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Canadian cyclist Kate O'Brien gears up for Pan Am Games

Canadian cyclist Kate O'Brien gears up for Pan Am Games

Posted by PanamericanWorld on June 02, 2015

Terrifying. That’s how Kate O’Brien describes track cycling, and that’s saying something given she’s used to flying blind 145 km/h down an icy track in the back of a bobsled.

“You’re on this track on a bike with no brakes and you can’t stop pedaling and it looks like you’re trying to ride up a giant wall and it doesn’t seem like it should be able to happen,” O’Brien said, describing cycling in a velodrome.

“This is significantly more terrifying that bobsleigh ever was.”

That she’s doing this at all — let alone being touted as a Pan Am Games medal hope in women’s team sprint with Olympian Monique Sullivan — is surprising in many ways.

First, there was a catastrophic knee injury at 16 when she tripped over a hurdle on the track, tore everything there is to tear in a knee and needed three reconstructive surgeries. She didn’t compete again, in anything, until after university.

Then, there’s the fact she already had a national team spot in a winter sport pushingtwo-time Olympic bobsled champion Kaillie Humphries.

Finally, there’s the sell job Canada’s national sprint coach Erin Hartwell gave her early on at a development camp.

“If you’re here to have fun, you shouldn’t be here,” he told the new recruits. “Cycling isn’t fun, it’s rewarding.”

Still, the 26-year-old from Calgary, smiling at that memory, is here and disagrees with her coach’s assessment of her sport.

“It is definitely difficult and a challenge but that’s where the fun comes in. If it’s easy there’s no point, really, in doing it,” O’Brien said. “I love the gym work, I love trying to get stronger, I love trying to get faster.”

And cycling on a banked hardwood track? “It’s fun despite it being terrifying,”

Hartwell, a two-time American Olympic medallist, was hired as Canada’s head coach last year to lead the nation’s first ever full-service sprint program based at the Milton Velodrome, built for July’s Pan Am Games.

When he talks to new recruits, he’s keen to get across the idea he wants people in the program who have the ability to win medals, not necessarily those who happen to have a passion for cycling.

Love of the sport is not required; good genes are, Hartwell said.

O’Brien, based on the power output numbers she demonstrated at a talent identification camp last year, certainly seems to fit that bill.

“I guess my numbers were okay,” she said, when asked about it.

Hartwell puts it differently.

“She came in and absolutely blew us away. She had some of the highest numbers amongst the men and women. Now she’s turned into, in a relatively short period of time, not just a top sprint cyclist in Canada but truly world class.”

O’Brien is one of the early success stories of amateur sport bodies, like cycling and rowing, that are increasingly focusing on talent identification, seeking out athletes with the right raw materials for the sport rather than just taking whoever turns up and hoping they have what it takes.

Hartwell looked awfully happy Monday at the Milton velodrome during the announcement of the 24-athlete roster for the cycling disciplines in the Toronto Pan Am Games. And it wasn’t just because the track team sang “Happy Birthday” to him and women’s team pursuit member Allison Beveridge.

It wasn’t long ago the sprint coach had no world-class athletes to train in women’s team sprint.

Sullivan, sixth at the 2012 London Olympics in the individual keirin event, had taken a break from the sport and there were no guarantees she’d return.

“I did not intend to come back,” Sullivan said. “I thought I was done, but then I started to miss it. I let myself miss it and then it kept building and building and then I was like ‘okay, I have to go back.’ ”

Sullivan, who like O’Brien is a 26-year-old from Calgary, was used to being the only woman on the sprint side of track cycling for Canada, and she liked the idea of competing in a team event.

“It all came together serendipitously. I came back and then I started hearing rumours about this bobsleigh girl Kate who was trying it out and I got really excited,” she said.

There have been bobsledders who have come to cycling before, and they are powerful in testing and in the gym but don’t all transition well to the technical elements of track cycling.

“So,” said Sullivan, “I didn’t really want to get my hopes up too much.”

But O’Brien has shown she’s powerful and can learn to pedal, which is harder than it sounds.

“Her improvement has just been crazy and we get along which is also lucky,” Sullivan said.

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