SPORTS

Samantha Cools PEDAL TO THE MEDALS I

Canada’s Olympic hopefuls:

JONATHON GATEHOUSE April 14 2008
SPORTS

Samantha Cools PEDAL TO THE MEDALS I

Canada’s Olympic hopefuls:

JONATHON GATEHOUSE April 14 2008

Samantha Cools PEDAL TO THE MEDALS I

Canada’s Olympic hopefuls:

JONATHON GATEHOUSE

In the best case scenario, Samantha Cools’ Beijing experience will last a little more than 120 seconds. Four breakneck circuits around the W-shaped, dirt track of the Laoshan Bicycle Moto Cross venue—prelims, quarters, semis, then the first ever Olympic BMX final—spent in the air, as much as on the ground.

A total of just 72 downstrokes on the pedals of her bike. Three out of the gate (starting with her weaker left leg, a trick her father taught her so her first full push would be on her strong side) to the lip of the eight-metre ramp. Gravity will take care of the first straightaway, jumps and banked curve. (Stay low, avoid colliding with the seven other riders, and concentrate on making the turn

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as tight as possible.) Then two more strokes to maintain her speed between the double jumps on the next straightaway. Five furious pushes to carry Cools through the second curve, and jump-filled backstretch. Five more on the last bend, then a swift glide through the “rhythm section”—the bicycle equivalent of a mogul run. Three last pumps to the line.

Don’t make any big mistakes, finish in the top four, repeat, repeat, ride the race of your life, and if you’re lucky, take home a medal. “I can control what happens to get myself to the final round,” says the 22-yearold, Canada’s best, and probably only hope, in the International Olympic Committee’s latest attempt to harness the popularity of “extreme” sports. “But then the past four years of training and dedication all come down to 30 seconds. And seven other girls are thinking exactly the same thing.”

Keeping up never used to be a problem for Cools.

A true childhood prodigy,

“Sammy” won her first race at the age of three on a bike built by her dad,

John. The history of BMX racing in Canada pretty much starts—and ends— with her family and hometown of Airdrie, Alta. Her older brothers, Ken and Gregory, were both champion riders. And the city,

20 km north of Calgary, still produces a disproportionate share of this country’s BMX athletes, collectively responsible for l60 provincial records,

50 national titles, and 11 world championships. Cools herself is a 13-time Canadian champion, and had won five world titles by the age of 17.

Since graduating to the women’s elite circuit three years ago, however, her dominance has faded. Cools is still the top-ranked female rider in North America, and currently sits at number four in the world, but too often finds herself chasing the competition from Europe and Oceania. Part of it might be physical—at just five foot two and 130 lb. she’s almost always the smallest rider on the track. But Cools readily admits that the bigger problem might be mental. “It all starts before you get in the gate. If you’re not confident in yourself, then you’re not going to do well.”

There have been some major disappointments—a broken chain at the 2006 World

Championships in Brazil, a crash and concussion at the 2007 Canadian nationals, and a subpar performance under the media microscope at the 2007 Worlds in Victoria, where she bowed out in the semis. Heading into an Olympic year there have also been more distractions than she might like. Her father will be in Beijing as a spectator, rather than in his accustomed role as Cools’ coach. (Sammy is currently training at the Union Cycliste Internationale’s development centre in Aigle, Switzerland, under the tutelage of Hervé Krebs, something her family and the Canadian Cycling Association politely describe as a mutual decision.) And another former coach, her elder brother, Ken, has just signed on to guide Cools’ chief rival—New

Zealand’s Sarah Walker—through the Olympics. “People look at me weird when I say that’s not a problem,” says Cools, who is good friends with the world number oneranked Kiwi. “But when it comes down to it, on that day, it’s not the coach riding the bike, it’s the person. It’s up to me to go and get the medal.”

It all adds up to less lofty expectations heading into the Games, with sights now officially set on a place in the finals, rather than the podium. Sean O’Donnell, high performance director for the CCA, says Cools needs to rediscover the confidence and focus that came so readily as a junior phenom. “A lot of athletes can learn how to win. For her it has always seemed like a natural ability,” he says. “But Samantha has got to be prepared to deliver on the biggest day of the year.”

The latest challenge was her introduction to the new Olympic-size eight-metre start ramps this past fall. Not only did the drop from the gate almost double overnight for female riders, but they now find themselves travelling much faster through the first section, flying higher and farther off the jumps. In her initial encounter at a competition in France, Cools managed not to crash, but bowed out in the semifinals, admitting she was both scared and intimidated by the course change. Endless hours spent on the ramp at the Swiss training centre have helped her lick the problem. But the episode underlined a harsh reality—if she wants to continue to succeed, she will have to change with the sport. “The girls have gotten so much faster and so much better technically,” she says. “BMX was at the same level for so long and now it has stepped up five notches, just because it’s in the Olympics.”

The time to complete such a transformation is running short. But Cools has been capable of such great leaps in the past. On the phone from Airdrie, her dad recalls Sammy’s first World Championship in England, where at the age of 10, she captured the title by jumping the obstacles, instead of tentatively riding over them like everyone else. The investments the Cools family have made in the sport—joining with neighbours all those years ago to build the local track with shovels and wheelbarrows, cleaning it off with the snowblower in the dead of winter so the kids could keep practising, the regular all-night drives to Phoenix, L.A. or Vegas for the weekend competitions—will pay off in Beijing, he says. “I like where she’s sitting right now. She’s not a favourite, and we always have done better far away from home.” Twenty years ago, the Cools family patriarch, a tool-and-die maker, helped build the torch that lit the flame at the Calgary Winter Games, never thinking that his then infant daughter might herself become an Olympian. Now, he speaks openly of the medal his daughter won’t even allow herself to dream about. “She’s good enough, fast enough to compete with all of these girls. Samantha is better than anyone knows.” M

jonathon.gatehouse@macleans.rogers.com

SAMANTHA COOLS: OLYMPIC NUGGETS

Why BMX racing? I love the Intensity of It. It's 30 seconds long, eight girls out of the gate. It's very aggressive and you have to push yourself to the end.

Do you remember your first competition? No. I was three years old. But I know that I came In first and that I got a licorice at the end of the race.

Do you have a pre-race ritual?

I have an angel on the front end of my bike pad and I touch It three times before I get Into the gate. My mom gave It to me about five years ago.

What music do you listen to when you're training? I listen to all different kinds of music—hip hop, R&B, rock, alternative, everything.

Do you follow a special diet? Nope. You have to live healthy, but I don't follow any particular structure.

Any guilty pleasure that breaks your training? I love chocolate.

I think every girl loves chocolate. But really training Is my guilty pleasure.

I love to train.

Most embarrassing moment in competition? When I was 13, at the 2000 Worlds In Argentina, I was In first place and I relaxed and sat down on my seat on the last obstacle and one girl passed me at the finish line.

Do you have a favourite inspirational quote or book?

The Five People You Meet in Heaven Is the book and the quote Is: "In times of difficulty lies opportunity."

The secret to surviving on Canada's amateur sport funding?

I don't race for the money. I race because I love it. That's my joy, that's my success. Canada funds my travel for races, but I have seven sponsors that cover my bike, parts and clothing.

Do you have any post-competition plans? I put my education on hold after high school, three years ago, to give 100 per cent to my sport. So after the Olympics, I'm planning to go to university and take some courses. But I'm not retiring, I love riding my bike.