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Islanders Pendrel, Sweetland finally get their Games moment

Posted on August 19, 2016

All routes from the Hartland and Bear Mountain trails, and from the roads of the Saanich Peninsula, converge Saturday morning in Rio de Janeiro for two extraordinary Island sporting products. But it has been a circuitous route, physically and emotionally, to get there for Catharine Pendrel and Kirsten Sweetland.

Pendrel will contest the Olympic women’s mountain-bike race at 8:30 a.m. (CBC) and Stelly’s Secondary-graduate Sweetland the Olympic triathlon at 7 a.m. (TSN) and each will do so with something to prove. Pendrel is a two-time world champion but the Olympics have proven a podium too far up to now with fourth place at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games and a deeply disappointing ninth at London in 2012.

There will be a viewing party to watch Saturday’s race at the Westin Bear Mountain, where the Canadian national mountain-biking team is based. The 5.5-kilometre Bear Mountain circuit was built to replicate the Rio Olympic course to help Pendrel prepare.

“Catharine is amazing. She is still at heart the same person who came out for those early rides at Hartland [when she was a little known member of the University of Victoria triathlon team],” said Canadian Olympic team mountain-bike head coach Dan Proulx of Victoria, speaking from Rio.

“She is such a consistent performer.”

And a persistent one.

“At first she said: ‘Let’s try to win Island Cups,’ ” recalled Proulx, who has mentored Pendrel from the tentative beginnings of her mountain-biking career.

“Then it was: ‘Do you think we can go after B.C. Cups?’”

Pretty soon, the goals became national, then international.

“Catharine is a really driven person with a tremendous work ethic,” said Proulx.

But at age 35, the sand is running down on her aspirations of capping her career on the Olympic podium.

Canada has two world top-10 ranked riders, Pendrel and Emily Batty of Toronto, which Proulx said gives Canada: “A 1-2 punch with both having medal opportunities . . . I look at them as a unit . . . a part of that unit could make the podium.”

Both their strategies complement each other, said Proulx: “Catharine is a front-runner who likes to go out strong from the start while Emily likes to come from behind.”

Here’s a harbinger: The last time Pendrel raced at a Games in Rio, she won gold in the 2007 Pan Am Games. But after Pendrel won gold at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, Batty won gold and Pendrel silver at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto. In March, Pendrel returned the favour by taking gold despite a broken thumb and relegating Batty to silver at the Canada Cup on Bear Mountain.

Batty broke her collarbone in a training crash just four days before the 2012 London Olympics. She somehow gutted out a top-25 finish at London

“We [Pendrel and Batty] are propelling each other to be better and stronger,” said Pendrel.

Meanwhile, the world seemed at Sweetland’s feet when the Islander won the 2006 world junior women’s triathlon championship. But then came a stunning array of injuries and afflictions that kept her out of the 2008 Beijing and 2012 London Olympics, although she did manage to nick a silver medal at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games.

Finally comes her chance Saturday on the biggest stage.

“It’s so much sweeter after the struggles I have had over the last 10 years to get here,” said Sweetland.

“I don’t think there’s a word for it. To say it has been tough would be an understatement. After facing an unimaginable amount of health issues, I never lost sight of my dream. I’m excited to be in the action.”

Those past battles will hold Sweetland in good stead Saturday, said Canadian Olympic team triathlon head coach Jonathan Hall of Victoria.

“Kirsten’s is a story of resilience. She has had a very rough time and overcome a lot. She is a racer. She has finally come to a destination [Olympics] where she should have arrived a long time ago.”

Both Sweetland and Pendrel are products of what came before them on the Island. Sweetland was influenced to try the sport by the outsized success of Victoria’s Simon Whitfield, the men’s triathlon gold medallist at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and silver medallist at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games.

Pendrel came up in the sport rolling through the tire tracks rutted by the likes of Island mountain bikers ahead of her such as 1996 Atlanta Olympic silver-medallist Alison Sydor, world-champion Roland Green, world silver-medallist Ryder Hesjedal and Olympians Geoff Kabush and Max Plaxton.

“It’s about bringing along the next ones,” said Proulx.

“[Pendrel] saw what Alison Sydor did, and said ‘I can do that, too.’ ”

But the coach didn’t see potential in Pendrel during those early days on Hartland. He thought there’s a reason why she is just a casual UVic triathlete.

“Catharine said she had to talk me into taking her on as an athlete. I don’t remember that exactly . . . but I honestly didn’t see it at first in her, just the same,” admitted Proulx.

“But she kept at it and persisted.”

Now, younger riders have been inspired by Pendrel’s success.

So, who can take credit for Pendrel? Her rural hometown of Harvey Station, New Brunswick, where she grew up on a horse farm? Victoria, where she was forged as an athlete, and where she met her husband Keith Wilson when they were the first to arrive for a UVic triathlon club practice only to find love bloom? Or Kamloops, to where she moved after Wilson took a teaching job there? Pendrel said she readily, happily and proudly answers to all three as “home.”

As with mountain biking, triathlon is a big sport on the Island.

“Victoria is the hotbed. It is the place to be because the athletes are supported so well,” said national team triathlon coach Hall.

So much so that the city could lay claim to a possible triathlon medal won for Australia Saturday in Rio. Hall is based at the Triathlon Canada offices at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre in Victoria. His wife is the Aussie triathlete, Erin Densham, who won bronze at the 2012 London Olympics, and has become a fixture swimming at Saanich Commonwealth Place, running the Elk/Beaver and Thetis lake trails and cycling the roads of Greater Victoria. Even though Densham will be wearing a gold and green Aussie racing singlet this morning in Rio, not red and white, the Oak Bay Bunch cycling group that rides every Saturday with her to Land’s End and back, will be rooting for Densham.

“Erin has been a good role model for the young racers on the Island and almost acts as a coach for them. She is savvy and has intuition on race day. She’s a racer.”

Hall’s mind will be on Canada Saturday but his heart partly with the Australian team. He can certainly be allowed that discretion.

Story by: Cleeve Dheenshaw