What I have learned: Connie Carpenter, women’s cycling’s first Olympic gold medalist

While men’s bike racing has been a part of the Olympic Games since the 1896 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, women’s cycling didn’t get the same international showcasing until 1984, at the Olympic Summer Games in Los Angeles,  California, USA.

It was a road race, nearly 80 kilometres in length on the streets of Mission Viejo, with 45 participants representing 16 nations contesting the gold medal. But it was the hometown nation who stole the show. With two riders in the lead five-rider group, compatriots Rebecca Twigg and Connie Carpenter (now Carpenter-Phinney) sprinted for the win, securing an historic 1-2 for Team USA. With a bike throw, Carpenter would go down as women’s cycling very first Olympic gold medalist while Twigg took home the silver medal. West Germany’s Sandra Schumacher rounded out the podium for a bronze medal.

While a first for women’s cycling, the 1984 LA Games certainly weren’t Carpenter-Phinney’s first experience on the international stage. A lifelong, multi-discipline athlete, Carpenter had made her Olympic debut at the 1972 Winter Olympics in Japan as a speed skater. At just 14 years old, Carpenter was one of the youngest competitors there, and finished seventh in the women’s 1,500 metre event.

An ankle injury prevented her from competing in the next Winter Olympics, but she was quick to turn misfortune into opportunity, swapping skates for wheels.

We caught up with Carpenter-Phinney to look back on her career and the lessons she has learned.

Two careers

Before she was an Olympian, Carpenter-Phinney was just a little sister tagging along after her older brothers. Monkey see, monkey (almost) do. She became a speed skater because “girls didn’t play hockey back then” and her brothers did. Speed skating was the next best option.

“Speed skating was, pretty interestingly a sport that girls could do basically at the same level as the guys. We had all the same races on all the same days and it was really a family sport,” said Carpenter-Phinney, who reached the top level of the sport before she even reached high school.

She was just 14 when she competed at the biggest international stage of all: the Winter Olympics. She was quick to stress that she was not the youngest athlete there, however.

“There was another 14 year-old,” she said nonchalantly, as if being an Olympian at that age was no big deal.

“I didn’t think that much about it. I was just trying to do my best,” said Carpenter-Phinney, now 60. “This is way before all the media. The pressure was just a whole lot less. I just expected to do well because that is what I was there for.”

Following the 1972 Winter Olympics, Carpenter-Phinney went on to win the 1976 US National Championships in speed skating, but an ankle injury put an end to her time as a speed skater —and made way for an eight-year stint of racing at the top level in women’s cycling.

“I started to ride my bike to get across town to meet training groups, or to get away from anyone seeing me training because one of the things that is hard to explain to today’s generation is training was weird,” she said laughing. “Now we brag about our workouts but back then, you didn’t want people to know.”

“Cycling and speedskating had a lot of crossover back then. I had been introduced to it as a sport by [multi-time cycling and speed skating world champion] Sheila Young-Ochowicz, but the injury I had to my ankle was pretty significant and I had chronic ankle pain.”

The pain was caused by tendonitis, and eventually the constant pressure all-left-turns on the ice weighed heavy on her ankles causing a tear. Surgery ensued, but once she started bike racing, the thought never crossed her mind to return to speed skating.

“What I really liked about cycling versus speed skating was the give-and-go of a bike race. Speed skating was more of riding the track where that would be what you make the analogy to in cycling. It’s the timed events, they are not massed start when you get to the Olympic level, they were short time trials and so can’t really make a mistake in those,” Carpenter-Phinney said.

“What I really like in cycling is that you fall down and still win the race…which I did a few times.”

Excelling in cycling as she had in skating, Carpenter won 12 U.S. cycling championships on the road and track — more than any cyclist in history at that time. She also won four world championships medals in both the pursuit and road race.

By the time it was announced that a women’s cycling event would be included at the 1984 Games, Carpenter-Phinney had been contemplating retirement. But with an historic cycling medal in her home country up for grabs, she turned her focus onto one final event.

She did not think a day past the event. In her mind, she was retiring regardless.

“I had other things to do,” she said.

And when that day came, she rose to the challenge, secured the gold medal with a bike throw — a tactic her husband and fellow cyclist Davis Phinney had taught her.

She retired immediately after the race, and just with her decision in speed skating, she was set on her decision; no doubts, no regrets.

“It was time to move on.”

Connie Carpenter with son Taylor Phinney in 2010.

Carpenter-Phinney married fellow professional Davis Phinney 10 months before the 1984 Olympics. Both walked away with medals from that event. The athletic power couple have two children together, Olympian and procyclist Taylor Phinney and professional nordic skier, Kelsey Phinney.

Carpenter-Phinney has a master’s degree in science, co-authored the book “Training for Cycling” with husband Davis, and enjoys her role as an ambassador for cycling. She and Phinney spend much of their time promoting the Davis Phinney Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to help people with Parkinson’s disease, which the duo founded in 2004 after Phinney was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s in 2000.

Q&A

After your career ended, what was you involvement in the cycling community?

