A Q & A with Kathryn Bertine, ESPN Olympian - Part I

Collin HagerSenior Writer IAugust 1, 2008

So what if someone told you that for the next two years of your life, you would do nothing but try to make the Olympics in Beijing. You’d write about, be paid to do it, and get to meet some amazing people. Most of us can’t fathom getting that chance. But Kathryn Bertine received just that.

Bertine was asked by ESPN to try to make the Olympic Games. It didn’t matter the sport or how she did, but just to chronicle each part. She recently took the time to join The Roundtable for a Q & A about her quest. She was offered a beer, but politely chose Sport Beans and water. We didn’t get it either. At least the selection of Journey on the jukebox suited everyone just fine.

The articles about on ESPN.com can be found here. She is currently working on a book that is due out in March of 2009 about her journey to the Olympics.

Here’s what Kathryn had to say.

The Roundtable (RT): So this wasn’t your first foray into athletics. Can you tell us a little about your background?

Kathryn Bertine (KB): I’m 33 years old, originally from Bronxville, NY and now reside in Tucson, AZ. As an athlete, I grew up as a figure skater and runner, then rowed for Colgate University. In 1998, I turned pro in figure skating, and wrote a memoir about the experience entitled, All the Sundays Yet to Come (Little, Brown 2003). In grad school, I discovered triathlon and fell in love with it. Decided to pursue it, and turned pro in 2005. You know, the typical sports upbringing.

RT: Very typical. In college, we beer ponged instead of rowed. I think that’s one of the few times we’ll get a woman to admit her age around us. How were you contacted by ESPN and what was your reaction?

KB: I freelanced for them off and on for a few years, and they somehow remembered me. They came to me with this idea for this Olympic project at a key time in my life. I was going through the I-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-my-life phase on a pretty personal/intense level. I was 30, completely broke, burnt out on triathlon, and I’d just called off my wedding. Then, out of the blue, one of my ESPN editors called me and offered me this job. I literally dropped the phone.

RT: In your submissions, you looked to participate in modern pentathlon, track cycling, team handball, and, finally, distance cycling. You spent a fair amount of time evaluating the events. What was the process like?

KB: I wanted to seek out the Olympic events that people had never heard of. I really wanted to show that these unknown sports, and all sports in general, are very difficult at the top-level. I knew my best chances of getting to the Games would be in a sport I already knew how to play, but the “underdog” sports held a certain allure.

RT: Some of the pieces regarding the training and tryouts for these events were the best parts to the writing. We didn’t even know what the five events in the modern pentathlon were, and still can’t quite tell how they fit together. The guys that said, “Let’s go shooting and then ride a horse, run, go for a swim, then attack each other with swords,” probably had a little too much to drink. In any case, after these tryouts, what kept you going?

KB: Knowing that there were other sports out there, and that “other” equals “chance.” A few months prior, I had been a struggling professional athlete. ESPN came up to me and said, “Here’s an assignment for you.” But what I heard was, “Hey, we’re offering you an opportunity to try every sport out there to see what you can do, and for the next two years you don’t have to worry about whether or not you can feed yourself this week.”

The opportunity was not lost on me. I kept going because I wanted to. Because I loved it. It was that simple. I had the leave-no-stone-unturned mantra going from sport to sport, and it fueled me the whole way.

RT: It is always good to know you can eat. We here at the ‘Table are full advocates of the basic food pyramid, so long as beer is a food group. Were there any issues with coaches or athletes when they learned of the project?

KB: The athletes I encountered were nothing short of incredible. They liked the fact that I was bringing attention to their sport, whether I personally excelled or flopped in my attempts. Other cyclists were great, and if anyone had a problem with me, they never said it to my face. I think cyclists understood that any positive exposure to the sport was a good thing. I felt very welcomed as a competitor.

Coaches were great too. The only opposition I encountered from time to time was from officials at training centers who thought I was “just a journalist looking for a story.” They didn’t always get it. A person can be two things in life, ya know! I happen to be an athlete and a writer, in that order.

RT: Ultimately, you focused on distance cycling, which makes sense given your triathlon background. What are the major differences between track cycling and road cycling?

KB: The only thing they have in common is that they both use two wheels. Other than that, I found the sports so completely and wonderfully different. Tactics and training are very diverse in the sense that track is usually geared toward sprinters and road cycling is more endurance based. And hillier. It’s like comparing 100-meter runners to marathoners. Can’t exactly compare the two, but can understand and respect all the similarities and differences.

RT: How demanding were the training sessions in the three sports that you ultimately did not concentrate?

KB: At the top level, every sport is just plain physically demanding. I had a hard time throwing handballs for two hours, but if you were to ask any team handball player to get on a bike for five hours, they’d probably have had time with that. Sport specific training is key. I never went into any sport thinking, “Yeah, I’m gonna kick some butt!” because I knew each sport would whup on some part of my body I never knew existed.

RT: Did you feel hope when you were told about your potential for distance cycling and was it hard to remain calm over the potential outcomes?

KB:I always feel hope. I’m a hopey person. It takes a lot more energy to feel unhopeful, so why bother? I think I knew road cycling was my best shot before Colby Pearce (track cycling coach) used the famous “doable.” In terms of remaining calm, I had to look at my progression as a ladder. There were so many levels to get to and races to do well in that I had to take it race by race, day by day, otherwise it would have been beyond overwhelming.

RT: So track cycling teams are basically handpicked among a set group of riders. Even the Olympic long-team required a lot of subjectivity in the selection process. Was it hard being a part of what ultimately was subjective in the way the Olympic team was selected?

KB:Sports are either completely subjective or based on time qualifications. If you choose a subjective sport, you have to accept the selection process and maybe politics will come in to play. I was fine with this possibility. All I needed to do was cycle to the best of my abilities. That is all you can ask of an athlete. If it worked in my favor, great. If no, I figured I could always hire Jeff Gillooly and his lead pipe.

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So with that, we all needed a break. A Jeff Gillooly reference will do that to you. So Kathryn went for more Sport Beans, the ‘Table for another pitcher. Yes, she did make us feel insanely lazy. In fact, one of us got tired just reading about all the cycling and effort it took.

But, Kathryn agreed to answer just a few more questions from us. After all, we still need to know how she fared in the distance cycling as well as what she’s up to now. We’ll have that in part two of the interview.

You can read more about Kathryn's adventures here. She is currently working on a book that is due out in March of 2009 about her quest for the Olympics.

 

The photo for this article was taken by Lucas Gilman for ESPN.com 

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