Days after being left off the USA Cycling women’s road team for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Durango’s Carmen Small was still fighting back tears.
Four years of preparation suddenly felt meaningless. A 2016 season loaded with accomplishments, including a national championship in the time trial in May, made the snub hard to swallow.
“I’m really devastated,” Small said Saturday in an emotional phone interview with The Durango Herald. “All I can say is that I’m heartbroken.”
While Small is heartbroken, others are outraged. USA Cycling had four seats to award for Brazil. One was guaranteed to Megan Guarnier after she earned an automatic spot for placing third in the 2015 UCI Road World Championships. That left one spot for a road racer and two for the time trial, with both time trial riders required to also compete in the road race in Rio. USA Cycling made a strong selection in Evelyn Stevens, the new hour-record holder and second-ranked woman in the current UCI standings. She’s strong on the road and in the time trial, and the selection committee certainly couldn’t ignore her.
But the selections of Mara Abbott of Boulder and 42-year-old, two-time defending Olympic time trial gold medalist Kristin Armstrong of Idaho ahead of the national time trial champion are puzzling. Abbott skipped the national championships in favor of competing in Durango at the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, winning her record sixth road race that weekend. There is no denying the 30-year-old’s climbing ability, and the Rio course is said to be full of big climbs. Still, Abbott is only the 11th-ranked American cyclist in the UCI standings.
It’s the selection of Armstrong that raises the most eyebrows. Though she is the two-time defending Olympic gold medalist in the time trial, Armstrong is coming off her second retirement stint, and Small dominated her at the USA Cycling Road National Championships in May in North Carolina. Small finished 1 minute, 8 seconds ahead of her in the time trial and finished sixth in the road race while Armstrong struggled to 16th.
Instead of awarding Small with her first Olympic performance for earning the “Stars and Stripes” jersey in May to back up several strong showings in Europe this spring, the committee, led by Armstrong’s longtime coach Jim Miller, gave Armstrong her fourth Olympic trip.
“We do this every Olympics, I think, where you leave someone home or off the (time trial) team capable of challenging. That’s not new,” Miller told The Associated Press Thursday after selections were announced a day earlier than scheduled. “It just shows you how deep the talent pool is for the women’s team.”
Though the talent pool may be deep, Miller and the selection committee showed they are not. Miller said he excuses himself from the women’s selection committee because of his affiliation with Armstrong, but how likely is it that the rest of the committee would go against the wishes of their boss and vice president of USA Cycling?
“It is (a conflict of interest), and, to be honest, I recuse myself from all women’s road and time trial selections outside of sending the call and sending information to the selection committee and setting up the call,” Miller told CyclingTips.com. “I am not a voting member of the selection committee.”
The clear favoritism showed to Armstrong ahead of Small by Miller and the committee is a black eye to the American team and dream. Those who work hard and perform the best are supposed to be rewarded.
Results in head-to-head competition are supposed to matter. Trials are held in sports such as gymnastics, swimming and track and field, among many others. Though there are no true cycling trials, and the sport follows a bullet-by-bullet selection criteria, it’s a shame head-to-head results in the national championships are not weighed more heavily in the committee’s eyes.
At 36-years-old, this was likely Small’s last shot at earning a trip to the Olympics. A younger generation of cyclists are coming into their own, and Small enjoys cheering them all on. It’s too bad they won’t be able to support her in August.
Small does have an option to appeal. When asked if she would take that route, Small said, “I’m sorry. I have no idea what I am doing.”
Not only did USA Cycling show young cyclists that head-to-head results do not matter, it sent another alarming message when the men’s mountain biking team was announced. Durango’s 23-year-old sensation Howard Grotts earned the only open seat for this year’s Olympics, giving Durango a rider in four consecutive Games after Todd Wells earned three trips.
The selection process was extremely close, but Grotts’ results made him a clear selection ahead of Stephen Ettinger and Russel Finsterwald.
However, USA Cycling sent a realistic but discouraging message to Grotts long before he even arrives in South America.
“After extensive review of both Howard and Stephen Ettinger’s international results over the past two years, the USAC Selection Committee decided that Howard has more potential as a future medal winner at an Olympic Games and/or World Championships,” USA Cycling Mountain Bike & Cyclo-Cross Program Director Marc Gullickson said in an email to the Herald. “The Selection Committee deemed that neither rider was Medal Capable for this Olympics in Rio.”
Though it is unlikely Grotts will get on the podium for a national team that has struggled internationally in recent years, how do you tell someone who has worked their entire life to become an Olympian that you don’t believe in their ability?
This message would have been better received post-Olympics, as USA Cycling could say how great the experience was for Grotts and how they hope it can propel him to medal contention in four years. Instead of embracing him as an underdog, they’re simply saying, ‘Hey, you’re the best we’ve got, but you’re not good enough.” How deflating.
Perhaps USA Cycling truly believes it has no chance of performing well at this Olympics, but the women’s team has the best shot of any to bring home a medal. Instead of sending its best riders, the Americans instead will watch the swan song of an aging former champion who has little chance of reclaiming past glory. It’s not only a gut shot for Small, but the other three American women whose team has been left weaker by this decision.
Small is heartbroken, the cycling community is angry, and USA Cycling should be embarrassed.
They got it wrong.