There is the almost impossibly improbable story of Kelsey Mitchell, who was feeling adrift behind the wheel of a Ford F-550 in 2017 spraying weeds in the ditches of Alberta’s Strathcona County, who four years ago did not own a bicycle, who thought maybe she had the makings of a bobsledder – but who on Sunday became an Olympic gold medalist in track cycling.
But there is also the story of a woman who saw in cycling the perfect foil for a relentless competitive streak: a sport in which each millisecond and each watt could be measured, and then bettered, and bettered again.
“You put someone against me and I’ll do everything I can not to lose and cross that line first,” Mitchell said Sunday.
Her gold medal, beating out Ukraine’s Olena Starikova in the sprint event on the final day of the Tokyo Olympics, put an exclamation mark on Canada’s best Summer Games since 1984.
“Every time I’m hearing ‘gold medalist’, ‘Olympic champion’ I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s real – it’s not a dream,’” she said.
Looking back on the few short years it took her to arrive here, she said: “It’s crazy.”
Mitchell dabbled in sports from a young age, with turns in gymnastics, ringette, judo, basketball and soccer, which she played in university.
After graduation, she spent three months travelling through Southeast Asia. She had a plan for her return, to work at the Suncor refinery in Strathcona. But before she could board her flight to Canada, she contracted dengue. She spent a week in hospital. By the time she landed in Alberta, she had missed the window to interview for the refinery job.
“I came back and I was completely lost and I didn’t really know what I was doing with my life,” she said. When she found the job driving a truck with Strathcona County, she took it. “I would take anything because I was just broke,” she said.
But through the hours of driving a truck alongside ditches, the itch to compete became impossible to ignore.
“I just wasn’t ready to be done with sports,” she said.
She signed up for RBC Training Ground, a talent-identification program, and began to get herself in shape, running during lunch breaks and hitting the gym in the evening.
She flew to Toronto five days early for the training ground, determined to ensure the two-hour time difference would not affect her performance.
“I knew if I didn’t go to this tryout I would question it maybe for the rest of my life,” she said. “I went all in, fully committed.”
When it came time to jump at the tryout, a representative of Cycling Canada took notice of the power of her legs. She was placed on a watt-bike, where in six seconds of furious pedaling she exceeded the national standard. She had not owned a bicycle since she was 12.
Three months later, she signed with Cycling Canada.
Ten months after that, she won a national competition. By August, 2019, she had added gold and silver medals at the Pan Am Games. The following month, she set a world record, completing the flying 200 metres in 10.154 seconds, a speed of 70.9 kilometres an hour, fuelled by a diet of eggs, chicken, rice and peanut butter.
She went to Japan with ambitions of stepping on a podium, but securing gold did nothing to dim her thirst for competition.
“I can still improve on things. I’m a gold medalist now, but I know I can improve. And I can get better,” the 27-year-old said.
Her medal on Sunday was the last of the Tokyo Olympics for Canada. But Mitchell was unable to attend the closing ceremony on Sunday night. Track cycling events were held in Izu, 125 kilometres southwest of the Olympic Stadium. Mitchell experienced the Olympics at a remove, watching others compete on a laptop.
But, she said Sunday night, “I’m glad we ended with a bang.”