Learning from the best: Kristin Armstrong

Cyclist Kristin Armstrong won three Olympic Gold medals in the Time Trial in Beijing 2008, London 2012 and Rio 2016. After each Olympic Games she retired but came back 18 months before the next Olympics. Performance in Mind chatted to Kristin about her drive to keep coming back, the injuries that nearly scuppered her chances and how she now finally has closure.

Why did you retire the first time round?

The first time around I stopped because I wanted I wanted to have a family and I was 37 years old and I thought if I wanted to have a family I should get on with it.  [she gave birth to son Lucas in October 2010).

Why did you return after having your son?

I was active during my pregnancy. That competitiveness never really went away. I could play games indoors with my family and I still want to win. So, I’m pregnant, I’m on my bike and I had a text message from my coach. I was three weeks before delivering and you are just hot and you are disgusting and sick and he text me and said ‘22 months – wouldn’t that be an amazing goal.’ I said ‘what are you talking about.’ He said ‘London’. I am so pregnant and said back ‘are you kidding me – you should see what I look like right now. There is no way I’ll ever be able to compete again’.

After you have your child you feel like your life is out of control. It takes you a few weeks to even think you want to go for a walk or do anything physically cause you are so tired. A few weeks went by and I’m like ok I get this and then once you think you’ve figured it all out your baby changes again. Then my coach hit me with it again and said what do you think?  I’m thinking I need a goal. Even if it doesn’t work out I’ll have a goal and I need to start training again. My only goal for the first three months was fitness, it was just about being active. And I was like oh my gosh this is amazing.

So once that transition happened I remember everything changed. When I did get on my bike I was in a hurry to get home because I had this mum anxiety – I felt like after an hour I had to be home and whenever I went out for a ride I’d never felt this before but I was always looking around. I felt like a car was going to hit me or there was this whole thing around now I am finally responsible for something that isn’t myself and it was a little bit scary actually. I announced I was coming back in November and by January I had a lot of regrets. I wanted to quit. I don’t know why I had made the decision because I just felt so guilty. I had a discussion with my friend and ‘how do you work full time and get through this because I feel so guilty’. She said you just have to embrace mum guilt cause it is never going to go away. I don’t care what you do, you will always have mum guilt. You just have make sure when you are at home be present and spend quality time with your child and be really present with them. You still have to go after what you do want to go after and it is a really great example for your child because you have to work hard. That conversation really helped me and coming back after having a child was very different cause I would travel with the team but instead of having massage after a race I would breastfeed my son because I was racing on the road at six months so before I stopped breastfeeding him. I had my pack and play and my stroller. I always prioritised that I was a mum first and a cyclist second and when I go to do public speaking engagements I talk about how everyone felt sorry for me being a mum and I learnt it became my strength, my balance. Because when I got home from a really bad training day, or a race, your child is there smiling. And Lucas is like I don’t care what kind of day you’ve had, it never really mattered. So what it did was it kept me positive and it lifted me so those athletes who are completely embraced; they don’t work or volunteer; they don’t do anything else apart from their sport; if they have a bad day they dwell upon it and for me if I’ve had a bad day within two minutes of walking in the door I’m having a great day cause nothing matters but your child. Nothing. That was the cool power I had. Nothing really matters cause if cycling didn’t work out I had this amazing family. People who aren’t in that position, if cycling or sport doesn’t work out, they are stressed about what job they are going to have. The stress is enormous, so for me it felt like a secret weapon.

Why did you return for Rio?

I always got asked: ‘Why?’ You won Beijing. You won London. What more do you need in your life. Why would you even risk going after the pinnacle of sport and lose it’ (for they always say you are only as good as your last race) but in the moment that didn’t matter to me.

As a woman athlete you don’t make a lot of money, so I’ve always been an athlete that believed you have to prepare yourself for life after sport because any day you could be finished as an athlete. So I always used to work part time throughout my career and I was engaged in the communities I lived in. Prior to London I was working for a hospital here in the United States and right after I finished London I had a job offer from the hospital and I took it. I was so excited. Finally, normal life. I took the job and for the first year and a half I was in a position that challenged me every day and I could hardly come up for a breath. I had to have a couple of surgeries and after that my position changed within the health system and it got a little slower, I moved too quickly for the new department. My old department did it yesterday and my new department was like, let’s talk about it for a little while. I found that I wasn’t moving the dial I wasn’t reaching anything. I had a vision but I knew at the pace we were going I might not live to see the vision. And I knew in sport I’ve been trained, for every four years you are going to have some huge outcome and some little check marks along the way. I decided to start riding more. My old position my boss was so fast. My pace. Id be up super early and home late. I’m not saying that is healthy but for my personality and as a cyclist I’m so driven and competitive that as much as my mind thinks it would be nice to chill out and relax for a little while that is not who I am. So as much as I wasn’t being pushed enough. I didn’t feel like I was being stretched or challenged enough in life, relative to going to the Olympic games and what I realised was in the business world it is similar to the peloton in cycling you are surrounded by a lot of people who are still trying to find success in life and I found that while every day I was working I was in amongst individuals who had not yet found their success in life and they are always fighting for the credit and I’m like, I don’t really care about the credit. Let’s just do this. It can be your idea, lets go. I just wanted it done. Compared to this I realised being on my bike I found so much joy.

