Portrait of a champion: Jennifer Valente’s Olympic gold is the product of bodily and mental strengths

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Amid the crashes and chaos, Jennifer Valente noticed a transparent path to Olympic gold.

American biking followers will all the time bear in mind the thrilling remaining bicycle race of the 2021 Olympics — the Factors Race leg of the ladies’s Omnium — because the historic coronation of Jennifer Valente. Over the course of 20 kilometers, Valente marked Japanese rider Yumi Kajihara; she monitored harmful strikes by Amalie Didericksen, Kirsten Wild, and others; and she or he even crashed to the wood boards and remounted her bicycle.

After 20 minutes of chaotic battling, Valente earned sufficient factors to say the gold medal and turn into America’s first feminine Olympic champion on the velodrome. The picture of Valente sitting on the velodrome, draped in an American flag, crying tears of pleasure grew to become the lasting picture of the 2021 Video games for U.S. biking.

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Within the days after the race, VeloNews spoke to Valente’s coaches, teammates, relations, and pals — in addition to to Valente herself — in regards to the milestone win. What emerged was the portrait of a victory that sprung each from Valente’s supreme pure items and her lengthy historical past within the sport, and in addition from particular parts of her character.

Valente battled for factors within the Elimination Race through the girls’s Omnium. Photograph: Greg Baker / AFP) (Photograph by GREG BAKER/AFP by way of Getty Pictures

“You’re frequently studying and enhancing, and the extra errors you make, you strive to not make them once more,” Valente informed VeloNews. “After which there are choices you may’t actually take into consideration — they should be made on intuition within the Omnium.”

Along with her win, and her new place in U.S. biking, Jennifer Valente is doubtlessly primed to steer girls’s monitor biking right into a daring new period. And Valente’s success on this new scenario might depend on a very totally different aspect of her character.

The pondering individual’s bike racer

The Olympic Omnium, with its arcane algorithm, and scoring sheet primarily based on 4 particular person occasions, seems to be custom-fit for Valente’s bodily and mental strengths. Riders compete in a Scratch Race, a Tempo Race, an Elimination Race, with their inserting in every including factors to their total complete.

Then, within the remaining occasion, the Factors Race, each level earned through the 20km race provides to that remaining complete. It’s an occasion that caters to endurance riders who may generate excessive energy for mid-race sprints, earlier than resting and recharging for the following occasion.

Valente has the perfect physiology for the repeated efforts, mentioned her longtime coach, Benjamin Sharp.

“She’s extremely robust and carries loads of muscle, and she or he’s capable of make the most of that,” Sharp mentioned. “She has an incredible anaerobic capability and good repeatability. Her acceleration is phenomenal, whether or not seated or from standing, and few those who she’s racing with can match that fee of acceleration.”

Benjamin Sharp (left) congratulates Valente after her gold medal win. Photograph: Zhang Hongxiang/Xinhua by way of Getty Pictures

These bodily attributes, Sharp mentioned, stem partially from her lengthy historical past with the Group Pursuit, the place the trouble requires riders to speed up to breakneck velocity, keep a punishing tempo, after which slot again into the group, earlier than repeating it once more. Legs and lungs apart, Valente additionally has a character and racing mind that’s {custom} match for the mathematical problem posed by the Omnium and its factors chase.

Those that know Valente finest use related phrases when describing her character. She’s analytic, inquisitive, and very smart.

“Even when she’s ordering tacos, Jenn is analyzing stuff,” mentioned Chloé Dygert in 2017. “Jenn thinks like an engineer thinks.”

Certainly, Valente is pursuing a level in Mechanical Engineering from the College of Colorado, and in dialog, she speaks with a literal and virtually mathematical view on conditions — that’s, when she speaks in any respect. Valente can come throughout as understated and even shy in social conditions. Those that know her finest stress that, behind that quiet demeanor, there may be an observant and curious mind that’s all the time absorbing and calculating data.

“She may be very observant and she or he research each scenario she’s in,” Sharp mentioned. “She calculates. She is aware of the principles. She is aware of the factors. She’s analytic and can examine each scenario because it evolves to see the place she will be able to win.”

“She’s essentially the most knowledgeable individual I do know,” mentioned teammate Emma White. “I don’t know the place she will get all of her data, however she is aware of every little thing about, um, effectively, something.”

