By that point, it already had been a mentally draining day for the U.S. women’s pursuit team in track cycling, full of wild swings of emotion that had resolved themselves into a satisfied feeling of accomplishment.
Having entered the Tokyo Olympics as the gold medal favorites and defending world champions in team pursuit — in which four riders zoom around a 250-meter track and draft off one another for 4,000 blazing meters — the team members had seen their gold medals dreams dashed by Britain in the first round at Izu Velodrome. They took the loss hard, with White at one point having to get off her exercise bike during warmdown to console teammate Megan Jastrab.
But they regrouped and refocused, and a couple of hours later, with an Olympic medal at stake, the quartet of Americans — White, Jastrab, Chloe Dygert and Jennifer Valente — took down Canada for the bronze. By the medal ceremony, as they stood to the left of the gold medalists from Germany, the members of Team USA were smiling and giddy.
“The times here were phenomenal,” Valente said at the news conference, nodding toward the German riders who had set world records in each of their two rides Tuesday. “Going into a bronze medal final is a little different position, but it [was all the more reason] to fight to get us a medal.”
And then, a few moments later, came the question about Kelly Catlin.
Catlin was a member of the U.S. women’s pursuit team that won the silver medal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, and there was every reason to believe she would be a key part of the Tokyo 2020 squad. But in March 2019, two months after a fall during a training session left her with a concussion, Catlin died by suicide in her Stanford dorm. She was 23.
In an Olympics at which mental health and self-care have been as prominent in the daily discourse as medal counts and world records, Catlin’s ex-teammates carried with them the ultimate reminder of why those things matter.
“I think everybody kind of blamed themselves in some way, so yeah, it brought the team closer,” White told her hometown paper, the Albany Times Union, in July. “We’re all working with sports psychologists, and it’s kind of a requirement now. Especially now, during the lead in [to Tokyo], it’s just so emotionally draining and exhausting. … She would have been going to the Games with us.”
White was not part of the 2016 Olympic silver medal-winning squad, but she knew Catlin as well as anybody. They were pro teammates with Rally UHC Cycling and had lived together for months at a time during training and on the road.
Catlin’s former teammates, White said, had a “pact” during the Olympics: to bring up Catlin’s name as much as possible, laugh about her, tell stories. “We certainly don’t try to forget her,” White told the Times Union.
The pursuit of gold in 2021 brought the women of Team USA to Izu, a small town 80 miles southwest of Tokyo, practically in the shadow of Mt. Fuji. Though connected to Tokyo by the Shinkansen bullet trains, the area feels remote and cut off from the rest of the Olympics. But there is a silver lining: Because the covid-19 case numbers are not as high in Izu, the velodrome has had crowds of up to 1,800 — 50 percent of the 3,600 capacity — making it the only indoor Olympic venue to include fans.
Olympic history suggested the Americans had little hope of taking the gold medal this week. The U.S. women have never won a gold in track cycling, coming closest in 2012 and 2016 when the pursuit team took the silver behind Britain.
But more recent history suggested the Americans were the team to beat. They won the world championship in three of the four years since Rio, including the title in Berlin in February 2020, where they beat their British rivals for the gold.
It was fitting, then, that the Americans’ path to a gold medal at the Olympics went through Britain, and fitting that it took a world record performance by the Brits to beat them. The racing Tuesday was outrageously and historically fast. Mere minutes after Britain’s women set their world record against Team USA, Germany broke it again in the next heat — then broke that one yet again in the gold medal matchup against Britain.
“The times here,” White said, “were absolutely blistering.”
The Americans had little time to regroup after the crushing loss to Britain, with the bronze medal race less than two hours away. As they warmed down on exercise bikes, all of them in some state of shock or disappointment or both, White saw Jastrab hunched over in tears and got off her bike to throw an arm around her shoulders.
“We had very high expectations,” White said. “It wasn’t easy to swallow.”
The churn and turnover of personnel is relentless in elite sports, particularly in the Olympics with its four-year cycle — which wound up being five this time. One member of the 2016 silver medal-winning squad, Sarah Hammer, retired from the sport. Another, Dygert, came out of Tuesday’s bronze medal race with a noticeable limp — undoubtedly related to the horrific leg injury she suffered in a crash less than a year ago during the road cycling world championships — and did not participate in post-race interviews Tuesday.
That left only one of Catlin’s 2016 Olympic teammates among the group taking questions in the mixed zone following the bronze medal race: Valente.
But Valente has said she still isn’t ready to speak publicly about her former teammate, and at the mention of her name Tuesday, her eyes immediately filled with tears. Then came the painful silence, and then White’s voice to fill it. She took this one for the team.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.