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Staff sees promise in USA's Olympic track team

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Jimmy Watkins

Jimmy Watkins (Image credit: Casey B. Gibson / USA Cycling)
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Jimmy Watkins will represent the United States in the men's sprint at the London Olympic Games.

Jimmy Watkins will represent the United States in the men's sprint at the London Olympic Games. (Image credit: Brian Hodes / VeloImages)
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Jason Kenny, Jamie Staff and Chris Hoy celebrate team sprint gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics

Jason Kenny, Jamie Staff and Chris Hoy celebrate team sprint gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympics (Image credit: AFP)

Four years on from winning gold in Beijing as part of the British men's team sprint squad, Jamie Staff is back in London as a coach for the 2012 Olympic Games, and not for his country of birth but for his adopted one, the United States.

Staff took a position as Sprint Program Director with USA Cycling and has been working hard to improve the team ahead of the Games. Although the country failed to qualify in the team sprint due to a technical disqualification in the world championships, Staff is optimistic about the chances of his sole American pupil, Jimmy Watkins, in the individual sprint.

When he began with the program in 2010, Staff said he was hoping simply to qualify riders for London, with an eye to gaining experience for the team ahead of the 2016 Games in Rio.

However, Watkins has progressed quicker than expected. Although Staff sees his prospects of a medal as extremely remote, he expects that he will go farther than any male sprinter from the USA has gone since Marty Nothstein's gold medal in 2000.

In 2004, the USA had no individual male sprinters, and in Beijing, Michael Blatchford qualified in an unfortunate position and was eliminated in the first round by Frenchman Kevin Sireau. Staff hopes Watkins can get deeper into the competition.

"Jimmy Watkins broke the track record in Los Angeles two months ago. The guy is flying. He's an exceptional athlete. He did a 10.0 (for the 200m flying lap), which would have seeded him extremely high in the world championships or any World Cup, and that's a slow track. If he can come here with that kind of form, hopefully get through the jetlag and everything, there's a chance.

“Where six months ago I thought we were just coming here to participate, now I think he can get top six in the time trial. If he can do that, and then the competition starts - he doesn't have as much experience as some of the others - but hopefully he can fight his way into the competition to some degree. I'm not negative, I'm realistic. I don't think he'll get as far as the semi-finals, but if he can make the quarter that would be amazing. I'd be really happy and I know he would be too."

Part of the reason for Watkins' good prospects is the new qualifications scheme drawn up by the UCI whereby each nation can only enter one rider in the sprint. That means that the powerhouse nations such as Great Britain, Germany, France and Australia, who have dominated in the sport in recent years with multiple riders, can now only choose one entrant. Even defending Olympic champion Chris Hoy will have to miss the event as the British federation decided that Jason Kenny was a better bet for the gold.

This means a field that is not nearly as deep as what one would see in a world championship or World Cup, raising prospects for riders like Watkins.

"He's definitely a lot better that the competitors here in the time trial, and hopefully he won't get one of the favorites in the first couple of rounds. At that point, once you're in the competition anything can happen, it's the Olympics. Some people can crack under pressure. I remain hopeful."

Watkins himself has been extremely pleased to make it to this level, and has been taking in the enormity of the Olympic experience ahead of the start of competition for him on Saturday.

"It is my first Olympics and it has been pretty cool just to see the magnitude of everything. You realize what it is to represent your country coming in here. You just have to focus on what you are doing and try not to change anything you’ve been doing the last four years."

"I was at the Pan Am Games last year, so it prepared me for what the life in the village would be like. It's pretty similar, but this is much bigger, much more grand."

He owes his success to the tutoring of Staff, who has helped to hone his training, technique and mental preparation for an event of this level.

"The past month I've made huge gains in my speed," he said. "Jamie's brought a lot of structure, and a foundation to a program that basically didn't exist before. It's a really great organization that could grow into something pretty grand compared with what we had a few years ago."

He also is going into the Games with conservative objectives. "My goal is to do my best time at sea level, wherever that puts me in qualifying. It could be top five. Then we'll see where I can go from there. It would definitely be a huge task. The Olympics is one of those events where the underdog can have an amazing ride, but it is going to be a huge task."

Laura Weislo has been with Cyclingnews since 2006 after making a switch from a career in science. As Deputy Editor, she coordinates coverage for North American events and global news. A swimmer in her younger days, Laura made the change to cycling later in life, but was immediately swept up by a huge passion for the sport. Riding for fitness quickly gave way to the competitive urge, and a decade of racing later she can look back on a number of high profile races and say with confidence, "I started". While her racing days are over for the most part, she continues to dabble in cyclo-cross and competing against fellow pathletes on the greenways of Raleigh, North Carolina.