Jennie Reed returns to Olympic track in pursuit of medal
Kirkland resident Jennie Reed thought her days of Olympic competition were over after Beijing, but she was talked back into competing in the new event of three-woman team pursuit.
Special to The Seattle Times
Jennie ReedEvent: Track cycling — team pursuit
Key dates: Aug. 3, preliminaries; Aug. 4, final
Washington tie: Born in Bellevue, grew up in Kirkland, attended UW
Why we care: Coaxed from retirement, sprint specialist Reed switched to endurance-based team pursuit event. She expects to retire following these Olympics.
For a retired Olympic athlete, the signs you've truly moved on include: 1. Returning to college; 2. Coaching your sport; 3. Getting married.
By all counts, track cyclist Jennie Reed was there. After the 2008 Beijing Games, she was so there. Then, a year-and-a-half into the rest of her life, former Olympic teammate Sarah Hammer called.
The individual pursuit, where Hammer had won two world titles and finished fifth in the 2008 Olympics, was being eliminated from the Games starting in 2012. She wanted Reed to join her as part of the three-woman team pursuit, where a tightly bunched team works together to catch another squad in a three-kilometer (12-lap) race.
We need you, Hammer pleaded. We need your speed. We need your power.
Thing is, Reed had been a career individual sprinter, built for three laps at a time in head-to-head competition around a 250-meter banked oval. Strategy calls for only about 10 seconds of actual sprinting, usually at the end of each of 10 heats.
Team pursuit is more about teamwork and endurance. This wasn't just a return to the sport. It would be a return to a different type of racing, training, thinking.
Many factors weighed against a return. Reed was making progress at the University of Washington toward her degree in communications, work she had started in 1996 (yes, 1996).
She was enjoying coaching top local riders at her old stomping grounds, the Marymoor velodrome, where Reed had learned to ride without brakes and in tight quarters.
She learned well enough to win a 2008 world championship title in the keirin (group racing starting with a pace vehicle).
"In a standing start, to have someone in a (world champion's) rainbow jersey holding you is pretty exciting," said Wesley Pierce, an elite Seattle rider.
Best of all, she had met her future husband, Brandon Madden, through her sister at a Kirkland barbecue. They would marry in June 2011.
"I was in a really good, fun place in my life," said Reed, who had two top-10 Olympic finishes.
Reed honestly wasn't pining for an Olympic medal. She also had bad memories from Beijing, when she was ensnared in controversy. She and Hammer and two other U.S. cyclists were photographed on arrival at the airport wearing breathing masks, provided by the U.S. Olympic Committee, to filter the notoriously polluted Beijing air.
The USOC saw it as a public-relations disaster: Americans insulting their hosts. The cyclists were pressured, under threat of being sent home, to issue a public, written apology — one they said later they didn't even write.
A month later, the USOC admitted their mistake, and put in place a better system of independent athlete representation at the Games.
But the damage was done. Reed, an Olympic medal contender who had won world championship bronze the year before, contracted a bad respiratory infection. Sick and stressed, she felt flat and finished seventh.
"I'd be lying if I said it didn't" affect me, Reed said of the tumult.
Still, she didn't regret retiring. World championship gold had been the pinnacle for her.
"I felt like I had experienced everything," she said.
And yet, there was Hammer on the phone ...
"I started pacing up and down in my condo," Reed said, thinking, "Oh gosh, I thought I was done."
Just consider it, Hammer said. It took Reed about three months of careful deliberation. If she was in, she had to be all in. No backing out midway through.
You can figure the rest. Reed kept coaching but started working to get back in world-class shape, not an easy task. One day, she did a ride on the Burke-Gilman Trail, near 60 Acres park.
"It was probably the first time in my life where I thought, 'Oh my gosh. Is that what a normal person feels like when they bike ride?' " Reed said. "It was an hour. This is my usual recovery spin."
It helped that the team already had a sponsor, California doctor Brent Kay, through OUCH Pro Cycling. Reed is also sponsored by insurance company LifeWise of Washington.
Because of her prior achievements, USA Cycling invited her to a team pursuit training camp.
"I was getting lapped," Reed said. "Sarah was laughing."
Essentially, Reed, 34, had to remake herself. Training for the team pursuit meant finding the top speed you're capable of holding for more than three minutes. Think Usain Bolt having to race the mile.
Naturally muscular, endurance training changed her body. Next to her teammates, she still has the beefy look of a sprinter, but is smaller than she used to be, going from a 31 pant size to a 29, even though at 5-foot-7, 170 pounds she hasn't lost more than five pounds from her sprinter's weight.
Few, if any, elite cyclists have gone from sprint to team pursuit.
"Basically, it's very hard," said Jamie Staff, USA Cycling sprint director, who knows of only one other cyclist, Great Britain's Jason Queally, who has made the transition.
With her sprinter's muscle memory, Reed can provide a rocket boost that's uncommon among pursuiters. But the team has to use it wisely, making tactics paramount.
"Basically speaking, her battery has more power but drains more quickly," Staff said. "The girls take turns leading the team. Jennie will lead well but won't lead as long as some of her teammates. ... She may be able to pick the pace up from the rider who was leading before she gets her turn, but won't be able to go as long.
"The other girls are like a hybrid car and recharge well but don't have much power whereas Jennie is like a V6 — takes lots of fuel but is very powerful."
Four cyclists are named to the team, which can swap out riders. Hammer, Reed and Dotsie Bausch won silver in the 2011 World Championships behind track-cycling power and host Great Britain. With Lauren Tamayo in place of Reed, the U.S. team took fifth at the 2012 worlds and set a world record in 2010.
The race for medals is wide open in women's team pursuit, making its Olympic debut in London, with New Zealand, Canada, Australia and Holland also in the mix.
Medal or no, after these Olympics, Reed is planning to settle down in Seattle with Madden, who lived with her the past few months of training in Mallorca, Spain, and will accompany her to London.
Plans are to start a family and retire for good this time, she said.
If so, she better turn off the phone.