Canadian cyclists Simmerling, Mitchell using Olympic delay to their advantage

The postponement of this summer’s Tokyo Olympics until 2021 has meant different things for different athletes. For alpine skier-turned-ski-cross racer-turned-cyclist Georgia Simmerling, it’s meant putting off retirement. For track cycling up-and-comer Kelsey Mitchell, it’s meant another year of seasoning.

Simmerling and Mitchell were among the 17 athletes officially named to the Olympic road and track cycling team earlier this week. It will be the largest Olympic cycling contingent Canada has sent to a Games.

Had COVID-19 not rearranged the sports calendar, right about now, Simmerling would have been winding down final preparations with her team pursuit teammates at the Izu Velodrome, 120 kilometres outside of Tokyo.

Instead, she’s spending two weeks off-the-grid, recharging her batteries before she dials up her training regimen once again.

“Having to do this whole thing for another year has been hard to accept, but at the same time I really tried to see the positives,” she said from her family cottage in the San Souci area of Georgian Bay, south of Parry Sound, Ont. “I’m really lucky. I’m not sick. I’m healthy. I have Sport Canada funding. I’m not a nine-to-five mom, so I wasn’t trying to work and have kids running around our house. I know how hard it’s been for many other people.

“I’ve stayed fit, I’ve stayed super strong, but I’ve listened to my body. I’ve pushed hard when I needed to and rested when I needed to. The last couple months have really been awesome, actually.”

If there’s any Canadian athlete who can see the light at the end of this pandemic tunnel, it might be Simmerling.

Broken legs and torn ligaments

Though Tokyo will officially be the 31-year-old Vancouver native’s fourth Olympics, it would’ve been her fifth had it not been for an untimely injury before the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Games.

In the final ski cross race before those Olympics, Simmerling broke both her legs and tore multiple ligaments, requiring four surgeries. She may joke that she has 34 bits of metal holding her together, but it’s true.

Injuries sustained by Georgia Simmerling over her skiing career has resulted in 34 pieces of metal holding her together. (Kelly VanderBeek for CBC Sports)

There’s been at least one plus with the international racing season stalled. 

“I haven’t needed physio once in the last four months. I’ve been really proud of that. Normally I rely on it pretty aggressively,” Simmerling said. “My body has been happy for the last couple months.”   

Her renowned work ethic and drive has her once again on the world’s biggest stage, where she helped the team pursuit win a bronze medal four years ago in Rio.

As one of three holdovers from that squad along with Allison Beveridge and Jasmin Duehring (the newcomers are Annie Foreman-Mackey and Ariane Bonhomme), Simmerling says they’re focused on being on the podium again.   

“We want to improve our performance for sure. We’re hoping for a different colour medal around our necks, that’s our goal. We want it to be gold.”

An extra year of preparation

As a first-time Olympian, Mitchell was initially upset when Tokyo was postponed, but quickly realized it was a blessing. 

“I’m definitely one of the newer people on the bike, so an extra year of how to ride the track, how to pedal, and get stronger is definitely beneficial for me,” she said.

Canada’s Kelsey Mitchell, shown in this 2019 file photo, has continued to work on her performance since the delay to the Tokyo Games, training at the Mattamy National Cycling Centre in Milton, Ont. (File/Getty Images)

“Everyone has an extra year, but I don’t think I’ve reached my full potential so it’s exciting. Another year of training and who knows where I’ll be?”

Mitchell didn’t even own a bike until two and a half years ago.

The 26-year-old former university soccer player was discovered at a RBC Training Ground event in 2017. One year later, she was a triple medallist at the Canadian championships. It’s been nothing but growth on the international stage since – gold at the Pan American Games, four World Cup medals in her first international race season and two top-5 finishes at the world championships in February.

‘Hungrier than ever’

“The Olympics are a whole other level. Everyone comes to the Olympics at their absolute peak. You think people are fast now? Wait until Tokyo,” she said from Milton, Ont., where she rides the track at the Mattamy National Cycling Centre four days a week. 

“I’m excited to go into it confidently after another solid year of training and getting more experience on the bike. I’ll be ready when it happens.

One thing she knows for sure: finishing off the podium in the individual sprint at the world championships lit the fire even more for Tokyo.

“Fourth is a tough position to get. You’re so close, but so far away. You can almost taste the medal.

“I’m hungrier than ever to try and get on the top.”