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When Mia Manganello takes my call she’s in the middle of a ‘medal tour.’ She’s in her car, making her way through Salt Lake City. Her bronze Olympic medal tossed on the passenger seat.
Her bags remain unpacked as the first-time Olympian runs around in much demand.
“People keep wanting to see [the medal] so I carry it around, just in case,” the former professional cyclist explains.
“There’s been a lot of attention for us, which is very nice. What a change!”
Manganello was part of the three-person pursuit speed skating team that earned Team USA their first women’s speed skating medal in 16 years. It’s a great story and despite it seemingly being all about skating, ultimately without the bike Manganello may never have made it down this twisting path toward a winter Olympics medal.
Just weeks out, the medal winning trio of Manganello, Brittany Bowe and Heather Bergsma weren’t even expecting to be skating together at the Olympics.
Leading up to PeyongChang, Bergsma and Bowe were focused on their individual events, so Manganello and Team USA assembled a secondary team pursuit team to try and earn enough points to qualify for Korea.
“Unfortunately, we came short,” Manganello states simply. “And we obviously were upset about that, but the plan was to move forward with our other [non-Olympic] events.”
Mere weeks before the start of the Olympics, as winter athletes everywhere were dotting the I’s and crossing the final T’s, Manganello found herself receiving some unexpected news while in Milwaukee on a two-week training camp.
It was then that news broke about Russia’s doping scandals, and one by one, athletes were getting disqualified.
“As it turned out, Russia wouldn’t have enough women to put together a team for the spot that they qualified for, which meant there was a new opening,” Manganello explained. “And we were the first reserve.”
Manganello was given a plane ticket and headed to Korea where she would meet up with Bowe and Bergsma. The trio had never skated together.
“We had one practice session together two days before the qualifying race and that was that. We showed up on the day of the qualifying race, skated the practice ice and basically winged it. We didn’t have any expectations. We just had a rough estimate of the times we needed to skate and we just went out and did the best we could,” said Manganello.
They finished fourth. Thereby securing a spot in the finals. But it wasn’t until the trio had a minute alone, in the locker room, that the potential sunk in.
“We came away with a fourth place on our second time ever skating together. We were only going to get better each time we skated together, and so we knew we had the possibility to win a medal.”
And that they did. On February 21, the trio won bronze behind Japan and The Netherlands — Team USA’s first ever team pursuit medal.
“It was huge,” says Manganello, who’s first run at the Olympics had been 15 years in the making.
Skating, cycling and skating again
It seems unlikely that a girl who grew up in tropical Florida would end up on the ice, but once Manganello puts her mind to something, there’s no stopping her.
While ice was hard to come by in Florida, pavement was not. And like many girls her age, she’d taken to in-line skating. She’d been 12 years old, watching the the ’02 Olympics when she learned that some of the American speed skaters had been former “in-liners” like her.
“And so there was a group of us who decided to try [ice skating]. We went to a local hockey rink in Florida and they had some speed skates you could rent and it was just something new, fun and exciting. A new challenge, and knowing that it could result in going to the Olympics —which is the ultimate goal for any athlete — I was hooked.”
With full support and belief in their daughter’s athletic potential, the Manganello family packed up their bags and headed north, settling in Salt Lake City where Manganello could pursue ice skating in earnest.
And that she did. Focused, Managello progressed quickly as she kept a determined eye on future Olympic Games.
In 2010 she came close. The then 20-year-old had developed into a pretty good skater and making the Olympic selection was a reasonable goal.
“I had a pretty awesome coach who developed me into the skater that I was going to become technically, and also matured me physically into a better skater,” Manganello recalls.
But her coach was let go in the Olympic year and suddenly Manganello found herself scrambling to find a new coach and a new program.
“It was kind of a stranded moment,” Manganello recalls. “And unfortunately I was not at the mental level to handle that, so when I approached the 2010 Olympic trials with all hopes and capability of making the team, I fell short.”
Switch in careers
After failing to make the team during the 2010 Olympic trials, Manganello decided to step away, take a break and embark on a new career: professional cycling.
“I had one year of doing nothing — of normalcy — and then I took up cycling,” Manganello says. “It started by joining a local group and after I did a couple rides and they thought I was pretty good and asked me to try the Tuesday night crit races. I think I got second in my first race and that is where the love of cycling began.”
