Kirchmann playing it cool
Winnipeg cyclist preparing for Olympics by competing against best in world
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 04/05/2021 (690 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Leah Kirchmann realized a dream when she competed in her first Olympic Games in 2016.
Who could have known that reprising her role on the Canadian cycling team four years later would be so complicated?
The COVID-19 pandemic has cast doubt on the aspirations of many Olympic hopefuls — resulting at first in a postponement of the Tokyo Summer Games last summer and, a year later, there’s lingering doubt about whether the rescheduled Games will go off as planned.
THE ROAD TO TOKYO
In the weeks leading up to the scheduled start of the Games in Tokyo, the Free Press will profile the elite Manitoba athletes who will be taking part in the Summer Olympics or Paralympics. To start off our coverage, we talked to cyclist Leah Kirchmann about the long road back to the Games after making her Olympic debut in Rio five years ago.
At the moment, Kirchmann is playing it cool.
The 30-year-old former Winnipegger qualified almost two years ago to compete for Canada in the women’s road race and time trial events in Tokyo and she’s hell-bent on being there.
“I’ve learned to focus on the controllable factors,” she said by phone last week from her home base in Sittard, Netherlands. “And so I’m just continuing to prepare myself as if the Games will go on. That’s my hope that they’ll happen and that I can arrive there prepared. I’m not making the decision whether they happen or not but I can still control my preparation.”
The Games are less than three months away and preparation time in workouts and fine-tuning during races throughout Europe is critical.
Last weekend while riding for Team DSM, her Dutch-based pro team, Kirchmann posted stage results of second, third and seventh place to finish second overall at the prestigious Festival Luxembourgeois du cyclisme féminin Elsy Jacobs.
The result was another confirmation of a decision she made prior to the Rio Olympics when she pulled up stakes in Canada to relocate to the Netherlands to train and compete, although she still spends part of the year living and training in Dundas, Ont.
The 2020 world tour was delayed and then condensed into a shortened season between August and October but the 2021 season has clipped along, mostly unabated, with only a few pandemic-related postponements.
“That was a big motivating factor for signing with a European team,” she said. “I really wanted to compete against the best riders in the world every week and I wanted to become even better and to earn that spot on the Olympic team. And so that’s why I made the choice to commit full time to Europe… and learn the craft.”
The women’s road race, slated for July 25, starts at Musashinonomori Park and finishes 126 kilometres later at Fuji International Speedway.
LEAH KIRCHMANN’S OLYMPIC FILE
Current residence: Sittard, Netherlands
Pro affiliation: Team DSM
Olympic events: women’s cycling road race, individual time trial
“I think it’s actually quite an interesting course and I think it makes it an open race that’s a little hard to predict, but I think it actually suits me quite well as a rider,” said Kirchmann. “I’m really an all-round type rider with a good sprint so I could see an opportunity if I can get the right move. I could have medal potential in this race.”
Three days later, she will ride in the women’s 22-kilometre time trial and Kirchmann believes she has podium potential there as well.
From DSM’s training base in Sittard, she is routinely testing herself against the sport’s best and brightest.
The Dutch team is a road-racing powerhouse, having produced the last four world championship winners in addition to the 2012 Olympic champion Marianne Vos and Rio winner Anna van der Breggen.
“I’ve been feeling better and better in the races as they happen,” said Kirchmann. “And so I feel that’s a positive thing heading towards the summer and towards Tokyo. I’m finding my form on the bike and looking forward to the next races.”
Kirchmann will join the Canadian team next month for altitude training in Spain and she can feel secure in the knowledge her place on Team Canada is secure, while many of her DSM teammates are still working toward qualifying for their respective countries.
“I am very fortunate that I can focus so completely on performance at the Games and not trying to also qualify still,” said Kirchmann. “I guess I’ve tried to frame the one-year delay as an opportunity for growth. It gave me a whole extra year to learn more about myself as a rider and to try different things in training.”
DSM also has riders from France, Netherlands, Germany, Norway, Sweden and the U.S. Finding a balance when racing for your country and a professional team can be a tricky undertaking.
“It takes collaboration between the federation and my professional team and really good communication and working together,” she said. “Through this we’re able to make plans that are aligned to achieve both of our goals: that I race well for both Canada at the Olympics and well for my team on the World Tour circuit.”
Racing for Canada at the Olympics was not always a given.
Prior to the 2012 Games in London, Kirchmann was in the pool of riders competing for an Olympic berth but only landed a spot on the team as an alternate. Four years later, she battled hot and humid conditions en route to a 38th-place finish in the road race at Rio.
“I think I learned a lot of lessons from my first Olympics in Rio that I’ll definitely take with me now heading into Tokyo,” she said, noting stricter attention to nutrition should serve her well in Tokyo. “I think the Games will look different in a lot of ways, but I think just having a sense of I know what I’m going into and what the competitions will look like will offer me an advantage this time around.”
One major difference in Tokyo will be the exclusion of international spectators, which eliminates Kirchmann’s Winnipeg-based parents, Rob and Gina, who were originally booked to travel to Japan last year.
“Even up to now it feels like, ‘Is it going to happen?’” said her dad Rob Kirchmann, who watched the 2016 road race finish with his wife in the VIP section at Fort Copacabana. “I hope it does for the sake of the athletes, but it’s just going to be a different feel, I think. A different kind of Games.”
Leah’s mom admits her level of anxiety rises when she watches her daughter race in person or via livestream.
“It’s actually really nerve-racking,” said Gina Kirchmann. “For me, you just want all the girls and women to finish the race safely. I’m a mother, I get to be a worrier. It’s quite exciting, we follow online and a handful of the bigger races are televised.”
Danger is an intrinsic part of the sport.
“Crashes are the biggest fear,” added Gina Kirchmann. “You’re going down hills up to 90 km/h and when it’s wet… I mean and Leah has broken her collarbone twice in cycling accidents, so the risk is real.”
The fear of injury doesn’t appear to have deterred Leah yet. She’ll turn 31 before the Olympics but isn’t looking to wind down her competitive career. In fact, elite female riders have been known to excel into their late 30s and Kirchmann loves the way the sport pushes her beyond what she thought she was capable of.
“I don’t put a limit on myself for how long I could do this,” said Kirchmann. “I’ll do this for as long as I’m enjoying it and experiencing growth and improvement and having an adventure.”
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.
Updated on Tuesday, May 4, 2021 6:34 PM CDT: Fixes formatting
Updated on Tuesday, May 4, 2021 11:04 PM CDT: Updates earlier version to final