RIO DE JANEIRO – The medal wasn’t the one they hoped for. Still, when Kelly Catlin and her teammates rolled their bikes off the track Saturday, all of them were smiling.
Sarah Hammer, Chloe Dygert, Jennifer Valente and Catlin — an Arden Hills native — were not able to keep up with world cycling powerhouse Great Britain in the women’s team pursuit at the Rio Olympics, finishing with the silver medal. While their lungs and legs ached, their hearts did not. After setting a world record in the first round, they quickly lost it again to the Brits, then pushed themselves to the limit in the final at the Rio Olympic Velodrome.
It took another world record to beat them. Great Britain won in 4 minutes, 10.236 seconds — nearly 2 seconds faster than the record it set 5½ hours earlier — to repeat as Olympic champion, with the U.S. second in 4:12.454. Canada took the bronze medal, as the top three teams finished in the same order they did at the 2012 London Olympics.
Catlin and company were trying to win the first U.S. gold in a women’s track cycling event, and the first track cycling gold in any event since Marty Nothstein won the men’s sprint in 2000. Though they couldn’t hold an early lead in the final, they weren’t sad about the outcome.
“In many ways it was the perfect ride,’’ Catlin said. “We executed as best we could and didn’t make any mistakes. We gave it everything we had.’’
The gold medal was the 27th for the Brits in Olympic track cycling, one behind the Olympic record held by France. Laura Trott, who won the omnium and the team pursuit in 2012, became the first British woman to win three gold medals in any sport. The team of Trott, Katie Archibald, Elinor Barker and Joanna Rowsell-Shand won Britain’s fourth medal — and third gold — in track cycling at the Rio Games, with three days remaining in the competition.
The U.S. won its first world championship in women’s team pursuit in March, stamping it as a favorite in Rio. But the Brits have a long tradition in the sport and rode with precision and unity.
“We felt like a machine, a well-run machine come together really well,’’ Trott said. “I’ve never been on a team that felt so seamless. You could tell everyone was giving 100 percent to get over the finish line.’’
The U.S. felt the same about its effort. Hammer, 32, is the eldest of the U.S. foursome by 11 years. She has been riding with her trio of newbies for only a year, in a sport where American athletes receive a fraction of the funding and support that teams such as the British and French enjoy.
Great Britain lowered the world record three times during the Games: once in the qualifying round, once in Saturday’s first round and again in the final. In the first round, the U.S. — racing against Australia — broke the mark the Brits set in Thursday’s qualifying, finishing the 4,000-meter race in 4:12.282. The Americans held the record for about 5 minutes before Great Britain, racing Canada in the final heat of the first round, snapped it again in 4:12.152.
That set up a thriller for the final. The U.S. went out fast and rode at a world-record pace, holding the lead through 1,500 meters. But the Brits found another gear and blasted around the wooden oval in perfectly synchronized tempo, seizing the lead with a speed the Americans could not match.
“We left it completely on the track, and the British did as well,’’ Hammer said. “They were better than us today.
“We were going for gold, but I’m still so proud of the team and what we accomplished. I feel like we were the little team that could, going against the big old machine of Great Britain. We came up short today, but it was a heck of a ride.’’
Not long ago, Catlin was racing at the Hopkins Raspberry Festival. She was identified as a rising talent by USA Cycling in 2014, after performing well at the Nature Valley Grand Prix in the Twin Cities. She has been in the sport only three years and has been doing track cycling for only 17 months.
Hammer was delighted with how three very young riders — Catlin (20), Dygert (19) and Valente (21) — handled their first Olympics. Another reason they weren’t disappointed with silver: Catlin noted that their time Saturday was more than 4 seconds faster than it was at the world championships, an indicator that there is more to come.
“We’ve improved,’’ she said. “I think we’re just beginning to show our potential. I’m sure we can do exciting things in four years.’’