August 24, 2004 – The tension was evident in the faces of every potential medallist on this rather cool (for Athens) afternoon. It couldn’t have been any warmer than 30C and a perfect breeze fell into the velodrome as Lori-Ann Muenzer of Canada and Anna Meares of Australia rode their first heat.
Muenzer had recorded the fastest time the day before leading into the semis, but Meares had just set a world record in the 500 metre time trial and had beat Muenzer two to one in the finals at the Track Worlds in May, taking the silver.
Muenzer took the lead, which is where Meares wanted her. They played a bit of a psychological game, with neither one of them initiating the sprint, until they hit the banking coming into the startline. At this point the Meares Machine kicked in with an incredible burst of speed and there was nothing Muenzer could do about-the Aussie had the sprint in 11.802.
The next heat could have been called “Cat and Mouse Climb the Banking.” Both riders decided to take the psychological warfare as high as they could, climbing until they hit the backstretch, 100 metres before the start with Meares taking the lead in the first lap. By now Muenzer had the advantage as she moved low on the track as they accelerated to the startline. Muenzer looked back one too many times, but she managed to have enough energy to fly once her head went down. From here she focused on the
finish-line, not her competitor. She was unstoppable. This 38-year-old veteran still had what it took to beat the fastest rising star in the world with a 12.101. And so it would be heat number three that would determine who would move on to the gold medal race.
All the Greek gods and goddesses were summoned by this journalist and every Canadian fan there for the last heat. Could Muenzer do it one more time and move into the gold medal race? Meares tried to get Muenzer to make a silly psychological error. She deaked in and out, trying to get Muenzer to start too early, to become nervous. But it didn’t work. Muenzer knew her plan and stuck to it, calm
and cool. She claimed her place as low as possible, forcing Meares to ride high and therefore longer. Whenever she though Meares was going to force her out, she reacted first and rode her higher up the banking.
And then on the backstretch, 100 metres before the start, Muenzer made her move. She switched as low as she could, put her head down and this time did not look back. Meares’s youthful short bursts of amazing speed could
not match the smooth, and oh so fast assurance of Muenzer. She led from start to finish-a beautiful 12.185 seconds.
Meanwhile, the two Russians racing for the other spot in the final race each took their turn at winning a heat each. Svetlana Grankovskaya took the first one in 11.893, with Tamilla Abassova claiming the second heat in 11.965. The final was clear though. Abassova led from the line and never really had to look back. She flew to a 11.894 finish. An astonishing result as Grankovskaya is the reigning world champion.
And so Australia and Russia would decide the bronze medal race, while Canada and Russia would face off for the gold. Anna Meares started the first heat with determination written all over her. She wasn’t planning on coming fourth. The two riders switched positions many times with Meares ahead and low, just where she wanted to be heading into the start. There were some very close moves by both riders, but contact was never made, and in Meares took it in 12.42. In the second heat the race started immediately. They took the race quickly into the banking 50 metres before the startline and with the kind of massive burst of speed she used to dominate the qualifiers, Meares never looked back, staying ahead to win by a half a wheel in 11.822 for the bronze.
In the Muenzer and Abassova first heat, Abassova forced Muenzer to the front at the start, but soon they were trading places, each making the other cover more track or taking the lead. It looked like Abassova wanted to take charge. Certainly there were far more Russians in the velodrome than Canadians, but Muenzer didn’t let any of this get to her and simply stayed her course, no matter which position she was in, she kept the plan simple: stay low unless your opponent makes you have to ride her high into the banking. It worked perfectly. Muenzer burst into the last two hundred metres, with Abassova unable to challenge. She took it in 12.126
Muenzer arrived on the line with only one task to do and she did it. All that stood between her and the gold medal was 1,000 metres of beautiful wooden track, and while every move counted as she set up her position, it was what she would do in the last 200 metres that mattered most. It was a beautiful thing to watch. Muenzer led, and started to play a bit with Abassova, switching up and down a bit, but never relinquishing the psychological control she so obviously had. And then, 20 metres before the line, she knew she had it and a smile that would have lit the city of Athens up crossed her face. Canada, courtesy of Lori-Ann Muenzer, had just won its first Olympic gold medal in cycling.
“Today I told myself I wanted to be the first woman who crosses the line,” Muenzer said after the race. “That’s what I did. I feel great. It is unbelievable. At this first moment, I am not conscious of what just has happened.”
The only time the smile that appeared so magically 20 metres before the finish, left Muenzer’s face was when she sang the national anthem as the Canadian flag was raised. And then those last couple of lines, she stopped singing and tried hard not to cry. But it was back again in no time as she met the throngs of reporters-not just from Canada, but from plenty of other countries who were wondering how the one lone Canadian member of our cycling track team managed to beat both the Aussie and Russian cycling machines. “I did it one race at a time,” she replied. But she also said that it was seventeen years in the sport, ten years on the track, and five years with her coach Steen Madsen in Edmonton. In the end, Muenzer put it all together on the day it mattered most. As she said, “I was the most powerful, the strongest, and the smartest. I’m in a daze, but today’s my day.”