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 at all times keep in mind the thrilling ultimate 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 picket boards and remounted her bicycle.

After 20 minutes of chaotic battling, Valente earned sufficient factors to assert the gold medal and grow to be 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, members of the family, and mates — in addition to to Valente herself — concerning 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 ladies’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 attempt to not make them once more,” Valente informed VeloNews. “After which there are selections you’ll be able to’t actually take into consideration — they need to be made on intuition within the Omnium.”

Together with her win, and her new place in U.S. biking, Jennifer Valente is doubtlessly primed to guide ladies’s observe biking right into a daring new period. And Valente’s success on this new scenario might depend on a very completely different aspect of her character.

The considering particular person’s bike racer

The Olympic Omnium, with its arcane algorithm, and scoring sheet based mostly 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 putting in every including factors to their total complete.

Then, within the ultimate occasion, the Factors Race, each level earned through the 20km race provides to that ultimate 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, stated her longtime coach, Benjamin Sharp.

“She’s extremely robust and carries lots of muscle, and she or he’s in a position to make the most of that,” Sharp stated. “She has an amazing anaerobic capability and good repeatability. Her acceleration is phenomenal, whether or not seated or from standing, and few those that she’s racing with can match that price 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 stated, stem partially from her lengthy historical past with the Crew Pursuit, the place the hassle requires riders to speed up to breakneck velocity, preserve 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 greatest use comparable phrases when describing her character. She’s analytic, inquisitive, and very smart.

“Even when she’s ordering tacos, Jenn is analyzing stuff,” stated 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 nearly 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 greatest stress that, behind that quiet demeanor, there may be an observant and curious mind that’s at all times absorbing and calculating info.

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

“She’s essentially the most knowledgeable particular person I do know,” stated teammate Emma White. “I don’t know the place she will get all of her info, however she is aware of all the things about, um, effectively, something.”

Outsprinting rival and favourite Laura Kenny, Jennifer was in a position to take factors within the ultimate race. Photograph: Casey Gibson

Studying observe biking’s technique has taken years, but Valente’s analytic character has been current for her whole life. Tom Valente, her father, stated that the unaccustomed typically mistake Jennifer’s quiet nature together with her being shy or uninterested. That’s not the case. Valente is just taking in all the things she sees and hears.

“She retains her playing cards near the vest,” Tom Valente stated. “That’s who she is. It might come throughout as shy and unassuming. Let me let you know, she’s analytical, and actually a considering particular person’s bike racer.”

Throughout a observe race, these calculations happen in break up seconds. All through the Olympic Omnium, Valente’s tactical selections have been typically overshadowed by the whirring of wheels and motion of the digital camera. But repeatedly all through the occasion, Valente made the right selections, despite the fact that followers might have missed them.

Sharp factors to 2 particular moments that required her to make flash selections 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 subject. She attacked.

“She made the very fast determination to bridge throughout, and that isn’t usually her type of driving — she tends to lurk within the background and take factors which are simpler to get,” Sharp stated. “However high riders went up the ‘street’ and she or he was in a position to 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 in addition preserve tabs on half a dozen riders who have 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 subject, based mostly on which riders made the strikes. She allowed nonthreatening riders to assault and freely gobble up factors, understanding that it put her closest rivals in a deficit.

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

“Whenever you begin off, everyone seems to be a risk,” Sharp stated. “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 observe at excessive speeds. In a fraction of a second Valente maneuvered onto the observe’s black middle, then again onto the observe.

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 observe championships. Photograph: Teaukura Moetaua/Getty Pictures

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

“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 night time races on the velodrome, then the Camp Pendleton Journey with me on Wednesday, after which Thursday night time 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 youngster — an age when younger cyclists typically uncover passions and pursuits exterior 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 stated. “The neighborhood and making it enjoyable — it feels like a cliché, as a result of folks say ‘don’t overlook to have enjoyable,’ however chasing an Olympic dream is such a taxing factor to do this should you don’t have that basis in it, it’s actually exhausting to proceed.”

Biking grew to become Valente’s favourite sport at age 12 after the household took what would grow to be an annual summer season journey to Mammoth Lakes, California to journey mountain bikes. Inside a yr or so Jennifer was happening street rides together with her father, and at age 13 she began taking youngsters courses on the San Diego Velodrome, which has nurtured a junior racing neighborhood since its building within the late Seventies. There have been youngsters races and instructors, in addition to the thriving Tuesday night time 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 stated. “She’d be down there selecting her personal gearing and altering her personal gears. I believe it was an essential scene for her.”

