TOKYO—The last time they handed out the Olympic medals in track cycling, in Rio in 2016, Canada’s Kelsey Mitchell wasn’t even watching, never mind winning.
Growing up playing everything from basketball to ringette to soccer, five years ago she hadn’t given a moment of thought to elite bike racing. She had, though, long harboured a dream of competing at the Games. So in 2017, Mitchell signed up to attend the RBC Training Ground in Toronto, a talent combine for various Olympic sports.
Soon enough she was introduced to her heretofore-unknown ideal sporting match. Though Mitchell met the endurance baseline for pretty much every elite national program looking for prospects — rowing, rugby and canoe-kayak among them — it was her explosiveness, including her performance in an all-out six-second bike sprint, that caught the eye of cycling’s scouts.
Apparently, those combine metrics don’t lie. A little more than three years after Mitchell was invited to train alongside the best track cyclists in Canada, she was announcing herself as the best in the world Sunday, winning a gold medal in the women’s sprint at the Izu Velodrome. On the final day of competition at these Olympics, Mitchell beat Ukraine’s Olena Starikova in two straight races in the best-of-three final to win Canada’s 24th medal of the Games, one last piece of hardware provided by a consummate late bloomer.
“I decided to give it one last chance, pursuing the Olympic dream,” the 27-year-old Mitchell said a while back, reflecting on her fateful trip to that Toronto talent-identification camp. “I honestly never even considered cycling before.”
Now cycling considers Mitchell one of its elites. A few days after finishing fifth in the women’s Keirin — a race in which teammate Lauriane Genest won bronze — Mitchell continued her remarkable athletic odyssey with the best big-stage performance of her short but stellar career. A year after finishing just off the podium in the women’s sprint at the world championships, where she ended up fourth, Mitchell guaranteed herself a medal when she outpaced Germany’s Emma Hinze by 0.176 seconds in the third and deciding race of her best-of-three semifinal.
Hard to fathom how, only a few years ago, she had to borrow a track bike as she began her training.
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“I knew how to ride a bike, but (track cycling) is completely different. Pedalling didn’t feel natural, the seat was super uncomfortable,” she has said. “Finally getting to go fast on the track and feel the G-force in the corners and in that moment I was just like, ‘OK, this is fun, I like this, I want to get faster and better.’ ”
There’s an old saying in sports: If you’re good enough, they’ll find you. In Mitchell’s case, though, they only found her because she refused to stop looking.
She played soccer at the university level, and tried out more than once for the chance to train with Canada’s national bobsleigh program in Calgary.
“It didn’t go over too well,” she has said of that foray into winter sports.
At age 24, having graduated from the University of Alberta but not yet ready to give up on her athletic aspirations, she heard about a tryout for what she considered at the time “random Olympic sports.”
“I took a chance and took the trip,” she said.
Call it random, call it destiny. Less than a quadrennial after taking a chance on that trip to Toronto, Mitchell was climbing to the top step of a podium at the Tokyo Games.
Dave Feschuk is a Toronto-based sports columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @dfeschuk
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