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 remaining 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 he or she even crashed to the picket boards and remounted her bicycle.

After 20 minutes of chaotic battling, Valente earned sufficient factors to say the gold medal and change into 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 buddies — in addition to to Valente herself — in regards to the milestone win. What emerged was the portrait of a victory that sprung each from Valente’s supreme pure presents and her lengthy historical past within the sport, and likewise from particular parts of her character.

Valente battled for factors within the Elimination Race through the girls’s Omnium. Picture: Greg Baker / AFP) (Picture by GREG BAKER/AFP through Getty Photos

“You’re regularly 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 may’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 probably primed to steer girls’s monitor biking right into a daring new period. And Valente’s success on this new state of affairs might depend on a very totally different aspect of her character.

The considering individual’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 general whole.

Then, within the remaining occasion, the Factors Race, each level earned through the 20km race provides to that remaining whole. It’s an occasion that caters to endurance riders who can even 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, mentioned her longtime coach, Benjamin Sharp.

“She’s extremely robust and carries a whole lot of muscle, and he or she’s in a position to make the most of that,” Sharp mentioned. “She has an amazing anaerobic capability and good repeatability. Her acceleration is phenomenal, whether or not seated or from standing, and few folks that she’s racing with can match that fee of acceleration.”

Benjamin Sharp (left) congratulates Valente after her gold medal win. Picture: Zhang Hongxiang/Xinhua through Getty Photos

These bodily attributes, Sharp mentioned, stem partly from her lengthy historical past with the Workforce Pursuit, the place the trouble requires riders to speed up to breakneck velocity, keep 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,” mentioned 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 virtually 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’s an observant and curious mind that’s at all times absorbing and calculating info.

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

“She’s essentially the most knowledgeable individual I do know,” mentioned teammate Emma White. “I don’t know the place she will get all of her info, however she is aware of every thing about, um, properly, something.”

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

Studying monitor biking’s technique has taken years, but Valente’s analytic character has been current for her complete life. Tom Valente, her father, mentioned that the unaccustomed typically mistake Jennifer’s quiet nature along with her being shy or uninterested. That’s not the case. Valente is just taking in every thing she sees and hears.

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

Throughout a monitor race, these calculations happen in cut up seconds. All through the Olympic Omnium, Valente’s tactical selections have been typically overshadowed by the whirring of wheels and motion of the digicam. But time and again all through the occasion, Valente made the right selections, although followers might have missed them.

Sharp factors to 2 particular moments that required her to make flash selections that in the end gained her gold. Within the first reminiscence, Valente held a lead within the general 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 area. She attacked.

“She made the very fast choice to bridge throughout, and that isn’t usually her type of using — she tends to lurk within the background and take factors which are simpler to get,” Sharp mentioned. “However high riders went up the ‘street’ and he or she 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. Picture: 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 area, based mostly on which riders made the strikes. She allowed nonthreatening riders to assault and freely gobble up factors, realizing that it put her closest rivals in a deficit.

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

“Once you begin off, everyone seems to be a menace,” Sharp mentioned. “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. In the course of 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 monitor at excessive speeds. In a fraction of a second Valente maneuvered onto the monitor’s black heart, then again onto the monitor.

Three laps later, she gained the dash to take most factors within the first of 4 occasions.

Valente proper) earned a medal on the 2012 junior world monitor championships. Picture: Teaukura Moetaua/Getty Photos

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

“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 Trip 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 motorbike racing as an adolescent — an age when younger cyclists typically uncover passions and pursuits outdoors the game. Valente caught with biking and credit the San Diego biking neighborhood for serving to her keep on with the game, and develop a love for bike racing.

“Not having such a aggressive atmosphere from the start modified my outlook on the game,” Jennifer Valente mentioned. “The neighborhood and making it enjoyable — it appears like a cliché, as a result of folks say ‘don’t neglect to have enjoyable,’ however chasing an Olympic dream is such a taxing factor to do this in the event you don’t have that basis in it, it’s actually arduous to proceed.”

Biking grew to become Valente’s favourite sport at age 12 after the household took what would change into an annual summer season journey to Mammoth Lakes, California to trip mountain bikes. Inside a 12 months or so Jennifer was occurring street rides along with her father, and at age 13 she began taking children courses on the San Diego Velodrome, which has nurtured a junior racing neighborhood since its development within the late Seventies. There have been children 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 atmosphere.

“It was enjoyable and casual and everybody would exit for pizza afterwards,” Tom Valente mentioned. “She’d be down there selecting her personal gearing and altering her personal gears. I feel it was an essential scene for her.”

Valente blossomed early, and graduated from the beginner class into extra superior teams. An essential aspect of the Tuesday Night time races was how athletes have been grouped by means and never by age or gender. Riders begin within the “D” class, after which work themselves as much as “A.” As an adolescent Valente recurrently 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 monitor racing. In junior races she typically confronted off towards a handful of different teenaged ladies, however within the Tuesday night time velodrome occasions, Valente confronted riders at her degree.

