Cycling Gold for Canada at 2004 Summer Games

By the time Lori-Ann Muenzer made it to the Olympic finals, her good-luck ritual had become such an elaborate dance that, if set to music, it could qualify for federal arts funding.

By the time Lori-Ann Muenzer made it to the Olympic finals, her good-luck ritual had become such an elaborate dance that, if set to music, it could qualify for federal arts funding. An intricate series of fist bumps, shoulder chucks and laying of hands built up over three days of competition, until all of the coaches and trainers and officials who hovered around Canada's lone track cyclist had a role. And as she teetered on the starting line, a 12-second sprint away from gold, one last refinement: the 38-year-old legal secretary from Edmonton reached down to the man steadying her bike - national team coach Eric Van den Eynde - and gently rubbed his Mr. Clean pate.

It worked. Muenzer powered past Tamilla Abassova of Russia, a woman 17 years her junior, at a speed of just over 59 km/h, to win Canada's first-ever cycling gold. Whether it was luck or simply the combination of her canny tactics and bulging thighs, when it counted the most, she was ageless and clearly unbeatable. "This week is the fittest I have ever been, the fastest I have ever been, the strongest I have ever been, and also the smartest I have ever been," said Muenzer.

In the semi-finals, she took down Australia's Anna Meares, a 20-year-old who won gold and set a world record in the 500-m time trial just days earlier. On her desk back home in Edmonton, Muenzer has a picture of the race she lost to Meares earlier this year at the world championship in Melbourne, Australia - a photo finish. Now she can replace it with a shot of herself being crowned with the Olympic victor's laurels, eyes filling with tears as the Canadian flag was raised to the rafters. "Standing on the podium was such an amazing thing," said Muenzer. "You think about it, you dream about it, but the reality of it happening is pretty slim. Standing there singing the national anthem you sang when you were a kid in school. Wow. It just means so much."

As soon as the gold was placed around her neck, Muenzer reached inside the top of her blue-and-red cycling jersey and pulled out another medallion: the University of Alberta's prize for the top pharmacology student of 1976 - Brenda Miller. A friend and supporter, Miller was killed in a cycling accident two years ago. Her husband, Jack McCutcheon, gave it to Muenzer and it became her most powerful inspiration and a constant keepsake on the road. "As soon as I'm in the car on the way to the airport, I put it on," she said. "And it stays on until I come home."

It's been a long haul for Muenzer, a 13-time Canadian champion. She had won silver and bronze at past world championships and Commonwealth Games, but had never before topped an international podium. A broken collarbone and bouts of tendinitis in both knees cost her a place on the Canadian team in Atlanta in 1996. Other injuries and crashes - including a spectacular backwards plunge off a six-metre-high cliff while mountain biking in 1999 - hobbled her preparations for Sydney, where she finished 13th in the 500-m time trial. Most would have been happy just to have qualified for Sydney, but Muenzer and coach Steen Madsen were already working toward Athens.

That fierce spirit has made her one of the sport's most respected athletes. When Muenzer had equipment problems in the run-up to the finals here, other teams handed over parts without even being asked. She ended up speeding to victory on a French front tire and an Australian back wheel.

Far from the polished hardwood of the velodrome, the mountain bike course defeated both Canadian men. Seamus McGrath of Carlisle, Ont., finished ninth, and Victoria's Ryder Hesjedal was forced out on the first lap with a flat tire. But Canadians here were still pumped by the performance of the women's team. Marie-Hélène Prémont from Château-Richer, Que., ground out a silver medal on the stony slopes of Mount Parnitha. It was a podium finish she'd allowed herself to dream of after improving on the World Cup circuit, and one she knew was in reach after a strong first lap in the gruelling two-hour event. The 26-year-old tried to catch favourite Gunn-Rita Dahle of Norway, but she couldn't close the 59-second gap. "I wanted to do my best and that's what I did," she said. "The medal is like a bonus."

It looked as if two Canadians might reach the podium, but Alison Sydor of Victoria, in her fourth Olympics, just missed and finished fourth. "After a couple of laps I started to feel the stress of the heat," said Sydor, 37. "I swear I almost passed out before the last descent, so I know I gave my all."

Maclean's September 6, 2004