Truing Olympic cycling dreams

Publication Date: Friday Sep 22, 2000

Truing Olympic cycling dreams

Former Stanford athletes leave their running shoes behind and get into gear at the Sydney Games

by Molly Brizgys

Never in their wildest dreams did Derek Bouchard-Hall or Nicole Freedman expect to represent the United States in cycling at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. As a little girl, Freedman participated in a number of sports-- including tennis soccer, running and basketball--and she dreamed of being an Olympic basketball player. Later, as a 5-foot-2, 104-pound miler at MIT and Stanford, her dreams were of cross country and track.

Bouchard-Hall, also a former runner, never envisioned himself going to the Olympics. After all, until the last decade he didn't know what his event--the team pursuit--was or that it even existed.

Both Palo Alto residents, who were cycling teammates at Stanford in the mid 1990s, came to this sport later than most elite athletes and in a roundabout way. Now, however, both have Olympic goals of gold medals. Moreover, neither could never imagine life without a bicycle.

"I love cycling," said Freedman, 28. "Forty years down the road I will still be riding. It never seems like I'm going to train, I'm just going out to do what I love. As a kid, I had a bike and I loved cycling; it just took me longer than it takes most people to find my true love."

For the 30-year-old Bouchard-Hall, who also approached cycling after suffering a running injury, it's an equal love.

"I was plagued by injuries and tried cycling to let myself heal and to try something else," said Bouchard-Hall. "I enjoyed riding so much I have never left and I will never go back (to running)."

Like track and field, cycling has a wide range of events varying in speed, distance and terrain. Bouchard-Hall and Freedman are on opposite sides of the spectrum entering their respective competitions at the Games.

Freedman will be competing in the road race, a 79-mile event over rolling hills. Bouchard-Hall will be competing in the team pursuit, which takes place in a velodrome, a sort of slanted indoor track made especially for cycling. Four riders work as a team to cover 4 kilometers, each rider taking a turn to lead the pack for one lap. Think of it as a sort of 4x4 relay, if you will.

"It's a fast and dynamic race," said Bouchard-Hall. "The most important thing is to work together. One of the greatest things about the event is that it is a team event."

Bouchard-Hall, who now resides in Palo Alto with his wife, was not always a sprinter. He grew up in a suburb of Boston, Mass., and started cycling as a freshman at Princeton University in 1989. He came out West in 1992 to attend Stanford graduate school in Civil Engineering. It was at Stanford that his cycling really took off. He was named a collegiate road All-American in 1994, the same year he finished second at the National Collegiate Road Cycling Championships.

"I spent a lot more time cycling when I was at Stanford, probably more than I should have, academically speaking," said Bouchard-Hall, laughing.

He completed his masters degree and decided to risk it, taking one year to race full-time with no restrictions. That year turned into two and before Bouchard-Hall knew it, he had been racing for six years, full-time, and had landed a spot on the U.S. Olympic Cycling Team.

Along the way, Bouchard-Hall had been picked up by the professional team Mercury, which allowed him to both survive financially in Silicon Valley and train as much as he wanted. Over the years Bouchard-Hall continued to improve and managed to make the U.S. National Team in 1998-1999, win a gold medal in the Pan-American Games in 1999 in Team Pursuit and travel to the World Cycling Championships for the past three years.

"The first year went well and I got some interesting opportunities," said Bouchard-Hall. "And now, here I am today."

This year's Olympic dream is particularly special for Bouchard-Hall because he almost walked away from the sport in February.

For the past three years Bouchard-Hall had been experiencing a weakness in his left leg, especially when he would race or ride intensely. He consulted specialist after specialist but no one was able to give him a definitive answer as to what the problem was. Finally, after one of his teammates collapsed with a similar condition, Bouchard-Hall pinpointed his injury, stenosis of the external iliac artery. The artery in Bouchard-Hall's lower abdomen was being obstructed, cutting off circulation to his left leg once he reached a certain aerobic threshold. He faced surgery to correct the problem.