Outsprinting rival and favourite Laura Kenny, Jennifer was capable of take factors within the remaining race. Photograph: Casey Gibson

Studying monitor biking’s technique has taken years, but Valente’s analytic character has been current for her complete life. Tom Valente, her father, mentioned that the unaccustomed usually mistake Jennifer’s quiet nature together with her being shy or uninterested. That’s not the case. Valente is just taking in every little thing she sees and hears.

“She retains her playing cards near the vest,” Tom Valente mentioned. “That’s who she is. It might come throughout as shy and unassuming. Let me inform you, she’s analytical, and actually a pondering individual’s bike racer.”

Throughout a monitor race, these calculations happen in break up seconds. All through the Olympic Omnium, Valente’s tactical choices had been usually overshadowed by the whirring of wheels and motion of the digicam. But many times all through the occasion, Valente made the proper choices, although followers might have missed them.

Sharp factors to 2 particular moments that required her to make flash choices that finally received her gold. Within the first reminiscence, Valente held a lead within the total standings going into the Tempo Race, however early within the occasion, a harmful breakaway attacked, forcing Valente to determine whether or not to react or keep tucked within the area. She attacked.

“She made the very fast determination to bridge throughout, and that isn’t usually her fashion of driving — she tends to lurk within the background and take factors which might be simpler to get,” Sharp mentioned. “However prime riders went up the ‘street’ and she or he was capable of get throughout and take a lap with that group.”

Valente on the rail, adopted by Kajihara, at the beginning of the elimination race. Photograph: Casey Gibson

The following second of brilliance got here through the Factors Race, the place Valente wanted to shadow Kajihara, but additionally hold tabs on half a dozen riders who had been inside putting distance of her lead. One after the other, riders attacked into harmful breakaways, and Valente both put in effort or saved her legs within the area, primarily based on which riders made the strikes. She allowed nonthreatening riders to assault and freely gobble up factors, figuring out that it put her closest rivals in a deficit.

Had she attacked too quickly, Valente might have worn her legs out for Kajihara’s remaining dash. Had she sat again, Wild might have leapfrogged her within the factors standings.

“While you begin off, everyone seems to be a risk,” Sharp mentioned. “Jenn is aware of the factors unfold of the riders, and all rider’s strengths and weaknesses. She knew precisely what she wanted to do to achieve success.”

“Make no mistake,” Sharp added. “She’s a killer.”

Product of San Diego biking

Maybe the defining second of the Olympic Omnium got here lengthy earlier than Valente’s dogged chase within the Factors Race. Through the Onium’s opening occasion, the Scratch Race, Valente discovered herself boxed in on the within with simply 4 laps remaining. Then, a lapse in focus and contact of wheels despatched 9 riders careening to the monitor at excessive speeds. In a fraction of a second Valente maneuvered onto the monitor’s black middle, then again onto the monitor.

Three laps later, she received the dash to take most factors within the first of 4 occasions.

Valente proper) earned a medal on the 2012 junior world monitor championships. Photograph: Teaukura Moetaua/Getty Pictures

Three thousand miles away, Tom Valente watched the race at his residence in Scripps Ranch, a bed room neighborhood northeast of San Diego, California. The crash and aftermath introduced again reminiscences of Jennifer’s experiences in San Diego’s topsy-turvy Fiesta Island bike races when she was a young person.

“It’s a mass-start factor and it may be pretty loopy; it’s all about energy and bike dealing with,” Tom Valente informed VeloNews. “Jenn would do the Tuesday evening races on the velodrome, then the Camp Pendleton Trip with me on Wednesday, after which Thursday evening was Fiesta Island.”

That intense three-day bloc of coaching and racing helped Valente forge the legs, lungs, and love of motorcycle racing as a young person — an age when younger cyclists usually uncover passions and pursuits outdoors the game. Valente caught with biking and credit the San Diego biking neighborhood for serving to her follow the game, and develop a love for bike racing.

“Not having such a aggressive setting from the start modified my outlook on the game,” Jennifer Valente mentioned. “The neighborhood and making it enjoyable — it appears like a cliché, as a result of individuals say ‘don’t overlook to have enjoyable,’ however chasing an Olympic dream is such a taxing factor to try this should you don’t have that basis in it, it’s actually laborious to proceed.”