Valente blossomed early, and graduated from the beginner class into extra superior teams. An essential ingredient of the Tuesday Evening races was how athletes have been grouped by potential and never by age or gender. Riders begin within the “D” class, after which work themselves as much as “A.” As a youngster Valente frequently 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 observe racing. In junior races she typically confronted off in opposition to a handful of different teenaged ladies, however within the Tuesday night time 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 a couple of years of racing, Elliott stated, Valente had grow to be well-known for her talents to deal with the strongest riders on the observe.

“Nothing was extra satisfying than watching her on the entrance of the A bunch driving a bunch of fellows off of her wheel,” Elliott stated. “They assume they’re scorching [stuff] and there may be this teenaged woman 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 point out nationwide and worldwide success on the observe and street. In 2011 she claimed two junior nationwide observe 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 staff as a growth rider.

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

One other ingredient of the observe that helped push Valente ahead was her first coach, famed U.S. observe racer Mark Whitehead. Generally known 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 stated he noticed Whitehead’s no-nonsense strategy impression Valente all through her early years in observe biking.

“I keep in mind he informed Jennifer that it doesn’t matter what number of instances you fall down you’ll be able to at all times get again up and nonetheless win,” Elliott stated. “I considered Mark once I watched her in Tokyo.”

The strict Whitehead, plus the muse 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 in a position to navigate these moments to forge on. Valente stated that the love of biking she cultivated in San Diego has been invaluable in her profession.

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

“I believe as a junior, Mark Whitehead in addition to all of the individuals who helped me and have been round me as I used to be a junior coming into it,  of studying the entire strategy of issues,” Valente stated. “Studying concerning the observe and the racing. Racing every kind 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 have been a part of the journey. I believe that every one contributes to the gathering of data.”

A quiet chief with a rising platform

Olympic champions are uncommon in U.S. street and observe biking, and the nation has topped simply two Olympic gold medalists previously 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 operating 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 completely take into account.

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

“It’s going to deserve lots of thought within the coming weeks and months,” Valente stated. “I haven’t had an opportunity to course of all the things.”

Whereas the reply might take some time to return, there are hints in Valente’s latest previous that she has the private expertise and character to educate, direct, and assist others find out about observe biking. From 2018 by way of 2021 Valente was integral within the rebuilding of the U.S. ladies’s Crew 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 staff’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 staff’s head coach, stated there have been parts of the occasion that even he struggled to get throughout to the riders. The steering required somebody on the staff and contained in the occasion, and Valente took on that function.

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

“When folks first come into this staff, it’s actually troublesome. You are feeling uncomfortable,” Sutton stated. “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 lots of that’s from [Jenn]. Her honesty with the staff has stored this staff collectively.”

White, who additionally joined the observe staff from street biking, stated she struggled with a number of parts of the Crew Pursuit, from the hassle, to the exchanges. Valente was fast with suggestions, she stated, and her teaching type was direct and optimistic.

“The best way she provides suggestions, it’s simple to latch onto it and she or he provides it in a manner that’s simple to take heed to,” White stated. “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 youngster, stated Valente’s management power shone by way of 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 at all times been so supportive of me, simply being like ‘you’re rider, belief your self, don’t have doubts, and simply go race your bike — you already know what you’re doing,’” Jastrab stated. “She’s shared so many suggestions with me, too.”

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

Jastrab and Valente have been paired with one another for the Olympic Madison occasion, and the juxtaposition of the 2 was evident early. Jastrab is a latest junior world street biking champion, and she or he entered this system as a youngster. Valente, a lifelong velodrome racer, is in her mid-20s. Nonetheless, Valente took Jastrab below her wing and gave her each tactical recommendation and emotional assist as she realized the occasion by way of trial and error.

“My first World Cup, I used to be so careworn,” Jastrab stated. “She’s like ‘nope, you already know what you’re going to do? You don’t have to fret about something. We’re simply going to race our bikes and have 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 at all times present in high champions, but it speaks to a component of Valente’s character that would 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 is going to undoubtedly line as much as try to win the Olympic Omnium once more, and to assist energy the U.S. ladies’s Crew Pursuit squad to a different medal. However in 2024 one factor is sure to be completely different — the remainder of the world might be watching her.

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