Now speed skating and cycling are very comparable and skaters spend a significant amount of time in the saddle in training. So Manganello was by no means new to cycling.
“Correct, yeah. I had been cycling since I was 13,” Manganello states.
But it was different then.
“I think that as a speed skater, especially at a younger age, all you want to do is skate. If you have to do anything else, it’s a pain in the arse. It’s something you had to do to get better at your sport,” Manganello says.
“So when I left speed skating and got back onto the bike, [my dad] was actually in complete shock. He laughed at me and didn’t think I was serious when I told him I was going to race because I had always hated it so much.”
“But I was always decent at it. And when it became the main focus, it was amazing how everything just flipped over. It totally became a love and a passion.”
Just two years later, Manganello had made her way up to the highest level in the US and rode for the Visit Dallas – DNA Pro Cycling Team for three years, earning some sprinter jerseys and respectable podium finishes along the way.
The career was short-lived, however, as a return to the ice was inevitable. But the cycling years were nothing short of monumental. They were a true turning point that would lead to the bronze medal laying beside her now.
The return to the ice
Despite her newfound love for cycling and sporting career, the Winter Olympic dream continued to nag at Manganello.
“Ever since I quit in 2010, I had my doubts. I wouldn’t say that I regret quitting but I definitely had a big, what if? I was constantly watching results from races and just thinking, I can do this. I can do those times,” she says.
With a new Olympic cycle about to start, Manganello seized her “now or never” moment.
“Having the five years of cycling in the legs, I was in the best shape of my life and I was 15 pounds lighter then I was when I skated previously which we all know as cyclists, watts per kilo, I’m going to go pretty fast. I knew I had what it takes to make the Olympics, which was the ultimate goal and to quit before accomplishing that was what was sitting on me.” Manganello explains.
Manganello returned to the ice after finishing the 2015 cycling season, skating faster than she’d even done before. She won Nationals and the path to the Olympics was laid out before her.
The determination and work ethic had always been there, but this time a little bit of luck was on her side too. Russia’s disqualification became Mangenello’s golden opportunity and the fulfilment of a 15-year dream.
Bronze thanks to cycling
“So is it fair to say that cycling helped you get this medal?” I ask her.
“Oh yeah. Hands down!” Manganello cries out.
“If it wasn’t for quitting in 2010 and finding cycling, there’s no way I’d be where I am right now. Cycling not only put me in the best shape of my life, it also developed into a strong woman, mentally and physically. I’m eternally grateful for finding cycling and what it’s done for me.”
Her mind was her limiter in her effort to qualify for the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. But this time around, her mind and ability to suffer was stronger than ever before.
“You know, when I skated previously, my favorite event was the 3000 meters. It’s seven and a half laps and it lasts four minutes. This race was death. It was the hardest thing. I never skated faster than four minutes and 18 seconds, which is mediocre,” Manganello recalls.
“When I came over to cycling, you know, we’re racing for three hours, hovering on that red line. You find a new level of mental strength when you’re on the bike and you’re watching your watts, you’ve got an effort going and you just suffer through it. It creates a different type of athlete I think. So when I when I came back to skating and I jumped on the ice, I was like ‘four minutes? Pfffttt that’s one effort of a Vo2 workout. You know you can do anything for four minutes. You can push yourself to the absolute max and still be OK.”
“Cycling brought a realisation of what actual pain is in a way and what I’m actually capable of.”
When asked what the bike means to her now — that torture device that she had once hated so much — Manganello chokes up, stammers as she continues.
“It really is a magical thing that bike,” she says.
“You know you always hear people say the bike is freedom, it’s the wind in your face and all that. Well for me, I had a very different start to cycling. It was more of a hatred. So for me cycling … cycling brought me my dreams.
“Cycling created the person I always wanted to be. And without it, I wouldn’t be here and I wouldn’t have accomplished what I have accomplished.”
When asked what’s next, Manganello immediately turns tears into an infectious laugh.
“I’m getting married!” she shouts out.
“I get married in June and till then I’m going to jump on the bike again. At what level? I’m not sure yet but knowing me, I’ll be trying to be at the highest level again pretty soon.”
So no big goals on the ice?
“You know as of now, it’s hard to say. It’s hard for me to say retirement, so I am not counting it out by any means and I am sure it’ll develop into a 2022 goal.”