I was the National junior coach, actually, which was a very part-time job. But I got to work with the National junior girls for several years. In fact, in 1989, my girls were first and second at the World Championships in Moscow, and I did get into coaching for a while but in 1990 Taylor was born and I didn’t want to travel as much. We ran a bike camp business which began as instructional camps in Colorado to teach people how to handle their bikes better and how to train better. It was really a camp concept taken from a regular training camp idea. We did that for 25 years and it changed from being more instructional based to lifestyle based and we moved our camps to go to Europe to see the Tour de France, or just spend a week in tuscany, or the pyrenees, or the dolomites. For 25 years we’d do that which was the perfect the job for me raising the kids because it was mostly summer camps and the kids came along.

How have you seen women’s cycling change?

There was a big shift from the 1970’s to the 1980’s in women’s sports and a lot of that had to do with legislation in the US — which didn’t affect cycling specifically, that was Title IX — but it did affect the way women’s sports were perceived and what the expectations were. I think we had a lot of carry over to sports like cycling, even though we were not a collegiate sport, because Title IX was directed for collegiate athletics.

It was a landmark decision which really changed women’s sports collegiately and so women’s cycling, when I first got in, was pretty small we would just have a few women that would turn up to the races in the Midwest, we would have to race with what they called “veterans men”, which is masters men. By the time the early 1980’s rolled around and the Red Zinger had become the Coors Classic, it was really the bike race here in Colorado that changed everything. We had huge crowds following women’s cycling and that trickled over to other races. There were races in Pennsylvania, Idaho, and all over that were big women’s stage races. They were very well funded and super competitive. So much of that went away towards the late 1980’s to early 1990’s when, for some reason, the Tour de France became outsized in its importance. That was even before Lance, and after Lance it became even more outsized! People only cared about the Tour de France.

In 1984 we had the first women’s Olympic road race, we had the Women’s Tour de France, and the we had the Coors Classic here. So it was really growing, we were really going somewhere.

…Not to mention the Ore-Ida Tour.

[The Orida Tour] was a statement, they decided that they were going to sponsor only women’s cycling and so you know it was almost shifting in that direction — women were becoming the focus — and some of that was because at the time corporate America recognized that women make most of the buying decisions, so in terms of marketing and sponsorship budgets, they started to shift to give more to the women, I think. But again, we seemed to have lost that progress that we made there flipped backwards, and I don’t mean to imply ever that the quality of women’s cycling has gone down because it hasn’t — it is super high — but if that trajectory had continued and that the women had had the forum and the momentum that had developed in the 80’s carry through, it would be a different deal today. I think that women’s cycling struggles, women cyclists struggle so much today to be seen.

If you want to find out about a women’s cyclist you can but I’d really like to see more cycling on TV. It is so disappointing because we lose that opportunity to thrill and awe the fans with great racing.

Everybody looks to the Tour de France to be the leader for the women and I don’t think that is correct, I think we have to look up to the UCI and the national governing bodies to drive the women’s events. I think that if you give them the events then they do they job, the women race. We then need the coverage, we need to see it.

When did you first find out about your husband’s Parkinson’s disease?

He was diagnosed in 2000, he was 40 years old, he was doing television commentary and he was working in the industry as well as our bike camps when he was diagnosed.

What sparked the idea of creating the Davis Phinney Foundation?

We created the Foundation because of someone who wanted to raise money for a neuroscience institute in Cincinnati. It was friend of ours who ran a bike shop and came to one of our camps. And it started there, with starting to fund a project, and then become our lives work over the last 15 years… well maybe it’s not been 15 years, maybe it’s been 12! It’s been a lot of years and we both spend a lot of time on the foundation. The goal of the foundation is to help people live well with Parkinson’s disease. A lot of that is with exercise so it is a natural extension of kind of who we are, just helping people navigate what is really a difficult and taxing disease.

I saw that the foundation received white house recognition, did you foresee it gaining as much ground as it has now?

It’s not like when you set out to win a bike race, your goals are not quite as fixed. They are very fluid and we started really small and took our time to figure out where we could have the best impact to help people living with Parkinson’s. Davis has been recognized for a long time as well as the organization as being one of the most positive and informative foundations that exists, and we are actually a small foundation but we have big international reputation which really helps us to get the word out. Neither of us do the work for the recognition as much as we do it because it needs to be done

How do you see the foundation evolving?

We just have to keep getting bigger and reaching more people. As people with Parkinson’s become in depth with the internet, the more we can do to provide them with the community online, I feel is important. We have been working towards that. We travel to as many cities as we can to impact people and we just continue to grow and do the best work we can do. To shine a light on people and give as much as we can.

How would you describe your career in cycling and life after?

My cycling career was a great time in my life, I was young and the sport was really growing fast during that time so I really considered myself to be a pioneer of women in sport and women in cycling. I had a lot of freedom too. I raced a lot in men’s races, I got to travel a lot of the world. It was a crazy existence, and it’s so different now. I think I got to race at a really good time during women’s cycling. My life after has been very family centered, but still cycling centered, and I still love to ride my bike and get out as much as I can. I love staying in touch with some top women in the sport as well as women who have just gotten into it. I have learned a lot by watching Taylor and his growth in sport, so we continue to be involved and yet continue to use cycling as a way to live better today.