So I would go home and I would be thinking about what is a good answer about why am I doing this. I didn’t mind the question but on the flip side of the question I got ‘oh my god she’s a mum, she’s the flip side of 40, I can’t believe she is doing this. It is so selfish.’ So finally I just came out with ‘it is because I can. I’m healthy, I love to compete and I can still do it at a high level.’ I didn’t need to give any more answers.

I just felt I just need to ride my bike. I don’t mind the pain [she had had three hip procedures by this point]. I just need to ride my bike cause I’m going crazy now. So I started riding my bike. I went to my husband and said “I really miss having a goal. You know like marathon runners pick one of two goals in a year and they work full time. I’m not asking to quit my job or change our lives again but maybe if I chose nationals at the end of May that would be a good goal”

So, I trained for nationals and I win. And when you win nationals in America you qualify for Worlds. In all my years of competing, Worlds have never been in the United States. And it happens to be in Richmond, Virginia. So, I train and show up to Richmond and we have this deal. If I don’t get top three we are done. And I go to Richmond and I get fifth. But I say I am top American. I’m fifth, and I’m going back into athlete mode. I say to my husband ‘I’m fifth because I’m working full time. All it showed me is I’m trying to take short cuts and you know where short cuts take you – they never get you to the top. I’m working full time, I’m being a mum and I’m training half the time I was before and I got fifth.’

I came home from Richmond but by the second week of November I had spine surgery. I didn’t ride my bike again till January 1st 2016. Everyone around me was like ‘why are we going through this?’ But the more of a challenge in front of me, I just respond with more determination. So, January 1 I get on my bike and I train very very hard and I go very part time at my work. I go to Rio. I win. By barely anything, five seconds.

Do you have closure now?

How do you define closure? I don’t think you know what it is until you find it. So right now I’m coaching some of the top athletes in America, two of which I think can medal in Tokyo. That’s closure, I’m not coming back. I ride five days a week. I love riding my bike but the closure I have is that I can sit and love watching a race. I can coach somebody to become a gold medallist. Three years ago if someone had asked me if I was willing to coach somebody who could win a gold medal I don’t know if I was ready to pass it on. Now, as someone said last week, I can’t believe there is an international time trial in your home town that you are organising and you are not racing. Is that not tearing you apart?. I said ‘I have no desire’. And I define that as closure. I feel so fortunate. It is amazing. I love riding my bike but I have complete closure from competing. I’ve done everything. I have everything I have ever dreamed of in sport but it is a really cool feeling cause there is no unfinished business.

I can’t explain why closure didn’t come at two gold medals or after just going for London because after having a kid London was enough for me but it is hard to put my finger on why closure didn’t come and I had to keep going back other than the fact that I could do it and I had the drive. Someone did tell me is you are physically going to be able to do it as long as you want but once your mind goes and you don’t want to hurt every day and turn yourself inside out that is when you know you are done. To train for the Olympics or to be a professional cyclist your brain has to want to hurt every day.

I am starting to see with the athletes I coach it is not about whether they are going to do the physical workout, it is me saying ‘why don’t we work on hurting a little more today’. I have gotton more out of people I coach now because I’ve recognised that not everyone knows how to hurt. As a coach I’m trying to teach people how to hurt and it is ok.

Could the time out between each Olympics have helped you?

I always said my secret was my balance in being a mum but my other secret which I do laugh about is that each time I retired I gave my body a two year break. Think how hard it is to go inside out for four years, 365 days a year. It is incredibly tough on the mind and if we are saying the mind is what takes you to the top I also think back and for those last eight years I really only was on for four years because the other years I rode but it was not intervals or anything that killed my mind. It only helped my mind. And I recovered my body. For two years I was doing healthy exercise. I wonder what would it be like if endurance athletes did take an 18-24 month period where thy totally regrouped, refreshed and recovered and then went forward again. How much stronger would they be? I have always been intrigued by what did those breaks do for me.

 

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