The Pursuit Of Excellence

June 13, 1983
June 13, 1983

Table of Contents
June 13, 1983

French Open
The Cardinals
The Sixers
Rebecca Twigg
Pro Football
Rod Carew
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

The Pursuit Of Excellence

Cyclist Rebecca Twigg, world track champ and science prodigy, hits the road, hoping for the Olympics

'Tis education forms the common mind: Just as the twig is bent the tree's inclined.

This is an article from the June 13, 1983 issue Original Layout

She seems relaxed, breathing evenly; there's nothing here to get her frazzled. The conversation has been about bicycle racing in general, and now the radio newsman, smiling confidently, asks his final, big question, thrusting the microphone under the chin of Rebecca Twigg. In responding to this query, most world-class athletes tend to prattle on, with their brains in neutral—it's a trained response with them. And here we go:

RADIO MAN: "Well, now, tell us, what are some of the things you must now do to prepare for those all-important 1984 Olympic Games?"

TWIGG: "Try not to crash."

And that's it. End of interview. The response is short, but that's exactly the way this Twigg is bent. She's 20 years old, 5'7" and 125 pounds. She's one Twigg who is willowy—and that's absolutely the last play on her name, promise. But most important, she's so totally submerged in what she's doing that her brisk answer to the question on that recent radio interview seemed perfectly sensible to her. When it got a laugh, she looked faintly puzzled. What'd I say? After all, when one sets out to become the best woman bike racer in the U.S. and the world, not crashing seems like a pretty terrific idea.

"Well, Rebecca can be deceptive that way," says Edmund R. Burke, the technical director of the U.S. Cycling Federation. "She's so fully locked in on what she's up to that sometimes she just seems laid back." Burke is a Ph.D., a sports physiologist who specializes in cycling and, perhaps unwisely, has revealed a flair for administration. He thus has ended up running the U.S. cycling team. "She's really very intelligent, in addition to being very strong," he says. "Speaking as a physiologist, I would say that Rebecca's a mesomorph who's maturing."

Oh, really? What Twigg also is, at this moment, is the women's world individual pursuit champion. She won that title dramatically in England last year, the first American to do so, and she was also the U.S. pursuit and time-trial champ. Not to mention the U.S. federation's 1982 female Rider of the Year. And now, despite being primarily a pursuit, or track, specialist, she's a hot prospect to become one of the final lonely three who'll make up the U.S. team in the first-ever women's Olympic cycling event—a 50-or 70-km road race—at the L.A. Games. All of which amounts to quite a curriculum vitae, but there's one thing more: Twigg is also something of a genius. At 14, she decided to skip high school and go directly to college. She's now just a few credit hours short of a degree in biology at the University of Washington. But she tends to play that down.

"Actually, nobody is certain how high my IQ is, or even if it really is high. We've never tested it," Twigg says. "I think the secret is that I'm a very hard worker who likes school. As for the college degree..." she runs her hands through her hair and stares off dreamily into some middle distance " will come someday in 1985, after the competitive pressure is off. In the meantime, I worry about not using my brain enough. What if...what if I became an illiterate between now and the Olympics?"

This mild concern is being expressed in Room 217 of a rickety old dormitory, a onetime Army barracks, at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, where Twigg is a permanent athlete-in-residence. No matter what the location, dorm rooms never really change: This one smells faintly of sweaty workout clothes turned inside out to dry over the backs of chairs, with an occasional whiff of the far too sweet perfume favored by very young women. At the moment Twigg is slouched on her bed wearing layers of mismatched warmups. She shares the room with Peggy Maas, 23, another bike racer, and there's not a frivolous touch in sight. In this room, where one might expect to see Richard Gere pinups, there are bike-racing posters taped to the walls. On the floor beside Twigg's bed, in addition to a limp sock or two, is a copy of Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy.

Outside the window, down across the new synthetic surface running track and past the long-jump practice pits, is the federation's national office. Beyond that lies the perfect mountain world, much of it at 6,000 feet in crisp air that one can actually see through, in which to train for most any kind of cycling competition. This austere room and those demanding mountains are pretty much it for Twigg when she's not off at some meet or another. She makes 60 to 80 races a year, but otherwise she can be found charging through the Colorado hills or holed up in her stark, sweaty digs.

