By Scott Mercier,
US Olympian, Retired pro cyclist
Scott Mercier competed in the 1992 Olympic Games for Team USA and raced professionally for the Saturn, US Postal Service, and Navigators cycling teams. He will be contributing a monthly column for CTS, featuring stories from his cycling career and the triumphs and challenges of staying fit in the years since.
After qualifying for the 1992 Olympic Team at the USA Cycling Team Time Trial National Championship in Altoona, PA, (you can read about that experience here) all the athletes went home for a week. I was the first Olympian from Telluride, and my parents threw a big party. It was like a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting; quintessentially American.
I’m pretty sure most of the town showed up. We had fireworks, kegs of beer, and burgers. My dad, Bill, was a volunteer fireman so someone went to the fire station and drove a fire truck up to our house. About 20 of us jumped on it with an American flag and drove around town with the sirens wailing.
I left for Spain a few days later. But first, we had a two day stop-over in Tampa Bay to get our Olympic schwag and credentials. George Hincapie and I were walking through a conference center filling a shopping cart with shoes, warm-up suits, glasses, t-shirts, pins, and dozens of other items. We got fitted for jackets and slacks for the opening ceremonies.
We arrived in Barcelona about three weeks before the Opening Ceremonies. USA Cycling had rented a small hotel on the outskirts of the city so we could train on the rolling country roads. About 10-days before our race, our team captain, Dave Nicholson, crashed and broke his hip. Losing Dave was a big blow to our morale. Dave was steady and strong. He never seemed to tire or lose his cool.
The coaches scrambled to get the alternate, John Stenner, over to Europe. John was the individual time trial National Champion and was a beast of a rider. But our rhythm was off; Nate, George, Dave, and I had trained together for months. I’m sure if the coaches had a do-over, they’d have brought the two alternates to Europe to train with us so that we could have seamlessly worked together.
The TTT was the first event of the Olympic Games. We started at about 10am. Unfortunately, the timing meant we had to skip the Opening Ceremonies because being on our feet for hours was not the best way to prepare for a bike race. The course, which was similar to the one in Altoona, PA where we’d won the National Championships, was four 25-kilometer laps on flat and rolling roads in and around Barcelona. Teams would start at 3-minute intervals, and the heat and humidity were going to be big challenges.
A 100-kilometer Team Time Trial is extremely hard and intimidating. The only support you can get is in the event of a mechanical failure. No hydration or nutrition is allowed except for what you start with on your bikes. Our bikes had just one water bottle cage on the frame and a second behind the saddle. The spare bikes only had one bottle; we’d overlooked the fact that we might have needed two.
By the first turn around, 12.5 kilometers into the race, we’d suffered three mechanical failures and a bike change for George. The French, who’d started 3-minutes behind had already passed us. At 50k, George was out of water and then off the back. At 70k into the race, Nate blew as well. I remember riding up one of the rolling hills with John setting tempo while I sat up on the hoods monitoring Nate and to give him a bigger draft. We’d normally charge up this hill in the big-ring at 30+ kilometers an hour. But we couldn’t drop Nate; we needed three riders because the team’s official time was recorded when the third rider finished.
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We finished with a whimper in 16th place. John and I looked at each other and wished we could have a mulligan. We were 15 minutes slower than we were in Altoona on a nearly identical course. Even on our best day, it was unlikely we could have contended for a gold medal. But a top-5 was well within our capabilities. And to me, our placing was really irrelevant; it’s that we didn’t put our best foot forward. We didn’t cross the line knowing that we had done everything possible. Not even close. To this day, our result at the Olympic Games is one of the most frustrating and humiliating days of my life; I’m ashamed of it. Coach Carmichael would later tell me that USA Cycling changed many of the procedures as a result of the fiasco to help the athletes be better prepared.
However, I was just 24, and I was determined to make the most of my Olympic experience. We had tickets to boxing, swimming, tennis, gymnastics, diving, track and field, and many others. After our race, we moved to the Olympic Village and the experience was like no other. Doing laundry with the tennis player Michael Chang, having lunch with South Africans, playing foosball with other American athletes. It was one big international party. My sister and I saw many sunrises from hitting the clubs all night. The lines were long, but Olympic credentials got you VIP treatment and instant access. I didn’t let the disappointment of our result ruin the rest of the experience, and it’s one I’ll never forget.
John passed away a few years later when he was hit by a careless driver while riding south of Ft. Collins, Colorado. He and I roomed together when we moved to the Olympic Village after our race and I got to know him pretty well. I found him to be quiet, kind, and smart. I hope he’s smiling from heaven.
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