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Canadian cycling legend Pendrel reflects on highs and lows of Olympic career

·6 min read

IZU, Japan — Catharine Pendrel slowed to soak up the scenery as she pedalled toward the finish line — the journey's end of both a muddy women's mountain bike race, and an illustrious Olympic career that spanned four Games.

The 40-year-old Canadian cycling legend — and new mom — from Fredericton finished 18th on Tuesday in her Olympic finale, and moments after the race said there were nothing but positive thoughts.

"You soak up every Olympics, because you never know if you're going to get an opportunity to have another Olympics," Pendrel said. "But yeah, after the race, I was more nostalgic than other times, just getting to see the girls who had the races they dreamed of, the girls that had really big disappointments, and having experienced the highs and lows of Olympics before myself, and having that perspective to kind of be there for them."

Pendrel finished eight minutes and one second behind gold medallist Jolanda Neff of Switzerland. The Canadian waved to the fans lining the course down the final stretch — permitted amid the COVID-19 state of emergency because the event was 150 kilometres from Tokyo.

"I was just so appreciative of all the fans that have come out. It felt really special. This is the Olympics, they don’t happen that often, every country is a different experience ... and yeah, it was really, really awesome to see the emotion in their faces when we were coming in, and also just to soak it up," Pendrel said.

Switzerland swept the medal podium. Neff claimed the lead midway through the first lap and never relinquished it, covering the 20.55-kilometre course in one hour 14 minutes 56 seconds. Sina Frei was 1:11 back, while Linda Indergand crossed 1:19 back.

Haley Smith of Uxbridge, Ont., was 29th.

Pendrel got caught in traffic on the first lap, but made up ground the rest of the way.

"It was really hard to know what my expectations were coming in.... You can hope for a miracle. But this is just where I was able to get to six months after having a baby. And I’m proud of that," she said.

Pendrel made her Olympic debut back in 2008 in Beijing, finishing fourth. She arrived at the 2012 London Olympics as a favourite but faded to ninth, tearfully apologizing to fans back home. At the 2016 Rio Games, she crashed early in the race but fought her way back to win bronze.

Her presence at these Games was a victory in itself. The two-time world champion had planned to retire after the Tokyo Games. That is, in 2020. The one-year postponement, however, posed a tough question: retire or put off motherhood? She decided on neither.

Not wanting to risk waiting too long to start a family, she and husband Keith Wilson decided to try for a baby, and their daughter Dara was born on Jan. 26. Pendrel was back on the international cycling scene three months later.

Did she ever doubt she'd get back to the international level?

"Oh yeah, the first time I rode a bike outside again," she said with a laugh.

In the final weeks of her pregnancy, Pendrel was still training 13 to 15 hours a week, cross-country skiing and biking — down only slightly from what would be a normal 18 to 21 hours of winter training. She documented her pregnancy training progress on a blog.

She hopes her experience inspires other women, and is proud to be among the moms making headlines on Canada's Olympic team: boxer Mandy Bujold, who won her human rights case against the International Olympic Committee to fight in Tokyo, and basketball player Kim Gaucher, who fought to bring her daughter, whom she's still breastfeeding, to the Games.

"I've had so many women message me, women that would like to have children and women that do have children and recognize what it takes to get back to this level," Pendrel said. "There's not a lot of resources out there for women that do want to get back to — not even competing at a high level, but even just exercising at a high level.

"Having these really visible examples of what is possible is really inspiring, because you do get a lot of people coaching very, very conservative approaches. And I think (for) a lot of women, being athletic is a huge part of their identity, and having that permission to be who they are and who they want to be, as a mom, as they were before."

Smith credited Pendrel for helping her navigate her first Olympic Games, plus all the pandemic-fuelled uncertainty of the last 18 months.

"Catharine is obviously very, very special. She's an incredible athlete, a very, very kind and impressive human. Catharine has helped me manage (the pressure) as best I could, and I've learned so much from her. She's just the perfect teammate. I couldn't be more grateful that I got to experience this Olympics with her.

"It's pretty cool to be here with your idol. I'll just leave it at that."

Pendrel said she’ll close out the season before officially retiring. She has two World Cups, the world championships and the national championships still to race.

Torrential morning rain from a storm off Japan's east coast left the track a slippery, muddy mess Tuesday. It was evident from the first lap, when reigning world champion Pauline Ferrand-Prevot of France crashed at the top of a slick rock climb, then lost her footing — and her bike. Neff sailed by Ferrand-Prevot, who had to scramble down the rocks to retrieve her bike.

Neff led the rest of the way.

Course workers, with shovels and gravel, were still working on the track, creating new, safer lines, until 30 minutes before the start.

"They were literally recreating the course because of how muddy and unrideable it became with the amount of rain," Smith said. "It was definitely challenging to refocus, coming to the venue and seeing the communique that says, 'This course will be different. These are all the changes,' and not having had a chance to ride the new lines.

"So it was a curveball, a little bit of adversity that I was not expecting. I've never experienced that in mountain biking before. I struggled a little bit to refocus, but I did, and I rode cleanly."

Olympic organizers originally wanted to carve out a mountain bike course at Yumenoshima, a district in Tokyo, on an artificial island built upon landfill waste. The idea was scrapped for a multitude of reasons, including topography, and the site shifted 150 kilometres southwest of the Japanese capital to the heavily forested Shizuoka prefecture.

There, South African course designer Nick Flores, who also built the courses for the 2012 and 2016 Games, found a perfect canvas featuring dramatic elevation changes — 150 metres of elevation gain per lap — plus gnarly sections of root and rocks and plenty of problems for riders.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 27, 2021.

— with files from The Associated Press.

The Canadian Press

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