With the Tour de France finishing up this weekend, Only A Game was reminded of the story of a cyclist who received an unexpected push during a race. This piece originally aired on June 6, 2015. It's part of our ongoing series titled, "In Their Own Words."
Sometimes athletic drive comes not from a teammate or adoring fans, but from an opponent. That's what happened to Kathryn Bertine, a writer, filmmaker and professional cyclist.
"I should say that that order jumbles itself from time to time," Bertine told Only A Game's Karen Given. "Daily, actually."
In May of 2012, Bertine had just one job: to qualify for the London Olympics. That journey took her around the world to vie for Olympic qualifying points. Bertine was one of 82 women to compete in the Vuelta El Salvador, a grueling seven-day stage race. Only the top eight would get closer to their Olympic dreams.
We'll let Kathryn pick up the story from there…in her own words:
I had been in that realm of "OK, I made it to the professional level, maybe this is good enough." Sometimes when you make it to that level that you're trying to get to for so long, for a moment you pause and you say, "OK, breathe, I'm here." What really needs to happen in order to thrive is to say say, "OK, now that I am here, how can I make myself as an athlete better, faster, stronger?" Embracing that "maybe," like "Well, what happens if I try to push the envelope, what happens if I go beyond my comfort zone physically?" That was my "maybe." "Maybe if you do this, you'll get Olympic points and if you don't then you'll never know.
It really was this personal quest that I was on to get as close as I could to the Olympic Games. So it was imperative that I just kept trying and trying to get into the breakaway, which is what we call in cycling the lead group. For so many years I had been watching and learning and waiting to see what other cyclists were doing and maybe I'd try to react to their moves. And it dawned on me like, I can't do that anymore. Now I have to be the one that's making the moves and taking the chances. Am I going to, as we say, blow up and absolutely crack and have a terrible race, or am I going to fly?
I compare the peloton to being the lion and the breakaway to being the lamb. And the way that a peloton stalks its prey is deliberate and slow moving until the very last minute, until the pounce. It's vicious, and that's the beauty of it.
Maybe the lamb is the one with the guts. We always look at the lion as the king of the jungle, but sometimes the lambs do get away, as long as they are faster than other lambs, I suppose. I was at events in El Salvador at that time and later down into Venezuela. Very difficult race, seven-day stage race. The roads were not great, and the heat, we are talking 100-degree temperatures every day for upward of 60 to 100 miles, so really tough conditions and it was physically grueling. That was one of the hardest in my career.
You are just kind of on this trajectory backward and everybody else is moving forward. And you just kind of want to scream out, "No, wait for me!"Kathryn Bertine
I was in a sole break for a little while by myself. What happens as you can imagine is when you've got one person alone in the wind that's just exhausting after awhile. So I started to fade and fade and fade. And I was coming back into the grasp of the peloton. And I had tried so many counterattacks and tried doing that again and again and was just at the end of my rope physically.
It is so physically and mentally hard to watch the peloton ride away from the efforts that you just put in. You have done your best, you have tried your hardest and you are just completely physiologically out of energy. It's all been sapped from you, so you are just kind of on this trajectory backward, and everybody else is moving forward. And you just kind of want to scream out, "No, wait for me!"
And as I am kind of sailing back through the peloton, almost about to be spit out the back — and that would be the end of my day — I felt this hand on my back and in cycling that is regarded as a push. I couldn't imaging who this could be. Who would be helping me in this manner? Who is it that's trying to acknowledge that I have put down some good attacks and they don't want to see me fail?
And the hand belonged to a rider named Evelyn García, who is on the El Salvador national team. She probably weighs about 50 pounds less than me. She's this tiny, tiny rider. Sometimes a second or two is all you need in cycling. And it saved me. I think physically I was able to stay in the peloton but also emotionally, too. Kind of someone saying, "Hey, I recognize what you've done and I've got your back."
This push was a validation that I belonged in this level of cycling. That my goals were valid. And a validation that I had paid my dues to the sport also. I mean I had been in the sport for five years at that point, so to have somebody from a different culture, a different country, a different language give me that push felt like this validation of, "OK, we understand."
I did not qualify for the London Olympics, but that moment actually felt like my own personal London. A lot of athletes struggle with doubt at some point in their career. We doubt whether we're on the right path, whether we should have given up years ago, whether it still means anything to us. We all go through these growing pains in sport. And when someone else reaches out and does something, an act of kindness, it's pretty powerful.
For more on Bertine, check out her piece on ESPN.com, "So You Wanna Be An Olympian?"