As a ski racer, it was not uncommon to meet Olympians. It’s just that kind of sport, easy access to the athletes. I raced against Olympic team members, American and otherwise, as a junior. I even rode up the chair lift with Kjetil Andre Aamodt (a skiing legend from Norway) in Aspen—and spoke to him in Norwegian! It’s something different entirely though when you get the chance to not only meet but hang out with an Olympic star from another sport. So, while it was incredibly exciting to have dinner with the entire Austrian men’s ski team in Vail, that was nothing compared to the honor of being accompanied by Gintas Umaras during a road ride just a few days before the Olympic torch reached Beijing.
Gintautas Umaras, if the name isn’t familiar to you, is a double-gold medalist from the 1988 Olympics in Seoul (cycling individual pursuit, team pursuit). He is also the owner of the ski and bike shop that sponsors the Kalnu Ereliai Ski Team, for which I’m head coach. When my brother sent me a new bike seat thereby encouraging me to get out on my road bike again, I called Gintas for some advice on where to ride. Better than advice, he suggested that we meet the next day and ride together. Intimidated but ecstatic, I accepted his offer.
We set out on a quiet county road just east of Vilnius on a warm and sticky August evening. Riding side by side, our thin tires flew over the fresh asphalt, and I was surprised how easy it was to hold a conversation and keep up a steady pace. On a road bike, as opposed to a mountain bike or running, great distances are covered in a relatively short period of time. The neighborhoods faded into wheat fields, rolling rows of corn became thick pine forest. Old women by the side of the road with buckets of strawberries, wild blueberries or mushrooms stared at us as if we were aliens wearing brightly colored spandex and aerodynamic helmets. As we cruised through a small village of rickety old wooden houses, children playing on the gravel shoulder of the road, we talked about cycling in Lithuania, the future of my skiers and basketball (of course).
On our way back toward town, the sky turned gray and the wind picked up. I jumped on the back of Gintas’ wheel and rode his tail wind. I was surprised by what a difference it made; I wasn’t even tired as we began to pick up speed, racing against the oncoming storm. The wind blew circles of dirt and gravel around us, the tall wheat waving in the breeze. Pushing up our final climb the energy of the storm in the air, I felt great, no, I felt empowered. I boldly rode up alongside Gintas on my little blue Trek and told him, as the first drops of rain began to fall, that I wanted to feel what race pace was like. He hedged at first, but on my insistence, shifted gears and increased speed, with me scrambling behind him. I held on to his back wheel, as he shouted speeds back to me. “36km! 40km! 44km!” We maxed out at 48km per hour (30mph) on a flat, and he hadn’t dropped me. We rode 43km (27 miles) in an hour and thirty-five minutes, hardly a winning time on the Tour de France, but it was the fastest I’ve ever ridden.
Mindaugas Mizgaitis won Lithuania’s first medal of the games—bronze, in Greco-Roman wrestling. A 29-year-old wrestler from Kaunas, Mizgaitis told reporters how he had been training for this moment since he was 14 years old, and how his father, who is also his coach, had always known he would win an Olympic medal. At the end of the match, the cameras showed Mizgaitis’ father who sat alone in the stands, his head in his hands, crying. It brought tears to my eyes, too. Somewhere in another stadium, Virgilijus Alekna won bronze in the discus, his second Olympic medal, and Gintarė Volungevičiūtė-Scheidt won silver in sailing. When they accepted silver and bronze in modern pentathlon, Edvinas Krungolcas and Andrejus Zadneprovskis brought Lithuania’s medal count to five—that’s one more than Greece and one less than Uzbekistan.
In the USA, where medals practically float out of the pool, it’s expected that the country will sit on top of the nations’ medals count. But in Lithuania, where we are only “Trys Milijonai” (three million), we watch the “other sports” like wrestling, discus, and modern pentathlon in the hopes that a few of our athletes, like Gintas, can again strike gold. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll get to go horseback riding with Krungolcas!