Kelly Catlin mentions “suffering” casually, the way a carpenter would refer to splinters. The word in this context may have been introduced to non-cycling Americans when Lance Armstrong dominated the Tour de France and announcers used “suffering” to describe those lagging in apparent pain.
The word is both accurate and a matter of context: Suffering is usually tragic and inflicted; in cycling it is chosen and celebrated.
Perhaps that is why Catlin, a graduate of Mounds View High, has risen from high school soccer player who biked in baggy shorts to a key member of the U.S. team pursuit cycling squad that has a chance to win gold in Rio. The first-born of a fiercely competitive set of triplets, she experienced oxygen deprivation, pain and close-quarters competition before leaving the womb.
“She didn’t have enough fluid in her gestational sac,” said Mark Catlin, Kelly’s father. “She was at the bottom of the pile, squished down in the womb. She was delivered early and had respiratory problems as an infant. We had to sit outside with her in the cold because of her cough.”
These days Catlin makes almost any endeavor seem simple as exhaling. She is studying biomechanical engineering and Chinese at the University of Minnesota. She is an accomplished violinist who spent spare time while training in Colorado Springs memorizing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major, all 35 pages of it.
She rides a unicycle, can sculpt and draw horses with great detail, favors Creedence Clearwater Revival, may become a pathologist like her father and considers a square of dark chocolate decadent.
Hers is one of those lives in which all seems possible. She had always cycled with her parents and siblings for fun and exercise. When she came down with shin splints playing soccer and running track, she could not have known where her new form of transportation would take her.
“I got injured when I was 17, in my junior year of high school,” she said. “I had bone bruises from running too much. My only way of getting around was on a bike. My brother happened to be taking a cycling merit badge for Boy Scouts, and he took me along for my first race.
“I hated it. I thought it was terrifying.”
And she won, making the Hopkins Raspberry Festival the launching pad of an Olympic career.
In Rio, she’ll compete in an event that looks otherworldly to the uninitiated and particularly dangerous to those who follow the sport. In team pursuit, four cyclists ride in single-file inches apart, to minimize air resistance. After the lead cyclist “pulls” the team along, she will veer aside and rejoin the group, moving from first to fourth.
Team pursuit is intricate riding, and the bikes do not have brakes. “It’s the cycling equivalent of neurosurgery,” said Charlie Townsend, who runs NorthStar Development Cycling with his wife, Sherry Berde Townsend, and has coached Catlin.
The team’s time is determined when the third of the four riders crosses the finish line. Catlin, known for power, may expend her energy in the lead. “They call it a death pull, when the leader pulls the team along until they are spent,” Charlie Townsend said. “Kelly may even do a double death pull. If she finishes fourth on her team that doesn’t mean she isn’t playing a vital role.”
Catlin’s team became the first from the U.S. to win gold at the world championships earlier this year. She won gold in the individual time trial and silver in the team pursuit at the 2015 Pan Am Games.
“I guess I can’t say I’m surprised,” Mark Catlin said. “She was the last of the three to learn to walk, but she always had incredible determination. When she was an infant and would come to an obstacle, she would scream in frustration and cry and keep trying until she could get over it.”
Kelly, Colin and Christine began riding bikes when they were 3 and came to think of two wheels as the ideal form of transportation. They’d go on family rides, considering 20 miles “a quick trip,” and ride their bikes to high school. When Catlin began mountain biking, she said her specialty was “bouncing off trees.”
“She was always very competitive and would not accept less than the best,” Christine said. “I always blamed that on the fact that she was shorter than my brother and I. Ever since she was a child, she felt she had to compensate.
“Our parents made us believe we could do anything. They didn’t pressure us. If anything, we pressured each other. I know in school we had this reputation as ‘The Catlins.’ We had to be the best at everything.”
Colin described Kelly as “angry.” “She had an intense desire to be the best at everything, to rule the world. Anything that got in her way made her angry, and what got in her way she used her anger to crush. Trying to argue with Kelly is like trying to argue with a hurricane.”
Kelly was born minutes ahead of her siblings and seemed intent on maintaining that advantage through life. In a long e-mail, Colin described his relationship with Kelly using words like “Machiavellian,” and says that the only crush he can remember Kelly having was on the Harry Potter villain Draco Malfoy.
“It’s her ability to suffer that makes her such a good rider,” said Colin, an accomplished rider himself. “She’s absolutely focused on winning. That’s what she is, an absolute determination to win. And she learns from her mistakes too, helped by my constant prodding her for making them. Everything is done intensely. Keeping time with her foot while playing violin sounds like a battering ram striking the floor …
“In fact, the most difficult thing facing Kelly now is what more to do with herself. What new height can she reach?”
Sherry Berde Townsend and Charlie Townsend are standout cyclists. Charlie is a level 1 USA coach; Sherry is a level 3 coach. They volunteer their time to the nonprofit to promote cycling and help young cyclists.
They have helped Catlin develop while offering valuable advice. They lined up experts to tell her that she was good enough to pursue Olympic gold and that her academic career wouldn’t suffer if she put it on hold.
They see Rio not as an apex but as the next step in a long cycling career. “She wants to race in Europe and hopefully win a championship at the world level in the individual time trial,” Sherry said. “Which is the road event that would be most similar to the team pursuit.”
Catlin figures to be listening to Beethoven and CCR on long rides through Europe soon. She believes in “mindfulness” and suffering. In fact, she links the two.
“You have to embrace the suffering,” she said. “If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable, you’ll never be able to go as hard as you need to go.’’