Biking grew to become Valente’s favourite sport at age 12 after the household took what would turn into an annual summer time journey to Mammoth Lakes, California to trip mountain bikes. Inside a yr or so Jennifer was happening street rides together with her father, and at age 13 she began taking children lessons on the San Diego Velodrome, which has nurtured a junior racing neighborhood since its development within the late Seventies. There have been children races and instructors, in addition to the thriving Tuesday evening racing scene, the place elite riders mingled with newbies in a enjoyable and low-pressure setting.

“It was enjoyable and casual and everybody would exit for pizza afterwards,” Tom Valente mentioned. “She’d be down there selecting her personal gearing and altering her personal gears. I believe it was an vital scene for her.”

Valente blossomed early, and graduated from the beginner class into extra superior teams. An vital factor of the Tuesday Evening races was how athletes had been grouped by capacity and never by age or gender. Riders begin within the “D” class, after which work themselves as much as “A.” As a young person Valente usually battled with grownup women and men within the “A” class, and the experiences helped her develop the fast-twitch reactions and strategic mindset required for monitor racing. In junior races she usually confronted off in opposition to a handful of different teenaged ladies, however within the Tuesday evening velodrome occasions, Valente confronted riders at her stage.

Ralph Elliott, who has been concerned in San Diego’s biking neighborhood as an occasion organizer for years, was the race announcer for a lot of of Valente’s early occasions. After just a few years of racing, Elliott mentioned, Valente had turn into well-known for her skills to take care of the strongest riders on the monitor.

“Nothing was extra satisfying than watching her on the entrance of the A bunch driving a bunch of fellows off of her wheel,” Elliott mentioned. “They assume they’re scorching [stuff] and there may be this teenaged lady beating them. It was fairly spectacular. You possibly can see a star shine in a bunch like that.”

In highschool Valente juggled water polo with bike racing, however by 2011 and 2012 she started to indicate nationwide and worldwide success on the monitor and street. In 2011 she claimed two junior nationwide monitor titles, and the following yr she received the junior world title within the Scratch Race. These outcomes helped push her to pursue bike racing full-time, and Valente joined the then Twenty12 professional street group as a improvement rider.

Stress-free and preserving her legs up within the group pit, Jenn Valente preps for one in every of her many occasions. Photograph: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

One other factor of the monitor that helped push Valente ahead was her first coach, famed U.S. monitor racer Mark Whitehead. Referred to as a hothead throughout his personal professional profession, Whitehead was well-known for his booming voice and stern strategy as a coach.

Whitehead died from a coronary heart assault in 2013, and Elliott mentioned he noticed Whitehead’s no-nonsense strategy impression Valente all through her early years in monitor biking.

“I bear in mind he informed Jennifer that it doesn’t matter what number of occasions you fall down you may all the time get again up and nonetheless win,” Elliott mentioned. “I considered Mark once I watched her in Tokyo.”

The strict Whitehead, plus the inspiration she’d solid on the San Diego Velodrome, helped provoke a love for biking that grew to become invaluable in her later life. Professional biking arms out setbacks and disappointments to all elite racers, and essentially the most profitable ones are capable of navigate these moments to forge on. Valente mentioned that the love of biking she cultivated in San Diego has been invaluable in her profession.

Valente has stayed with the Twenty24 professional biking group since she joined the street program in 2011. Photograph: Hyoung Chang/MediaNews Group/The Denver Submit by way of Getty Pictures

“I believe as a junior, Mark Whitehead in addition to all of the individuals who helped me and had been round me as I used to be a junior coming into it,  of studying the entire technique of issues,” Valente mentioned. “Studying in regards to the monitor and the racing. Racing all types of races regionally — Factors Race, Keirins, sprinting, Scratch Races, and random stuff that occurs at native velodromes like snowball races and win-and-outs — studying work on my bike. All of these items had been a part of the journey. I believe that each one contributes to the gathering of information.”

