rocky road but I've made my return and I'm enjoying the sport, so hopefully it's not too late to salvage something.
"Having a year off in the prime of my career is never the really the best thing for any athlete - I guess it's just how you deal with the situation, just trying to make a positive return."
The race was run in tough conditions, with heat and a technical course boasting mainly singletrack making life difficult for all but the strongest of riders; Jongewaard demolished the competition despite facing some extra obstacles on the day.
"It was pretty hot out there so it was just a matter of hanging in there," he explained. "My rear tyre went flat and I had problems at the start; I just tried to block it out.
"It was rough out there and I must have just hit a rock and came in [to the pits] with a flat tyre. I was probably a bit complacent until then and I think that actually kick-started my mental game."
Having put over 30 seconds into the field after the first lap, by the end of the second lap he had amassed a lead in excess of a minute; on lap three he punctured and was passed by Lachlan Norris and the experienced Sid Taberlay, who later encountered mechanical problems of his own.
"It made me try a bit harder and I found some good form and caught Lachie - from then on I really had to force my way through to get past him," said Jongewaard. "I went by him quite aggressively and we came together. I got past him and managed to get a little gap on him over the downhill and just secured it."
For Jongewaard, who rode the Commonwealth Games on home turf in 2006, the allure of an Olympic Games holds sway with the man whom many in the sport had dismissed following his indiscretion. Whilst a national championship is reward in itself, he's aware of the work required to make the team for London next year.
"It [a national championship] definitely lifts me in the eyes of the selectors - every athlete wants to go well at the national championships and everyone wants the jersey - it's the perfect opportunity for everyone to show what they've got," said Jongewaard.
"I guess it's the perfect springboard to the Olympics but I've got a long way to go and I'm not 'World Cup' fit - I'm 'Australian fit' so it's going to take a little bit more commitment and training to get my form to Olympic and World Cup level."
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