Olympic cyclists go out with time trial gold medals
RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) Fabian Cancellara couldn't imagine competing at the highest level of cycling another eight years, which is how long it would take him to match American rider Kristin Armstrong's longevity.
''No, definitely not,'' the Swiss rider said. ''I mean, 35 or 44 or whatever age you have, it's everyone's own choice how long you want to continue.''
The answer for both of them is no more.
The 35-year-old Cancellara confirmed he is sticking with his plan to retire this season after winning the gold medal in the Olympic time trial. And Armstrong also said she was content with her place in the sport after grabbing her third-consecutive time trial gold on Wednesday, the eve of her 43rd birthday.
''Any athlete would like to keep coming back, but there does come a point where you won't be able to perform at that level any longer,'' she said. ''I've probably pushed it to the maximum level.''
Ask any athlete how he or she wants to go out and chances are you'll hear: On top. Still, far too many cling to the spotlight too long, their skills diminished and ability eroded by the constant churning of time.
Yet the Olympics are one place where athletes historically step away at their peak. For one thing, it's the world's biggest sporting stage. More practically, many athletes can't imagine going through four more years of the training, injuries, travel and competition that come with working toward the quadrennial extravaganza.
American swimmer Mark Spitz retired at 22 after capturing a then-record seven gold medals at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Eight years later, Mike Eruzione led the United States hockey team to its ''Miracle on Ice'' gold-medal upset over the Soviet Union at Lake Placid, then decided to retire when he realized he could never match what he accomplished that winter.
A combination of factors pushed Cancellara and Armstrong to retire.
Sure, Cancellara's age was a consideration, but the Swiss cyclist also had other priorities. The amount of time he has dedicated to training over 16 years as a professional is mind-numbing, the commitment to eating right and recovering properly draining.
He has a wife and two daughters, and wants to see all of them more.
''Two gold medals, the silver medal, and especially this gold medal in the last days and weeks of my life as a sports athlete makes me very proud,'' he said, ''and closing my history as an athlete like this, yeah, it's more than anything I thought possible.''
Armstrong said age came into play, too, noting it took two full days of cold baths, massage and recovery following Sunday's road race to be ready for the time trial. It didn't always used to be that hard.
But she also has a life at home in Boise, Idaho, that beckons her. Five-year-old son Lucas was at the finish line along the Brazilian coast to greet his mom on Wednesday, and Armstrong enjoys doting on him too much to spend so much time away. She's also the director of community health at a hospital, and wants to spend more time doing the kind of outreach that truly drives her these days.
''I'll go back home and everyone will be super excited, my super fans,'' Armstrong said, ''and I'll go on with my legacy - being to help improve the health of people in Idaho.''
Both riders acknowledged they will never be able to fully divorce themselves from the sport, and their accomplishments make that virtually impossible. Cancellara is recognized not just in Switzerland but across Europe. He is one of the most popular riders of his generation, the powerhouse known as ''Spartacus.''
And every time Armstrong goes to an Albertsons grocery store back in Boise, an in-and-out trip to grab milk and eggs turns into an hourlong odyssey. People want to stop and chitchat, and Armstrong has a hard time saying no - especially to the kids.
''My husband will be like, `Where did you really go?''' Armstrong said. ''I spend time with people in my community, and that's what I'm grateful for. One of the things I can't wait for is my next school visit and to talk to kids and show them my gold medal. I can't wait.''