Mon, September 23, 2013

Whitten a two-wheeled favourite at Olympics

By DEREK VAN DIEST, QMI Agency


Tara Whitten celebrates after the individual pursuit of the Women's Omnium at the UCI Track Cycling World Championships in Apeldoorn in March of last year. (Reuters)

EDMONTON - Tara Whitten took the road less travelled to the London Olympics.

Unlike most athletes participating in the Games, who have devoted years of their lives to their craft, Whitten is relatively new to her discipline.

A former cross-country skier, Whitten, 32, jumped on a bike six years ago and decided to stay on it, quickly rising to the top of cycling community.

She heads to the Olympics as a three-time world champion and one of Canada’s best medal hopes in London.

Her rise was meteoric, as six years ago Whitten was attempting to qualify for the Winter Olympics in Turin.

After falling short and failing to make Canada’s cross-country team in 2006, Whitten focused her sights on the 2010 Games in Vancouver. However, she put her skis away for good following the 2007 season as she lost her drive for the sport. At that point, it appeared as though Whitten’s Olympic dreams would never be realized.

However, fate had other ideas.

Whitten jumped on a bike, essentially to stay in shape in case her passion for cross-country skiing returned.

As it turned out, she was a natural, and a year later took part in her first national championship event, where she won the points race and individual pursuit. That launched her successful international career.

She won a pair of silver medals at the Track World Cup in Manchester, England to start the 2008-2009 season, then won two bronze medals in Cali, Colombia later that year.

The following season, Whitten claimed her first world championship, winning the team pursuit at the 2010 UCI Track Cycling World Cup with teammates Laura Brown and Stephanie Roorda.

A few months later, Whitten won gold in both the Omnium — a six-race event — and the points race at the world championships.

The Omnium, which features a fastest-lap sprint, 20-kilometre points race, elimination race, 3,000-metre pursuit, scratch race and time trial, was added to the program for the London Games.

Whitten went on to defend her world title a year later, making her a medal favourite heading into the Olympics.

A neuroscience student at the University of Alberta, Whitten has put her PhD studies on hold in pursuit of Olympic glory.

The women’s Omnium event takes place on Aug. 6 and 7 at the London Velodrome.

Despite being a two-time world champion in the event, Whitten will still be in tough to win a medal.

As a relatively new event, it continues to attract more competitors, making the field tougher in London than it was at the 2010 and 2011 world championships.

At this year’s Worlds in Australia, Whitten finished fourth, placing behind the next generation of cyclists.

British cyclist Laura Trott, 20, won the event in Melbourne and will head to London as the gold-medal favourite. Australia’s Annette Edmondson, another 20-year-old, took silver at the worlds.

derek.vandiest@sunmedia.ca

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Tara Whitten

Born: July 13, 1980

Hometown: Edmonton

University: University of Alberta

Twitter: @tara_whitten

Career Notes: A former cross-country skier, took to cycling competitively in 2008 … Won two gold medals at national championships in 2008 … Finished second in individual pursuit at Track World Cup in 2008 in Manchester, England … Won gold in team pursuit in 2010 Track Cycling World Cup … Won gold in Omnium event at 2010 Track World Championships … Won gold in Omnium event at 2011 Tack World Championships … Won gold in team time trial at Commonwealth Games … Competing in her first Olympic Games.