LONDON - Unlike most athletes at the Olympics, Canadian cyclist Tara Whitten is going home with a medal. But her weekend bronze in the team pursuit was forgotten Tuesday in the tears that flowed after her fourth-place finish in the omnium.
The 32-year-old from Edmonton, world champion in 2010 and 2011 in the demanding six-event discipline, rode off the track and sought refuge with Canadian coach Tanya Dubnicoff on the infield of the Olympic Velodrome. The rider leaned against Dubnicoff, her head bowed, then eventually straightened up and dried her eyes.
There were more tears as she met with the media in the bowels of the arena.
Years of devoting her life to her sport, putting everything else on hold, and not accomplishing her goal in her first Olympics had simply knocked the stuffing out of her.
Amidst sobs, she tried to put it all in perspective.
"I have no regrets," said Whitten, who had to pause several times to compose herself. "I've loved this journey. And I've experienced success and disappointment, and a bit of everything. I mean, that's part of sport.
"And I love the process of just trying to be at my best. It was an incredible experience. And I wouldn't trade it for anything."
Whitten tried to smile, but looked miserable as she tried to wipe the tears away with a towel. A Canadian team attache rubbed her shoulder in support.
"We all just want to do it so badly for Canada," she said, breaking down again.
Suffice to say, taking the positives out of this Olympic experience may take a while.
"I just gave it everything I had today and it just wasn't enough," said Whitten.
"It's pretty disappointing," she added, the words taking their time between sobs. "My main goal coming into this event was just have no regrets about my preparation and I really feel that even though it didn't go the way I wanted, Day 1 when I got on the start line, I felt I couldn't be more ready. I was excited to race, I was ready to race. My preparation had gone well, smoothly. I felt I was in the best shape of my life.
"So I can't really ask more than that to be at the Olympics."
You're disappointed now but aren't you thrilled to be going home with a bronze, a reporter asked.
"Thanks for saying that," said Whitten in what was a combination laugh-sob.
Laura Trott, a 20-year-old from Britain, won gold in the first ever Olympic omnium ahead of American Sarah Hammer. Australian Annette Edmondson took the bronze, effectively shoving Whitten off the podium.
A six-race discipline that takes two days to complete, a moment's hesitation can cripple your chances.
"In the mass start races, it's split-second decisions that you make," said Whitten. "The timed events, everyone's so close that it comes down to who really has it on the day."
Whitten, who is good on the endurance side of the sport but less so in the speed areas, lost valuable points in several races. And when push came to shove in the final 500-metre time trial, she was outmatched against Edmondson
Fourth coming into the day, Whitten moved into a tie for third with Edmondson after the individual pursuit. But the Australian won the scratch race, putting space between her and Whitten.
Whitten, whose bronze medal is hanging in her room in the athletes' village, was happy with all but the end of her scratch race. But in the final sprint, she was not in the best position and had to settle for sixth.
"I just didn't quite have the right wheel at the end," she said.
The seven-member Canadian track cycling team targeted two medals at the Games. They got one in the team pursuit, with Zach Bell finishing a disappointing eighth in the men's omnium.
"I've said all along we come here to get medals but we've also coming here to build programs for the future," said Canadian coach Richard Wooles, trying to see the glass half-full.
"So I think it's putting us in a good place. But obviously we're very disappointed and I'm really disappointed for Tara because when you look back on her history of results, it's phenomenal. And she's just come here and other people have raised the level up. And maybe we haven't raised it as much or as fast."
Whitten was also fourth at the test event here in February and the world championships in April.
Her success in track cycling has been remarkable, however, for someone who only made the switch full-time to cycling from cross-country skiing in 2008.
Whitten's meeting with the media was briefly interrupted when Edmondson stopped to wish her well.
"Good work, girl," said Edmondson. "I can't believe how many years you're still up there."
The Whitten era may be coming to a close. She has completed three years of her PhD in neuroscience at the University of Alberta, but put her studies on hold in the fall of 2010 to focus on the Olympics.
Her plan has always been to go back to her studies after the Games.
"Right now it's all a blur," she said.
"It might be the end," she said of cycling. "But I'm not sure."
The life of an elite athlete is unforgiving.
"I don't know if everybody really understands like how much of an all-consuming thing it is. I felt the last couple of years almost every waking moment I'm thinking about how to be better and how I can get an edge on my competition and how I can be at my personal best. It's every aspect of your life and it's an amazing thing.
"And it's also time for a break right now from all of that."
Wooles, who served as a volunteer coach last year, is trying to build a program and to find talent that can follow in Whitten's footsteps. While he points to young racers like Gillian Carleton and Jasmin Glaesser (the other two-thirds of the team pursuit medallists) and Monique Sullivan (sixth in the keirin), there is still plenty of work to do. This is a team that has to go to Los Angeles to train on the kind of 250-metre track it raced on here.
Whitten wasn't the only one to cry when it was all over. Wooles said he also shed tears with his star rider.
On Tuesday, Whitten was third in the three-kilometre individual pursuit, sixth in the 10-kilometre scratch race and 10th in the 500-metre time trial.
On Monday, the Canadian finished seventh in the flying lap, third in the points race and eighth in the elimination race.
Usually she is third to fifth in the flying lap. And a lapse in the elimination race cost her some valuable points.
"A moment's hesitation," Wooles said of the elimination race.
"Probably the one we didn't see coming," he added. "That was the one we kind of missed."
In 2011, when Whitten won the world title, she was second in the flying lap, eighth in the points race, fourth in the elimination race, second in the individual pursuit, second in the scratch race and fifth in the time trial.
The winner of each event gets one point, the runner-up two, and so on. The overall title goes to the rider with the fewest points after all six events.
Joseph Veloce, a 23-year-old from Fonthill, Ont., competing in his first Olympics, exited the keirin after finishing fourth in the repechage in a photo finish that saw a Chinese rider disqualified for not holding his line. Only the top three advanced.
"I felt like my legs were there today," said Veloce. "I just ultimately didn't have the tactics. I kind of got boxed in that last ride. Nowhere to go. So obviously that something I'm going to look to improve on in the next four years, just get some more keirins under my legs and get the tactics down."
The Canadian was fourth in his opening heat.
"I think he did himself justice," said Wooles.
Canada only gets one keirin spot at every World Cup race so there are limited opportunities. Veloce's last international keirin before these Games was in the fall.
"I watch a lot of videos, kind of picture what I would do in certain races. But other than that, you race maybe three, if you're lucky, keirins a year."
The Canadian team is growing, however, so there may be more opportunities in the future.
Britain dominated the Velodrome with seven gold, a silver and a bronze.