The success rate for the procedure (which involved entering his abdomen and grafting part of one artery onto the damaged one) was unknown and the recovery would be long and difficult. It was already January and the Olympics were less than nine months away.

"I almost decided to leave the sport," said Bouchard-Hall. "It made me look at cycling and what it really meant to me."

Bouchard-Hall decided to risk it and undergo the surgery, which was a huge success. Bouchard-Hall now has 75-80 percent strength in his leg as oppose to 30 percent before.

"I am a better cyclist now than I ever have been before," he said. "The surgery left me more committed, more serious and more motivated in addition to giving me strength in my left leg. I have learned how to compensate, how to adjust."

Freedman will be competing in the road race on Sept. 26 (the 25th in the U.S.) along with two other American athletes.

Unlike Bouchard-Hall, who was named to the team by a group of coaches and cycling officials, Freedman won the U.S. National Road Race Championship on May 20 in Jackson, Miss., which served as the U.S. Olympic trials. Freedman won the race, an automatic berth on the team and posted one of the biggest upsets in U.S. women's cycling history.

"I am still in disbelief; it was an amazing experience," said Freedman, who still seems to be glowing about the event. "I knew the coaches wouldn't choose me--I didn't have enough international experience or enough big wins. I had to win the trials to go. It was the ultimate achievement. I put everything I had into it. I knew I wasn't as strong or as athletically gifted as some of the other women, but putting all of myself into the race was enough."

Like Bouchard-Hall, Freedman also grew up back East, after being born in Wellesley, Mass. She spent two years at MIT, but transferred to Stanford where she competed a degree in Urban Planning. Like Bouchard-Hall, it was on the Farm where Freedman blossomed as a cyclist. The highlight of her collegiate career was also in 1994 when she captured first place at the National Collegiate Team Time Trial.

Freedman also risked it all the year after she graduated. After riding in the in The Race Across America (a six-day grueling race) with some of her Stanford teammates during the summer following her graduation, she decided that she wanted to race full time.

Freedman plugged away for five years, the first year being a bust ("I did terribly," said Freedman) but she improved incrementally (she managed to make the U.S. National Team in 1997 and has won first place in various domestic races in the subsequent years). Last year she was picked up by Team Charles Schwab, a team based in San Francisco that helped Freedman make the final push to the Olympics.

There was one small problem: money. Rents were soaring all across the Bay Area and Freedman knew she would only be able to work part-time at the most if she wanted to compete competitively. After all, in an average week Freedman spends over 20 hours on her bike, takes a nap each day and goes to bed around 8:30 p.m.--not your average dot.com lifestyle.

The industrious Freedman didn't let it stop her and she decided to move into her van, a 1978 Ford Econoline, in order to save money. It is parked in a Palo Alto driveway, where she has lived since 1996.

"Believe me, it's not as fun now that I am 28," said Freedman.

Luckily for her, one of her roommates who lives in the house where her van is parked is away for the months of September and October, meaning Nicole was able to sleep inside during the days leading up to the Olympics.

"It's harder to sleep out there," said Freedman. "Its really nice I get to stay in the house before the Olympics so I can rest."

At the Olympics, Freedman isn't necessarily looking for a medal for herself.

"I want the U.S. to win a medal," she said." We are the underdogs, which is a good place to be. It gives us an advantage and freedom."

For Bouchard-Hall, he and his team are striving to be in medal contention.

"The time we want is a couple of seconds faster than we are right now but it's an attainable goal," said Bouchard-Hall. "The Europeans are the ones to beat as powerhouses Italy, Germany and France are favored to win."

Bouchard-Hall and Freedman are unanimous about one thing--the quality of training in the Bay Area.

"It's the best training in America" said Bouchard-Hall." The quality of the roads, the climbing, the climate. I always miss it when I am away."

Freedman agrees.

"I love being outdoors, and on my bike I get to see everywhere," said Freedman. "The Bay Area is the best terrain, it has so much open space, the coast is the ideal place for a workout, it's safe, the weather is great year long and there is a knowledgeable and able group of cyclists here."

Obviously, a perfect place for Olympic-caliber athletes. 

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