TOP PHOTO: Tom Moran
Now that the games of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics are officially complete, and the celebratory vodka bottles have all been drained, it’s probably time to start thinking about the summer games in Rio. It’s hard for me, though, to think about the Olympics and not think back almost 20 years, to the first time mountain biking was featured in the games.
The course for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics was brutal. The venue, the same location used for the equestrian events, did not allow epic elevation gain and loss that had become the sport’s signature—at least in America—but it twisted and undulated and transitioned from fast, shaded singletrack to power-robbing sections of dead grass that seemed to amplify the power of the Georgia sun. The course offered no place to rest, and the tricky nature of its design meant that once you started making mistakes, you never got a chance to recover.
When the gun went off to start the women’s event, almost all eyes were focused on the United States’ Juli Furtado, undeniably the most dominant female XC rider in the sport’s history. Sadly, though, it quickly became evident that it wasn’t going to be her day.
Another rider, Italian Paola Pezzo, took the race by the reins. Resplendent in the shiny, metallic-looking, Italian team kit, the tall blond wasn’t shy about opening her jersey zipper, which not only allowed for some better ventilation in the scorching heat, but garnered a fair amount of ogling.
And while the world tried to catch a glimpse of the Italian’s cleavage, American Susan DeMattei calmly and quietly rode to the first-ever Olympic mountain-bike bronze, an achievement that wasn’t matched again by an American until Georgia Gould grabbed her own bronze at the 2012 London games.
And despite the opportunity to negotiate a new, and certainly more lucrative, contract for the 1997 season, Susan followed through on a promise she’d made herself and retired from professional mountain biking. She hung up her SPDs, returned to her career in nursing, married former U.S. National XC champ Dave Wiens and started a family.
Now, 18 years after her bronze-medal ride, Susan can remember pretty much every moment of her Olympic experience. Though she describes some of the big moments with the humble nonchalance of someone talking about putting bread in a toaster.
The run-up to the games over the two years prior had been a nervous and exciting experience for everyone involved, but once she’d made the team and arrived at the Olympics, there was surprisingly little stress for Susan.
“There was no pressure on me—not one speck,” she remembers.
Though largely due to the fact that Juli Furtado was still being viewed as the favorite, Susan also credits her calm demeanor at the Atlanta Olympics to its relative closeness to home, the treatment she received from USA Cycling and that her then-fiancé was also there, working on the course.
Of course it didn’t start off as a walk in the park. During a quick one-hour warm-up on the roads around Stone Mountain, where the USA Cycling contingent was staying, DeMattei was urged out of the way—or off the road—by a loud honking horn. She turned and saw an angry, gesturing man in a beat-up pickup truck. As the truck rolled alongside, their eyes locked and DeMattei understood that the man felt she had no business being on his roads.
“I was in tears,” she says.
After years of training, pain and sacrifice, the start of an Olympic dream had the potential to become a complete nightmare.
“I remember screaming, ‘I’m training for the Olympics!’”
Luckily, the rest of her rides went relatively smoothly, including that inaugural mountain-bike race itself.
On the morning of the event, Susan was characteristically calm. “Finally, we get to do it.” She lined up last in a field of just fewer than 40 women. A crash just 100 yards from the start line slowed her progress, but as she started passing her competitors—easily—early in the first lap, she knew that she was having a good day.
Nearing the end of the final lap, DeMattei had Norwegian Gunn-Rita Dahle—who won gold at the 2004 Olympics—in tow. She accepted that she’d be finishing fourth for the day. Dahle had a strong finish and as Susan says, “I couldn’t sprint out of a paper bag.”
Closer to the finish, and cramping because of the severe heat, the American looked over her shoulder—but found no one there. She crossed the line to take home the Olympic games’ very first mountain-bike bronze.
These days, almost two decades removed from that promise, Susan is still a wife to Dave Wiens, a mom to Cooper, Ben and Sam, and a nurse in Gunnison, Colorado.
And sometimes, she’s also “a total hack” on skates in the local adult hockey league.