Carmen Small had her Olympic dreams crushed for the second time in less than a month.
The veteran cyclist lost her arbitration case Wednesday for a spot on the four-member U.S. team headed for Rio, and will be forced to watch from the sidelines as the powerhouse women’s squad rides for gold.
Megan Guarnier was the only rider who earned a guaranteed spot on the squad by virtue of her bronze medal at the world championships. That left three discretionary picks that went to two-time and reigning Olympic time trial gold medalist Kristin Armstrong, veteran Evelyn Stevens and climbing specialist Mara Abbott. Amber Neben also lost her arbitration case.
The 36-year-old Small had argued that her handy victories over Armstrong and Stevens at the time trial national championships this year should have helped her earn a spot. She also highlighted the fact that she has been part of two world champion time trial teams and is a former world time trial bronze medalist.
“I am fighting this selection for the simple fact that all my involvement with USA Cycling and everything I’ve ever been told by them said race in Europe, do the big races, do the hard races and race against the best in the world,” Small wrote in a blog posting after her decision to seek arbitration.
“This year leading up to the Olympics I took that to heart.”
Small decided to campaign primarily in Europe against stiffer competition while Armstrong rode entirely in the U.S., and then beat both Armstrong and Stevens at nationals – an event that Abbott skipped entirely.
“Perhaps I should have stayed in the U.S. racing for a domestic team,” Small said. “I chose the harder path, the path that had the most potential for real-world outcomes in terms of fitness, results, competition.”
The arbitrator’s decision only considered results prior to the June 23 selection date, which means the strong ride by Stevens at the Giro Rosa – she won three stages, including the time trial – and Abbott’s stage victory at the same marquee women’s race did not factor into the decision.
In making her case, Small alluded to a potential conflict of interest involving Jim Miller, the USA Cycling executive in charge of the national teams. He happens to be Armstrong’s longtime personal coach, though he recused himself from the discussions that ultimately decided on the initial women’s roster for Rio.
This is not the first time USA Cycling’s selection criteria has been called into question. Last fall, an arbitrator decided just before the world championships in Virginia that Lauren Komanski had earned a spot ahead of Allie Dragoo, shuffling up the powerhouse U.S. team at the last minute.
USA Cycling chief executive Derek Bouchard-Hall has said that situation, along with the case involving Small, are reasons why there has been some discussion of bringing back an Olympic trials.
Armstrong, Stevens and Abbott certainly had cases for making the team.
Armstrong was second at the Tour of the Gila, won the Redlands Bicycle Classic and was second overall at the Tour of California. Stevens set the hour record earlier this year and is currently leading the prestigious Giro Rosa. Abbott has the skillset that perfectly suits the hilly course in Rio.
Then again, Small proved at the U.S. championships that she can handle humid, hilly time trial courses, and her track record has shown a willingness to help team leaders in the road race.
“If I didn’t believe I can make a difference in Rio,” Small wrote in her blog before the arbitrator’s decision, “I wouldn’t go through all of this stress, emotions and chaos.”
Friends set up a GoFundMe campaign to help Small raise money for the arbitration case. It raised nearly $15,000. Small estimated the case would cost her between 25- and 50-percent of her annual salary. Small and husband Benjamin Sonntag, a professional mountain biker, dipped into their savings fund to fight the legal battle. Sonntag said he wanted his wife to pursue every option so she wouldn’t regret not fighting in 10 years.
Small fought, but USA Cycling won.
The Durango Herald contributed to this report.