A quiet chief with a rising platform

Olympic champions are uncommon in U.S. street and monitor biking, and the nation has topped simply two Olympic gold medalists prior to now 30 years. Each of these riders — Kristin Armstrong and Mary Nothstein — used their respective victories to construct platforms for themselves within the sport. Nothstein grew to become director of the Valley Most popular Velodrome in Trexlertown, earlier than working for public workplace in Pennsylvania. Armstrong has constructed a thriving nationwide teaching enterprise, and she or he’s a figurehead for youth well being and wellness in Idaho.

How will Valente use her platform? It’s a query that Valente admits she has but to totally think about.

Valente (proper) helped mentor Megan Jastrab within the Madison. Photograph: Sebastian Gollnow/image alliance by way of Getty Pictures

“It’s going to deserve loads of thought within the coming weeks and months,” Valente mentioned. “I haven’t had an opportunity to course of every little thing.”

Whereas the reply might take some time to come back, there are hints in Valente’s current previous that she has the private abilities and character to teach, direct, and assist others find out about monitor biking. From 2018 by 2021 Valente was integral within the rebuilding of the U.S. girls’s Group Pursuit squad, following the tragic loss of life of Kelly Catlin and the retirement of Sarah Hammer. Valente grew to become the captain of this system, and she or he used her years of expertise and confidence to nurture new riders Emma White, Lily Williams, and Megan Jastrab.

The proof of Valente’s management may be seen within the group’s outcomes. They received the world championships in 2020, after which captured Olympic bronze in 2021 regardless of not having competed for greater than a yr.

Gary Sutton, the group’s head coach, mentioned there have been parts of the occasion that even he struggled to get throughout to the riders. The steering required somebody on the group and contained in the occasion, and Valente took on that function.

Valente (far proper) helped lead Group USA to the world championships win in 2020. Photograph: Tim Goode/PA Pictures by way of Getty Pictures

“When individuals first come into this group, it’s actually tough. You’re feeling uncomfortable,” Sutton mentioned. “The strategy of Megan or Lily — once I first got here in, I simply shook my head. I’m not shaking my head now, and loads of that’s from [Jenn]. Her honesty with the group has stored this group collectively.”

White, who additionally joined the monitor group from street biking, mentioned she struggled with a number of parts of the Group Pursuit, from the trouble, to the exchanges. Valente was fast with suggestions, she mentioned, and her teaching fashion was direct and optimistic.

“The way in which she offers suggestions, it’s simple to latch onto it and she or he offers it in a approach that’s simple to take heed to,” White mentioned. “She’s been round. She’s been doing this since her junior days so I belief her utterly.”

Jastrab, who joined the squad when she was simply a young person, mentioned Valente’s management energy shone by in her self-confidence. Her steering helped Jastrab shrug off the stress of competing on the world stage in an occasion she had simply began.

“She’s all the time been so supportive of me, simply being like ‘you’re a superb rider, belief your self, don’t have doubts, and simply go race your bike — you recognize what you’re doing,’” Jastrab mentioned. “She’s shared so many ideas with me, too.”

Valente lives and trains in Colorado Springs, residence of the U.S. Olympic Coaching Middle. Photograph: Matthew Stockman/Getty Pictures

Jastrab and Valente had been paired with one another for the Olympic Madison occasion, and the juxtaposition of the 2 was evident early. Jastrab is a current junior world street biking champion, and she or he entered this system as a young person. Valente, a lifelong velodrome racer, is in her mid-20s. Nonetheless, Valente took Jastrab beneath her wing and gave her each tactical recommendation and emotional help as she discovered the occasion by trial and error.

“My first World Cup, I used to be so burdened,” Jastrab mentioned. “She’s like ‘nope, you recognize what you’re going to do? You don’t have to fret about something. We’re simply going to race our bikes and have a superb time.’ And we obtained on the rostrum. I used to be very nice to have that reassurance.”

It’s a top quality that’s not all the time present in prime champions, but it speaks to a component of Valente’s character that might present alternatives for her lengthy after her biking profession involves a detailed. At 26, Valente has loads of bike races left in her legs, and in three years she’s going to undoubtedly line as much as attempt to win the Olympic Omnium once more, and to assist energy the U.S. girls’s Group Pursuit squad to a different medal. However in 2024 one factor is certain to be totally different — the remainder of the world shall be watching her.

One factor is certain to be the identical in 2024: Jennifer Valente is certain to be the identical quiet, calculating, cool bike racer that she’s all the time been.