Last Friday afternoon, 28 miles into the 65-mile women's road race at the U.S. Olympic Cycling Trials in Altoona, Pa., Inga Thompson put her head down and pulled away from the 79 other riders. Over the remaining 4½ laps of the grueling 8.3-mile rain-slicked course, Thompson never faltered. Despite the efforts of most of the best women cyclists in the country, Thompson crossed the finish line two minutes ahead of her closest pursuer.
Half an hour later Thompson was on her way to the airport for the 2,500-mile trip home to Reno. A press conference was scheduled for Saturday morning in Altoona to name the riders selected for the Olympic team, but Thompson would not be there for the announcement. "I have to go," she said quietly, moments after the race. "I have to be with Matt."
Matt is Thompson's boyfriend, Matt Newberry, whom she has lived with for the past year. The 26-year-old Newberry, a national-level cyclist as well, could not be in Altoona because on June 10 he had undergone surgery to install a defibrillator in his chest to control the accelerated heart rate that had struck him with almost fatal results during a race in Chico, Calif., in May. Which is why, Olympic team announcement notwithstanding, Thompson's only thought was to return to Reno. "She's so worried about Matt," said Mary Jean Thompson, Inga's mother. "She adores him. This has been so hard."
Indeed, for Thompson, 28, who was shooting for her third Olympic team, the word trials has taken on a whole new meaning this year. A three-time state champion in both cross-country and track while at Reno High, Thompson began cycling in 1984, made her first Olympic team that year and finished 21st in the individual road race at the Los Angeles Games. Since then, despite a yearlong struggle with the Epstein-Barr virus after the '84 Olympics and a brief and unhappy marriage that ended in '88, Thompson has put together one of the most accomplished careers in U.S. cycling. She won national road-racing titles in '87, '88 and '91, placed eighth in the individual road race at the Seoul Olympics and last August took second at the world road-racing championships in Germany. She got off to a good start this year as well, winning the ‚Äö√†√∂‚àö¢pinal stage race in France in May.
Then Matt got frighteningly sick. For three weeks Thompson barely trained, spending most of her time at his side in the intensive care unit at Sequoia Hospital in Redwood City, Calif. Only after Newberry was released from the hospital on June 15 was Thompson sure she would compete for an Olympic berth. "Physically, I wasn't sure what to expect of myself," said the 5'10", 135-pound Thompson.
The Olympic selection process was based on two races. The first was the national championship on Wednesday, June 17, which was held on a picturesque 16-mile course that ran through the town of Hollidaysburg, Pa. (The women completed four laps of the course, the men, eight.) The second race was the trials in Altoona. Points were awarded to the first 15 finishers in each event, and the man and woman with the highest totals automatically qualified for the Olympics. The remaining two men and two women would be chosen by the coaches.
The automatic selection to the men's team went to unheralded Tim Peddie, 22, a junior at Colorado. Peddie combined a 15th-place finish in the nationals with a gutsy win in the 123-mile trials to edge Lance Armstrong by a point in the overall standings. The two remaining spots on the team were awarded to Armstrong, who was second in the nationals and 10th in the trials, and to 1988 Olympian Bob Mionske.
The women's nationals was a tight race all the way. Several riders, including Thompson, tried in turn to break away, but the course, with only one significant climb and a long steady downhill section, tended to keep the pack together. So it all came down to a pack sprint, straight up little Allegheny Street in Hollidaysburg. Though not known as a sprinter, Thompson nearly prevailed, finishing second by less than a wheel's width behind Jeanne Golay, 30, an '88 Olympic alternate.
Afterward, Thompson, though reassured about her conditioning, had trouble focusing on racing. Thursday, a rest day, proved to be the hardest part of her week. "I had nothing to do but think," said Thompson later. She found herself calling home again and again, talking calmly to Newberry and crying over the phone to her mother. "Inga's natural urge when there's a problem is to make it right," said Mary Jean. "She couldn't do that, and it was very hard for her."
On Friday, however, Thompson took charge of the women's trials. She made her move on the course's biggest hill and kept on charging. "Once she got away [from the pack], she had it," said Golay. "I didn't want to lead the chase and leave myself vulnerable."
Instead, Golay completed a superb week by outsprinting the chase group behind Thompson to come in second. That performance, coupled with her victory in the nationals, gave Golay the same number of points as Thompson. The U.S. Cycling Federation had determined that, in the event of a tie, the automatic berth would go to the rider who finished higher at the nationals. One of the remaining berths went to 1988 Olympian Sally Zack.
Thompson didn't learn of her selection to the team until Saturday night. She and Newberry had already gone for a two-mile ride in Reno on their tandem bike—"I did all the pedaling; Matt just put his feet up," said Thompson—when she returned to her house to find a note on her door with the news from her mother.
Now Thompson must focus on Barcelona. "It's been hard," she said. "I don't know how to describe how hard it's been. But Matt and I have made it this far, both of us. It's day-to-day from here."