Ellen Braun of Arlington is one of the best in her sport, bicycle track racing. But she and her sport were largely unknown in this country until the 1984 Olympic Games.
The games heightened the public's awareness of Braun's specialty, match sprinting. They "brought cycling into everybody's living room," said Braun, 25, a muscular 5 feet 8 and 145 pounds. "The '84 Olympics really got a lot of people interested in cycling."
Match sprinting is an all-out race between two cyclists three laps (one kilometer) around a banked track called a velodrome. The rider that loses the toss must lead the first lap. The race becomes extremely strategic until the end, as the rider in the front tries to keep the rider in the back from passing by swerving up and down the wall while moving around the track.
If Braun seems overly enthusiastic when she describes her favorite event, it's no wonder. She has been bicycle racing for only three years and is already one of the best match sprinters in the country.
"Match sprint is something I started doing at the end of last year," said Braun, who finished a close second to Connie Paraskevin in the event in the National Sports Festival last Sunday. "I was immediately successful even though I didn't really know what I was doing. I have really good natural speed and ability. I'm still learning tactics. I still haven't come close to my physical or tactical peak.
"I've got so much to learn. But right now, I'm second in the country in the match sprints. Connie Paraskevin, the current and three-time world champion, is No. 1. She's been match sprinting for 14 years."
Which for now, Braun says, puts her at a great disadvantage.
"A lot of women track riders started out when they were 14 because they usually would grow up around a track in a family that had cyclists . . . . When they hit 20 or so, they had already been riding a long time. Their prime was 18 to 25, then they got sick of it when they got to 25. I just started this. Physically, I'm still feeling training benefits the last couple of years.
"If I kept at it until I'm 30, all that experience is going to add up. Maybe I won't have the physical edge but I'll have the edge in experience. I'm not worried about my age. Bernard Hinault won the Tour de France and what is he, 36 or so? I don't see my age as a limitation. I just got my opportunity a little later in life."
An avid volleyball player and rower at the University of Massachusetts, Braun graduated in 1982 with a degree in biochemistry and received a bronze medal her senior year in the varsity eight at the national rowing championships. Braun had hoped to continue rowing during graduate school at the University of Virginia, but crew didn't fit into her schedule.
"I was riding my bicycle through town -- I think it was the second or third day I was in Charlottesville," said Braun, who also works part-time as a programmer/analyst at Management Systems Designers in Vienna. "This guy came up behind me -- he was a racer -- and he talked to me about racing. I had kind of been looking for a new sport to do and it seemed like at that point I was ready for an individual sport. I learned a lot from team sports and I had gotten enough discipline finally to have an individual sport to be successful at."
A year later, Braun won the silver medal in the Match Sprints of the 1984 National Cycling Championships, riding for the Fuji/Suntour Racing team and the U.S. cycling team.
Braun is currently in the final leg of the match sprint season, ending with the world championships at Bassano del Grappa, Italy, on Aug. 23-27. She could place in the top 10 there, but her chances of success seemed bleak three months ago after an accident at the National Capital Open in Washington.
"I went down and I landed on the back of my head and my shoulder," said Braun. "I spent three weeks in a sling. It took me another couple of weeks before I could ride my bicycle.
"I think the third day I rode after the accident I had a match sprint tournament that I had to ride in. I got eliminated in an early heat but it made it possible for me to qualify for the 7-Eleven Gran Prix finals," Braun said. The finals, held July 4 through 6, made it possible for Braun to qualify for the National Sports Festival, which in turn makes it possible for her to get sprint training in to go to nationals with experience enough behind her to go to the world championships.
Because Paraskevin has already qualified for the world championships, Braun must either win or finish second to Paraskevin to qualify in the national championships, which run Tuesday through Aug. 10. Only two riders are selected for the world championships.
"I've thought a little bit about the 1988 Olympics, but my biggest goal this year is to go to world championships and be in the top eight, top five. I'm interested in looking down the road at 1988 [the first time women will compete in match sprint.] And I've got a shot at it.
"In the meantime, I'm good enough at this point to break even. The men at my level make a lot of money at it. But I love the sport. I would do it and pay them."