Here's a girl who is slowly changing into a lovely woman. She'll emerge one day with a beyond-Candice Bergen look; heads will turn, and she shall have music wherever she goes, as the old nursery rhyme has it. But for now there's only this shabby, off-white dormitory room and a 51-cm Trek bicycle.

Other resident jocks drop in, but "social life?" Twigg says. "Um, our social life is pretty dull." Then she brightens momentarily. "Oh! We play a lot of volleyball!" Uh, but does that really do it? "Well, remember, it's only other athletes living here, and they're all self-centered on what they're doing." Maas agrees. "This is exactly like any college dorm in any college town anywhere—with one exception," she says. "Here, everybody is in bed and sound asleep by nine-thirty every night." Oh, Twigg and Maas and the others might have a beer now and then, particularly following an event like the Coors International Classic, where the beer is free, "but it only takes maybe one beer to get an athlete wasted anyway," Twigg says.

Watching Twigg in action, one realizes that the federation has done it again: It has loosed yet another competitive monster woman upon the land, another new one cast in the mold of Sheila Young-Ochowicz and Sue Novara-Reber, the sprint champions; of road and pursuit champ Connie Carpenter and that sudden road whiz Beth Heiden.

While most of the U.S. was looking elsewhere—bike racing isn't exactly the most feverishly covered of sports in this country—the U.S. had scrambled from 22nd in 1978 to fifth in world competition last year in medals won, behind only East Germany, Russia, West Germany and Holland, and ahead of such traditional powers as France and Italy. France and Italy? And while the men have been gaining, the women have run wild.

By way of a brief history, in 1969 California's Audrey McElmury won the women's road-race gold medal at the world championships in Czechoslovakia, ending a 57-year road competition losing streak for the U.S., a development so unnerving that, naturally, the award ceremonies had to be held up while someone searched out a record of The Star-Spangled Banner. After that came two more losing years, but then, starting in 1972, the titles began rolling in. Through 1981 U.S. women collected 17 more world medals, six of them gold. And in the world championships at Leicester, England last August and September, the U.S. squad pulled in four more, with Connie Paraskevin, 21, and Young-Ochowicz, 32, finishing one and two in the sprints and Twigg and Carpenter, 25, also one-two in the individual pursuit.

This was pretty fast company for a 19-year-old, but Twigg wasn't cowed one bit. Cowed? Here's a kid who used to drag-race automobiles on her way to school in Seattle, churning furiously along the streets aboard a heavy old Huffy bike. "And I'd catch them, too," she says. When she tells about it now, one can see her pulling alongside a speeding car and glancing over at the driver with that impassive look of hers. "It always made the motorists pretty nervous," she says.

To go back even further, to the beginning, Twigg was born in Honolulu. The family moved briefly to Madison, Wis., where Rebecca's sister, Laura, now 19, was born, and then on to Seattle, which Rebecca figures is really her hometown. Her parents split up when the girls were very young, and her mother, Barbara, went back to school to get a degree in sociology. Indeed, there was a time when all three of them were in school, "but it was the girls who were exceptional students," Barbara says. "Laura is an electrical engineering major at the University of Washington. And Rebecca was always entered in some sort of contest, from spelling bees to math and science fairs. She had a keen competitive instinct, I guess. Once she entered a cooking contest, of all things, submitting a cake that a grown-up couldn't have made. She'd seen a picture of it in a magazine. It was supposed to look like a castle. She lost—but, after all, that was in the first grade."

Rebecca shrugs. "Mostly I remember that I was strong," she says. "I was big for my age. I was even fat for a while. But I was a pretty good runner and jumper, and a great arm-wrestler. Once I strolled into the gym at school and saw some weights lying there; I was quite small then, but I lifted the 90-pound one over my head and then I lifted the 100-pound barbell up to my chin. You know," she says, shaking her head gravely at this, "if I'd been born in an Eastern bloc country, I wouldn't be a bike racer now. They'd have made me into a weightlifter."

