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Phinney gives pursuit a whirl

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BEIJING -- A half hour or so into the qualification round of the men's individual pursuit last Friday, spectators in Section 113 at the Laoshan Velodrome found themselves on the receiving end of a recruiting pitch.

"That rider is my son," announced Connie Carpenter-Phinney, pointing to a gangly teenager about to begin his race. "When he goes by, please cheer!"

Here is a woman who feels very much at home at the Olympics. After competing in speedskating at the 1972 Winter Games, Carpenter-Phinney switched to cycling. Having captured 12 national titles and four world championship medals, she won a gold medal at the '84 Olympics, and retired the next day.

There she was, six Summer Games later, looking on with unalloyed joy as her son, Taylor Phinney, burst out of the block in this peculiar event, in which two opponents pursue each other over four kilometers on a banked, 250-meter oval. Taylor needed all the support his mother could drum up: Only eight of the 18 Olympic qualifiers would make it through to Saturday's final.

The field's youngest rider -- he turned 18 last month -- the 6-foot-4, 170-pound Phinney went out like the newbie he is, blazing through his first lap in 20.3 seconds, the swiftest opening lap of the night. The problem was, he had 15 more to go. Having taken an early lead on Ukraine's Volodymyr (the Dude) Dyudya, Phinney began laboring visibly.

"Wow, he's hurtin'," said Davis Phinney, the ex-Tour de France stage winner and '84 Olympic bronze medalist who was suffering right along with his son. Taylor gutted out a personal-best 4:22.860 -- 1.330 seconds behind the Dude -- then nearly collapsed while dismounting his bike.

While that time slotted him into fifth place, Taylor was only assured of advancing after the next race, in which Ireland's David O'Loughlin and BradleyMcGee -- an Aussie who took silver in this event in Athens -- cracked like a pair of maple bats."T's in!" declaimed the patriarch of America's first family of cycling, triggering a celebration that rippled to the farthest reaches of Section 113.

That was as good as it got for the Mini-Phinney, who was trounced the following day by New Zealand's Hayden Roulston. (The Kiwi went on to take second behind Great Britain's Bradley Wiggins.) But rather than marinate in gloom, the Phinneys were all smiles, choosing to celebrate how fast and far Taylor had come in such a short time.

A year ago, the kid didn't know the individual pursuit from Trivial Pursuit. But Connie explained it to him -- she's a former world champion in the discipline -- and he decided to give it a whirl. He won the U.S. national championship. In his first race. His fourth race was a World Cup event in Carson, Calif. He won. He qualified for the Olympics, then set a junior world record in the 3,000-meter pursuit.

But as stellar a year as the son had, his father had a better one. Since undergoing a procedure called deep brain stimulation this spring, Davis has experienced a stunning reduction in the symptoms of his early-onset Parkinson's disease, with which he was diagnosed eight years ago. While he is not cured -- there is no cure for Parkinson's -- his quality of life is vastly improved.

"For the first time in eight years," he says, "I'm eating sushi with chopsticks." The greatest gift, he said with a broad smile last Saturday, "is that I'm here to see my son race in the Olympics. I'm gonna live off this buzz for a long time."

He'll be able to recharge that buzz, in all likelihood, four years from now. While Taylor will be much more likely to medal in London, it's less certain that he'll have any more fun than he did at these Games. Few athletes seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as he was, whether striking Zoolander poses during the opening ceremonies or spearheading the "Beijing Airlift" in the Olympic Village. (That mercy mission entailed tossing Snickers bars to the second-story windows of his female friends on the U.S. gymnastics team, who were otherwise forbidden to eat them.)

When Wiggins lapped his opponent on Saturday, Phinney ended up seventh in the final standings, prompting his mother to point out that she'd placed seventh in her first Olympics, too. "Great," Taylor replied. "Now all I have to do is switch sports and wait 14 more years, and I'll get a medal too."

He'll get his medal. And it's not going to take that long.