By Hardik Vyas
BENGALURU (Reuters) – Annemiek van Vleuten was within touching distance of Olympic gold when she went head-first over her handlebars to lie motionless on the ground 10 kilometers from the finish in the women’s road race at the 2016 Rio Games.
Five years later, the Dutchwoman will be back on the Olympic stage in Japan, hoping to write the final chapter of the 38-year-old’s remarkable comeback story. “I missed the corner, I made the mistake. It’s like a lesson I learned,” Van Vleuten told Reuters. “I don’t think I would have been happier with a gold medal in my house.”
Van Vleuten suffered severe concussion and three fractured vertebrae but those injuries did not prevent her from getting back on the bike. Less than five weeks after her Olympic hopes hit the skids in Rio, she produced a thrilling solo effort to win the Belgium Tour title.
While many described it as one of the sport’s greatest comebacks, Van Vleuten points out that she was already in the middle of an impressive streak of results before the crash. “I’ve heard it a hundred thousand times that the crash made me stronger. The crash didn’t make me stronger but how I was riding uphill in Rio. That made me stronger,” she said.
“I never thought I was a climber (before that). For me, the Rio Olympics was only until the start of the descent and before the crash. “That’s the part that inspired me. And that’s also the part that helped me to achieve way more nice things after the Rio Olympics.”
Over the next 12 months, Van Vleuten regained her spot at the top of her sport. She became a two-times-time trial world champion after winning the 2018 women’s world tour. She then extended her purple patch by winning the 2019 road race world championship.
While the COVID-19 pandemic halted the 2020 season and pushed back the Olympics by a year, Van Vleuten was undeterred. Instead, she won five consecutive races on the tour’s resumption. Van Vleuten is leading the 2021 world tour standings and could not be in better form heading into what she said could be her final Olympic appearance.
She will be part of a four-rider Dutch dream team alongside the last two Olympic champions in Anna van der Breggen and Marianne Vos and talented debutant Demi Vollering, who won the Liege-Bastogne-Liege this year. “We’re sending a team of all-stars, so the expectations are quite high,” Van Vleuten said. “Of course, we cannot win everything, but we know we have a higher chance to win as part of a team.” (Reporting by Hardik Vyas in Bengaluru; Editing by Toby Davis)