Twigg was singled out early in school for a program for gifted students. "It was intellectually stimulating," she says. "I had been getting grades in the 80s and 90s, but in the honors group I built them up to 98s and 99s in everything." By the time she was 14, staying in the program would have involved being bused to special classes all over town; math in one school, science here, biology there. "My mom said, 'Why not just go straight into college?' " Rebecca says, "and I said, 'Hey, that's an idea.' "

Happily, Washington agreed. Twigg enrolled for the summer quarter of 1977, so that she could get used to attending classes like an honest-to-God Big Person, and next thing anybody knew, she was a freshie. By the time she was a 15-year-old sophomore, she was working part time at the zoology lab to pick up some money. "I washed the lab dishes and I got to feed all the Manduca sexta, those big green worms they used in the research," she says.

But while higher education was dandy in its way, the great whir and hum of bicycling kept distracting Twigg. What was astir, of course, was that suppressed competitive streak. And along came the Washington State Championships, in June of '77. A race. Up until this point about all she had beaten were cars, and they were so, well, metallic or something. And thus, uncoached and inexperienced—but strong—Twigg walked from shop to shop around town until she finally came upon the Tamura brothers of Pine Street Cycles, who agreed to lend her two bikes so she could enter the meet. One was a yellow, slightly used Sekai 4000. "It seemed so sophisticated," she says now. "Ten speeds! And it weighed only about 21 pounds." The other was a track bike, also a Sekai, one of those mean contraptions with fixed drive, one gear and no brakes.

Trying to dope out how to ride the track machine, Twigg took it over to the Marymoor Park Velodrome, which was 400 meters around and reasonably wide, with banked turns averaging 25 degrees. It was frightening. "First time on a velodrome, there's the feeling that you're going to fall off the world," she says. But there was also the discovery that if one sucked it all up and rode near the top in a sprint race, one could suddenly dive diagonally downward just at the finish and blow everybody's spokes off.

Exactly. But she got little chance to try it at first. As the only intermediate girl in the state championship sprints, Twigg was thrown in with two boys for three scratch races of one kilometer each. She finished more or less even with them and, needless to say, won her class. In the road race the following week, three seven-mile loops out in the country, one other intermediate girl entered, and Twigg smoked her by some 20 minutes. Suddenly here was a state champion with no idea how she'd gotten there. In the nationals, also held in Seattle later that year, Twigg finished third on the road and fifth on the track in the intermediate class. "It was then," she says, "that I decided to stay with racing. And it wasn't long before I was winning some here and there. Whenever I'd lose, Mom would worry; she'd always ask me, 'Do you know what you did wrong?' And I'd say, 'No. I don't even know what I'm doing right.' I think a lot of this is instinctive."

After that national meet in 1977, Twigg began training and studying cycling seriously, at first with Sekai's Velocipede Club—track races every Friday night and road races Wednesdays, lifting weights and running stadium steps in between. She picked up the pace to the point where she was occasionally beating some of the men. Not all of them took well to this, and on the track she had to learn how not to get pinned or scrubbed off against the railing. That required a tricky pause, something of a head fake and then a quick surge ahead, almost like a stutter step in basketball.

In 1979, her first year as a junior, she won the U.S. time trials, at that time a 25-mile race. In 1981, still a junior, she won the national senior women's pursuit title—as well as the junior-road and time-trial championships. That's upstart stuff, especially seeing as Twigg took the pursuit title from Carpenter, who now holds a record 13 national and three world medals. But the real showdown, said Cycling U.S.A., the federation's official newspaper, was going to come at the 1982 nationals in July and August at Kenosha, Wis.

"Well," Twigg says levelly, "ever since my first year as a junior, people had been telling me I'd be a champion." And indeed, in Wisconsin, Twigg once again beat Carpenter in the pursuit, this time by .16 of a second, 3:54.50 to 3:55.06, over the 3,000 meters. Then came the time trials, an event Carpenter had won by an impressive 3½ minutes in 1981. But Twigg beat her, almost breaking the one-hour mark in the process, churning off to the title in 1:00.49, with Carpenter 19 seconds back.

An even bigger challenge would present itself at the world championships a couple of weeks later. There waited the formidable Nadega Kibardina of the U.S.S.R., the world pursuit champ in 1980 and '81, and the old assumption that, forget it, Americans never win this one. Uh huh. Twigg blew Kibardina away in the quarter-finals, 3:57.32 to 3:59.30, and in the semis she polished off Jeannie Longo of France. In the final round, there again was Carpenter. Twigg blasted her way to the gold medal with an impressive 3:51.95; Carpenter finished in 3:52.63.