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 number of years of racing, Elliott mentioned, Valente had change into well-known for her talents to cope with the strongest riders on the monitor.

“Nothing was extra satisfying than watching her on the entrance of the A bunch using a bunch of men off of her wheel,” Elliott mentioned. “They assume they’re scorching [stuff] and there’s 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 indicate nationwide and worldwide success on the monitor and street. In 2011 she claimed two junior nationwide monitor titles, and the following 12 months she gained 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 group as a growth rider.

Stress-free and maintaining her legs up within the group pit, Jenn Valente preps for considered one of her many occasions. Picture: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

One other aspect of the monitor that helped push Valente ahead was her first coach, famed U.S. monitor racer Mark Whitehead. Referred to as a hothead throughout his personal professional profession, Whitehead was well-known for his booming voice and stern method as a coach.

Whitehead died from a coronary heart assault in 2013, and Elliott mentioned he noticed Whitehead’s no-nonsense method influence Valente all through her early years in monitor biking.

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

The strict Whitehead, plus the muse she’d cast on the San Diego Velodrome, helped provoke a love for biking that grew to become invaluable in her later life. Professional biking fingers 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 mentioned that the love of biking she cultivated in San Diego has been invaluable in her profession.

Valente has stayed with the Twenty24 professional biking group since she joined the street program in 2011. Picture: Hyoung Chang/MediaNews Group/The Denver Put up through Getty Photos

“I feel 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 technique of issues,” Valente mentioned. “Studying in regards to the monitor and the racing. Racing all types of races domestically — 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 feel that every one contributes to the gathering of information.”

A quiet chief with a rising platform

Olympic champions are uncommon in U.S. street and monitor biking, and the nation has topped simply two Olympic gold medalists prior to now 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 he or she’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. Picture: Sebastian Gollnow/image alliance through Getty Photos

“It’s going to deserve a whole lot of thought within the coming weeks and months,” Valente mentioned. “I haven’t had an opportunity to course of every thing.”

Whereas the reply might take some time to come back, there are hints in Valente’s latest previous that she has the private abilities and character to teach, direct, and assist others study monitor biking. From 2018 via 2021 Valente was integral within the rebuilding of the U.S. girls’s Workforce 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 he or she used her years of expertise and confidence to nurture new riders Emma White, Lily Williams, and Megan Jastrab.

The proof of Valente’s management might be seen within the group’s outcomes. They gained the world championships in 2020, after which captured Olympic bronze in 2021 regardless of not having competed for greater than a 12 months.

Gary Sutton, the group’s head coach, mentioned there have been parts of the occasion that even he struggled to get throughout to the riders. The steering required somebody on the group and contained in the occasion, and Valente took on that function.

Valente (far proper) helped lead Workforce USA to the world championships win in 2020. Picture: Tim Goode/PA Photos through Getty Photos

“When folks first come into this group, it’s actually troublesome. You’re feeling uncomfortable,” Sutton mentioned. “The strategy of Megan or Lily — after I first got here in, I simply shook my head. I’m not shaking my head now, and a whole lot of that’s from [Jenn]. Her honesty with the group has stored this group collectively.”

White, who additionally joined the monitor group from street biking, mentioned she struggled with a number of parts of the Workforce Pursuit, from the trouble, to the exchanges. Valente was fast with suggestions, she mentioned, and her teaching type was direct and constructive.

“The way in which she provides suggestions, it’s straightforward to latch onto it and he or she provides it in a method that’s straightforward to hearken to,” White mentioned. “She’s been round. She’s been doing this since her junior days so I belief her fully.”

Jastrab, who joined the squad when she was simply an adolescent, mentioned Valente’s management power shone via in her self-confidence. Her steering helped Jastrab shrug off the strain 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 a superb rider, belief your self, don’t have doubts, and simply go race your bike — you realize what you’re doing,’” Jastrab mentioned. “She’s shared so many ideas with me, too.”

Valente lives and trains in Colorado Springs, house of the U.S. Olympic Coaching Middle. Picture: Matthew Stockman/Getty Photos

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 he or she entered this system as an adolescent. 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 discovered the occasion via trial and error.

“My first World Cup, I used to be so confused,” Jastrab mentioned. “She’s like ‘nope, you realize what you’re going to do? You don’t have to fret about something. We’re simply going to race our bikes and have a superb time.’ And we bought on the rostrum. I used to be very nice to have that reassurance.”

It’s a high quality that’s not at all times present in high champions, but it speaks to a component of Valente’s character that might present alternatives for her lengthy after her biking profession involves an in depth. 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. girls’s Workforce Pursuit squad to a different medal. However in 2024 one factor is sure to be totally different — the remainder of the world can 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.