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The most decorated of U.S. women’s cyclists, Kristin Armstrong won a third consecutive Olympic time trial at Rio 2016, an achievement made all the more remarkable by the fact that she has twice retired from competitive cycling.
“I don’t have words to describe it,” said the USA’s Kristin Armstrong after becoming Olympic cycling’s oldest champion at 43 at Rio 2016. “When you’ve already been two times at the pinnacle of the sport, why risk coming back for the gold medal? The best answer I can give is that I can. Today the stars aligned.” Defying the rain and the steep climbs of the 29.7km Pontal course, the evergreen Armstrong produced a searing finish over the last five kilometres to clock a winning time of 44:26.42, five seconds clear of Russia’s Olga Zabelinskaya, with the Netherlands’ Anna van der Breggen a further six seconds back. “To hear the national anthem on the podium, that’s my favourite part of the Olympics,” said the American, who has savoured that experience on three occasions now.
The daughter of a U.S. Navy officer, Armstrong was born in Memphis, Tennessee, on 11 August 1973, and spent her childhood in California, North Carolina and Okinawa in Japan, where she attended high school. A proficient swimmer, Armstrong was a 17-year-old student at the University of Idaho when she began her sporting career as a junior Olympian. A formidable triathlete also, she competed in Ironman events before being forced to give up the sport altogether when she was diagnosed with osteoarthritis at the age of 27, at which point she turned to cycling as a form of therapy.
Specialising in road races, and the time trial in particular, Armstrong won her first world title in the event in Salzburg (AUT) in 2006. Two years later in Beijing she became the first American rider to win Olympic gold in the women’s time trial, beating Great Britain’s Emma Pooley to the gold by a margin of more than 25 seconds. After then winning a second world title in Mendrisio (SUI) in 2009, she announced her retirement retiring, at the age of 36, before giving birth to her son Lucas in September 2010. At the same time, she also completed her sports science degree at Idaho.
“I love cycling and I love competing. I told myself from the beginning if everything went smoothly with the birth of our son, I would consider racing again,” explained Armstrong on returning to competitive cycling in 2011 with a view to defending her Olympic time trial title in London a year later. And defend it she did, at the age of nearly 39, completing the 29km Hampton Court course in an average speed of 46.3 km/h and finishing over 15 seconds clear of Germany’s Judith Arndt to win a second consecutive gold. Then, for the second time in her career, she retired again.
In April 2015, the two-time Olympic champion announced her second comeback before winning a fourth national time trial crown the following month. In making her third Olympic appearance at Rio, Armstrong secured a third straight gold in her favourite event, a feat that had her choking back the tears at the finish line. She was joined there by her son Lucas, who according to his mother asked: “Why are you crying? You won.” Giving her response, the three-time champion said: “That’s a great question from a five-year-old. That’s what we do, we cry when we’re happy. I’m going to have to explain that one to him a little later.”