Elite cyclist Kathryn Bertine is writing about her quest to qualify for the 2012 London Games. In Part 11 of her series, Bertine, physically and emotionally drained after racing in South America, has something concrete to show for her efforts.
My friend Diane once suggested that I'm brave for following my Olympic dreams. "It takes guts to go all around the world and shoot for something so big with no guarantee you'll get it," she reasoned, citing my globetrotting quest to win Olympic qualification points for my cycling nation, St. Kitts and Nevis.
I laughed, and dismissed such "braveness" as nothing more than an inner passion to see how far I can go in this sport (and this life). I'm not brave, I thought to myself. Just determined. And a wee bit stubborn. But that was before my recent trip to Venezuela. I think I might be brave after all.
Olympic qualification points can only be gained at certain elite/pro level races hosted by the Union Cycliste Internationale, or UCI. To get into these races, a cyclist either needs a sanctioned UCI team or an invitation. So if I'm lucky enough to find a UCI team to let me guest ride, or garner a coveted invitation, I go wherever that race may be: Belgium, Holland, Colombia. After eight weeks competing in those countries this past spring, I gained incredible strength, power and speed but alas, no points.
Only the top eight racers get points and sometimes as many as 200 women show up to the races. Sometimes the number is less but the racers are no less vicious. In a pre-Olympic year, everyone wants points and there are no easy races. My best finish was 12th at the Pan Am Championships in Medellin, Colombia, last week.
Close, but there no points for closeness. Nor is there aspirin specific to this type of brain pain.
When I got the approval to race in Venezuela last weekend, I was thrilled albeit a little petrified. I'd have to go alone and rely on the Venezuelan Cycling Federation to pick me up, help me find housing and generally point me in the direction of the start lines for its two road race events. In other sports, being a pro athlete is seen as luxurious. Women's cycling, however, has a long way to go.
Venezuelans are kind, warm, wonderful people ... who speak very, very quickly. No one in the Venezuelan federation spoke English, but I had just enough high school Spanish left in my memory to communicate/pantomime (as long as the conversation stayed in the present tense and I asked them to speak "muy despacio"). I had been there in 2008 for some races. Perhaps they'd remember me, the girl representing "St. Kittens and Novice."
The journey started with two flights from Colombia and then a seven-hour car trip to a tiny, rural town south of Caracas. The man driving me was a stranger, the roads dim and harrowing in the darkness. Venezuelan highways are rather frightening, as lane lines and stop lights appear to be nothing more than decorative; tail lights are optional and overtaking trucks by crossing the center line is a common practice. Adding to this conundrum, the man driving me was texting, drowsy and constantly misplacing his glasses.
Diane's words echoed in my head. But the bravery, didn't really kick in till we got to Aricagua and I was dropped off at a motel at 11:30pm. There inebriated people stumbling in the hallway, my lock didn't work, the toilet needed to be manually filled with water before use, a bird living in the air conditioner sent twigs cascading onto my pillow and large patches of mold and paint chips blotched the ceiling.
"I think my hotel is nicer than yours," the federation man said, as he left me in the lobby and drove to the four-star hotel where the race directors were staying. Trying to save money, the federation is fond of booking athletes in separate accommodations. "Lock the door," he whispered.
As I lay in my hotel bed, it dawned on me it had been hours since I'd eaten -- and it would be a total of 17 hours of foodlessness before someone came to get me the next day. The paint chips began to look tasty. I refrained.
In my race the next day, I finished 11th -- just three spots away from gaining some qualification points. Tired, depleted and far from home, I began to question myself.
Was the dream really worth it? I'd been on this quest for nearly four years, now. All the difficult travel, all the time away from my husband, all the heartbreak of finishing close-but-no-cigar?
Points seemed impossible. The doubt that began to creep into my head couldn't be quieted. Sometimes believing in yourself is quite exhausting. Dogged by fatigue, my doubt and confidence battled it out:
I'm 36, enough already. You're racing stronger than ever.
This kind of racing is hard to do alone. It's harder to look back and wonder "what if?"
I used to go into every race thinking I had a chance, but now I don't know anymore. Then turn your brain off and listen to your body. It knows what to do.
I'm hungry. There's a dude selling empanadas on the street. Be brave.
The next day, on the start line of my final Venezuelan race, I decided it was time to stop believing and to start doing. I wasn't tired or sad or philosophical or optimistic.
I was pissed.
Doubt was getting on my nerves, and I had to do something about it. Wanting points wasn't enough. No one was going to hand them to me. No one else cared how much I traveled, how much I trained, how much I truly wanted to reach my goals. Enough with all this points wanting. It was time for points taking.
For the next two hours, I went after what I wanted with more confidence than any race I've had in the past. I attacked up hills, led on the descents, pushed the pace on the flats. My finish sprint is not my strongest discipline, so when the inevitable came, I dug deep into the SoulBowels -- that inner place where a cyclist's physical effort rattles their intestines and inner being -- and crossed the line in sixth place. My highest UCI finish.
After years of trying, I finally had points. Eight of them. Not enough to get "St. Kills and Navis" -- this year's creative translation -- a berth to the Games yet (that's a fluctuating number depending on the point totals of those who are ranked in the top 100), but I still have one more year of point collecting.
This is a very good start. Or perhaps, it's actually a very good end. The end of doubt, the restart of confidence and a continuation of bravery.
After all, my vision-impaired, textaholic Venezuelan driver and I still have a treacherous seven-hour drive back to the Caracas airport. Even that fear can't take away the joy of knowing I'm one step closer to London.