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San Diego Cyclist Wins Unprecedented Gold Medal

Jennifer Valente of Team United States competes during a qualifying heat for track cycling women's team pursuit at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Monday, Aug. 2, 2021, in Izu, Japan.
AP Photo / Christophe Ena
Jennifer Valente of Team United States competes during a qualifying heat for track cycling women's team pursuit at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Monday, Aug. 2, 2021, in Izu, Japan.

San Diego cyclist Jennifer Valente Sunday celebrated becoming the first American woman to win a track cycling Olympic gold medal, winning the four-event omnium, despite being involved in a late crash.

"Olympic gold? It's hard to believe, it'll sink in eventually but it hasn't quite yet," Valente told reporters at the Izu Velodrome Sunday, Japan time.

Valente took the lead from Australian Annette Edmonson on the final lap to win the opening event, a 7.5-kilometer, 30-lap scratch race, in nine minutes, 16 seconds. In a scratch race, the riders start together and race to be the first over the finish line.

A third-place finish in the second event, a 7.5-kilometer, 30-lap tempo race, gave Valente a six-point lead over Kirsten Wild of Netherlands and Yumi Kajihara of Japan. In a tempo race, the leading rider is awarded points for winning a lap. Valente won three laps.

Valente's lead over Kajihara dropped to two points following the third event,

the elimination race, where the last rider is eliminated after every second lap. Valente finished fourth, two places behind Kajihara.

In each of the first three events, the winner receives 40 points, the second-place finisher 38, with each place further back worth two points less.

The final event is a 20-kilometer, 80-lap points race, where riders race for 20 kilometers and are awarded points along the way. The points from the sprint race are added directly onto the total score.

The top four finishers in each of the eight sprints receive points, with the points doubled for the final sprint. Valente received five points for winning the first sprint, which Kajihara did not finish in the top four.

Valente received three points for her second-place finish in the third sprint.

With 22 laps remaining, the bicycle ridden by Ebtissam Zayed Ahmed crossed wheels with Valente's, taking both of them down. Valente recovered quickly, using several free laps to get back up and into the back race.

"I think there was a moment of panic and just trying to take a breath and assess the situation and figure out where I was at and where it put me," Valente said. "Then I just kept fighting the last 20 laps."

Valente raced at the back of the field to get her bearings. After the sprint with 10 laps to go, Valente propelled herself to the front of the field, where she would stay for the remainder of the race, placing second in the final sprint for six points. (Points for the final sprint are doubled.)

Valente finished the omnium with 124 points. Kajihara was second with 110 points and Wild third with 108 points.

When Valente realized she won, she went into the crowd of coaches and fell to the ground, then draped herself with an American flag in tears.

"There were probably 100 emotions running through me, and I think the biggest thing is that none of them had really set in yet," Valente said. "I don't know if they still have set in and to understand what it means to be an Olympic champion. It's been really emotional, and it's been a long five years, and I'm so happy to get this result."

Valente was ranked first in the omnium on the UCI World Cup circuit in the 2017-18 and 2019-20 seasons, and won the event at the Pan American Championships in 2017, 2018 and 2019 and the 2019 Pan American Games.

"I think this result certainly has years and years behind it," Valente said. "With my teammates, we won silver in the team pursuit in Rio and bronze here this week. I think just trying to build with that energy, and in continuation, this had always been a goal. To achieve that, it just opens your eyes to continue to look forward and find new opportunities and new goals in the future."

Valente and her team pursuit teammates lived in Colorado Springs, Colorado for the past year.

"I think that was a huge contributing factor — to be around my teammates and constantly pushing each other day in and day out in different kinds of training sessions," Valente said.

"This journey with both my teammates and the staff and our support staff with the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee is kind of an accumulation of this race and it really was a joint effort."

The 26-year-old Valente grew up in San Diego riding mountain and BMX bicycles around her neighborhood with her brothers. Valente's father Thomas raced bikes in the 1980s, and she grew up listening to race stories. She participated in many sports as a youth, including soccer, baseball and swimming.

Encouraged by her father's love of riding bicycles, when she was 14 she attended youth classes at the San Diego Velodrome and was drawn in by the uniquely contained environment in which she could push herself.