Something odd had happened here. As Twigg describes it, "The first time I saw the Russian champion, I was in real awe of her. A Russian. But then, gradually, I came to realize that she was out there for exactly the same reason I was; that is, she wasn't so much a Russian as she was an athlete, a bike racer like anybody—and I can beat them."

Now began the long countdown: Twigg moved into the training center last September and is going to stick it out, living ascetically, until she realizes her main racing goal—a spot on the Olympic team. One reason it's so special is that this represents a foot in the Olympic door. It wasn't until 1981 that the International Olympic Committee agreed to allow women bike racers into the Games. The Los Angeles road race may well open the door to pursuit and sprint events in future Games. If that's the case, Twigg will hang in there until 1988.

Between now and the L.A. Olympics comes a series of races that will serve as training events, some with titles at stake. There will be various tours—the 12-day Coors, starting July 6 at Colorado Springs; the nationals, in late July and August in California; and the world championships in August and September in Switzerland. No matter how she finishes, Twigg will take all of them in stride.

Both Burke and Maas suspect that Twigg is so intelligent that she only seems unconcerned—it may be a sort of reverse, double-backspin psychological ploy—and perhaps they are right. "She may seem not to care," says Maas, "but she's very conscious of who beats her and whom she beats. She doesn't say anything and appears not to worry, but, listen, she knows where every person in the pack has finished."

When Burke calls Twigg a "nervous" rider, he means it as a compliment. "At the world championships there she was, up against the mighty Russian," he says. "The pursuit, as you know, is the race in which a handler has to hold bike and rider upright before the start. Well, Twigg was so tense that I thought she was going to fall right over. But at the same time she muttered, 'I know I can beat her,' and she did."

Dr. Andy Jacobs, the official stress psychologist for this and other U.S. teams, recently presented the cyclists with an exercise in imaging. "He told us to picture the race and then to picture ourselves winning it," says Twigg. "But I find it hard to think in those terms. I think about the wind and I think about where my competitors are. In pursuit, I start out hearing some voices and crowd reaction at first. Then I can hear only my coach yelling splits. By the last lap, I can't hear a thing."

As happens when success comes in bike racing, Twigg is now well sponsored, and supplied with bikes and clothes and all manner of racing accoutrements. She is a member of the elite 7-Eleven team, one of five national squads competing under commercial banners, and her "expenses" are paid, though not on as handsome a scale as are those of, say, members of the U.S. ski team.

Still, the tough times lie ahead, and Burke, for one, has nightmares about one aspect of what's to come. "Just imagine the distillation that's about to take place," he says. "Think of it. Out of all these women, the best in the land, we must cut the field down to just three who'll go to the Olympics. We'll get the three finest, of course, but that could also be counterproductive. Suppose, just for the sake of argument, that the surviving three are Twigg, Carpenter and Novara-Reber. O.K. Everybody knows that it's an unhappy fact of international racing that if you've got three cyclists on your team, something's going to happen to one of them and you will be left with two. There'll be a flat tire, or a breakdown, or a crash or something—and you're left with two. It always happens.

"Now, then. Suppose, by luck or whatever, that Carpenter is in the breakaway, the small pack that suddenly takes off into the lead. That would leave Rebecca and Sue back in the pack, right? Now in international racing, they're supposed to block for their teammate who is out in front. The French have an outfit called Team Mystique that does it best—seven guys who are not in there to win, whose only job is to see that their star wins it. But here we are, at the 1984 Olympics, in a similar situation. Will Rebecca and Sue throw themselves off the bridge, in effect, to keep Carpenter in the lead? Would Carpenter do it if either of the others made a break for it? Or will they all go blooey and start some mad, all-out reckless dash?"

Who knows? Certainly not Burke and assuredly not Twigg, who avoids such hypothetical discussions just now. She's too smart for that. Literally. Speaking of stress psychology, she has a little mental image of her own. She says, "I picture myself on the attack."

ILLUSTRATIONPHOTOPHOTOTwigg takes the high way, in the Colorado mountains, to L.A.PHOTOYukking it up around camp had better be fun, because social-life-wise, this is about it.PHOTOTwigg keeps her road bike as fit as her physique.PHOTOAt work here on the Twigg stems is trainer-assistant coach-masseur Craig Campbell.PHOTOTwigg (right) lost this recent New York race to road aces Carpenter and Novara-Reber.