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Muenzer a golden oldie

From Wednesday's Globe and Mail

Athens

Someone gave her a Canadian flag, and she took it for a victory spin around the Olympic velodrome. Along the way, she kissed the Maple Leaf, then wrapped herself in it. And when they slipped the gold medal on her neck, she thought she could make it through the playing of O Canada without crying, but she couldn't.

It was all so amazing, Lori-Ann Muenzer would later say. At age 38, she had defied the odds and made history. She had become the first Canadian to win an Olympic gold medal in cycling. She had made good on a dream that began more than two decades ago, and now she had two precious medals — a sprint gold from Athens to match the gold medallion that had helped inspire her to greatness.

"This is something I've been wearing for the past two seasons," Muenzer said last night while holding up the medallion, inscribed Brenda Miller, Alberta Pharmaceutical Association. It was a medal Miller had received for being the top student. It was given to Muenzer shortly after Miller had been hit by a car and killed while riding her bike from Banff to Jasper.

Miller had been a friend and a training partner of Muenzer. The two belonged to the same cycling club in Edmonton. When Muenzer needed money to compete at a World Cup in Australia, Miller organized a fundraiser and produced $8,000.

To win Olympic gold was the achievement of a lifetime, but to win it with her friend in mind — and close to her heart — made it even more memorable. "[Miller] was an inspiration. She was an amazing woman, an athlete and an academic," said Muenzer, who was equal parts amazing, athletic and academic when it came to competing against younger opponents.

Anna Meares of Australia, at 20, young enough to be Muenzer's daughter, was the first to challenge Muenzer. Meares had beaten Muenzer at the 2004 world championships and also set a world record earlier at these Games in the time trial event. The first race went to Meares by a half-wheel. Muenzer won the second and third races on guile, sneaking past Meares at the most opportune moment. That set up a showdown with 21-year-old Russian Tamilla Abassova.

With 4,000 spectators anticipating another crafty performance, Muenzer switched gears and blew past Abassova late in the first race before going wire to wire in the second at a speed of just more than 59 kilometres an hour. On this night, it didn't matter how the oldest woman in the competition raced. She was the best. She could feel it coming.

"I was thinking about what I had to do to be the first woman across the finish line, what do I have to do to be in control of the race, where I need to position myself," she said.

"It didn't matter if I was leading or I was following. This week, this is the fittest I've ever been, the fastest I've ever been, the strongest I've ever been and also the smartest I've ever been. Today was the day to put it all together."

Putting her racing career together has never been the smoothest ride for Muenzer. She started out in road racing, even did some mountain bike racing before switching to track 10 years ago. To compete flat out for a short distance was great fun because it reminded her of her childhood days racing her bike in front of her Toronto home. (She always had a good set of wheels because her grandfather owned a cycle shop and did repairs.) The problem was staying healthy.

In 1994, she crashed during a race in Cuba and broke a collarbone. The injury and rehabilitation cost her a chance to compete at the Commonwealth Games in Victoria and the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996.

She also suffered through other crashes, other injuries, a bout of appendicitis and tendinitis in both knees.

Somehow, Muenzer endured and was able to qualify for the Sydney Olympics in the 500-metre time trial.

She placed 13th and set her wheels in motion for Athens and the sprints. And now she's Canada's surprise of the Games — the almost middle-aged legal secretary from Edmonton who delivered her best when it mattered most.

"My age? It's just a number on my licence," she said. "For me, the age thing has never been a factor. If it was, I never should have started cycling 17 years ago."

Had that happened, she would never have met Miller and perhaps not found the inspiration needed to become an Olympic champion. Asked how important Miller's medallion is to her, Muenzer said recently: "As soon as I leave the house, as soon as I start packing the car to go to the airport, I put it on. And it stays on until I come home and I'm home and safe and sound, then it comes off. It goes away with my passport. Wherever I travel, I always wear it."

And now she'll wear it with that other medal, the one they gave her last night when the playing of the Canadian anthem made her break down and remember.

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