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BEIJING 2008

This Armstrong is headstrong

American overcomes arthritis to win a gold medal in the women's road cycling individual time trial.

August 14, 2008|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING -- This is why you should like Kristin Armstrong. She is a world-class cyclist -- and as of Wednesday an Olympic gold-medal winner -- but chuckles when she Googles her name and finds more references to Lance Armstrong's ex-wife than to herself.

Well-meaning cycling fans often approach her and ask if she is Kristin Armstrong, and when she says yes, they ask whether Lance lets her see any of his seven Tour de France trophies.

"I used to try and explain who I am," Armstrong said. "I've kind of given that up now and I just play along."

Same name, same spelling, but decidedly not that Armstrong.

This Kristin Armstrong won her gold medal in the women's road cycling individual time trial, covering the course in a blistering 34 minutes, 51.72 seconds, more than 24 seconds faster than silver medalist Emma Pooley of Britain. Karin Thurig of Switzerland won the bronze medal with a 35:50.99, almost a full minute off Armstrong's pace.

"It's one of those dreams you have as a child in America," Armstrong said.

"It's the most amazing day of my life," she said. "I've been working for this for the last eight years, especially the last four, and to time everything right on one day is an accomplishment of its own."

Indeed, this Kristin Armstrong has her own story to tell and, in its way, is almost as compelling as that of Lance Armstrong's survival of cancer, record-setting Tour de France career and post-marriage habit of dating celebrities.

"Lance lives a life I'm not at all familiar with," Armstrong said during a break from her grueling summer series of racing that prepared her for these Olympics. "No movie stars or million-dollar bank accounts for me."

Armstrong, 34, is from Boise, Idaho, and is married to Joe Savola, who is not a celebrity, and her athletic career began in the triathlon where she had to learn to love swimming and running as much as she always enjoyed cycling.

She was a little girl who grew up practicing to be on an Olympic medal podium, but by 2001 all Armstrong was practicing was how to lift herself into bed one leg at a time in the most painless way possible.

"I had started having some pain in my hips for a few months, but I'm kind of a self-confident person and thought I could diagnose myself," she said. "I would ice my joints and take anti-inflammatories and just push through. . . . When I realized the over-the-counter anti-inflammatories weren't working I went to my doctor and said, 'I need stronger stuff. . . . Just write me the prescription.' "

Her doctor, noting Armstrong's lack of a medical degree, suggested he would first need to do an examination. The pokes and prods, X-rays and MRIs were not encouraging. Armstrong's hip bones were degenerating because of osteoarthritis; she had bone chips floating in her hip capsule.

"My doctor said I needed to stop running and quit doing impact sports, and I handled it real well," Armstrong said. "I went home and told my husband my life was over. My husband is a funny guy too. He suggested my life wasn't over, I was just going to have to join the real world and get myself a job."

Though she had majored in exercise physiology at the University of Idaho, Armstrong got a job at a Boise advertising agency. She worked on big accounts like Hewlett-Packard and joined a local cycling club because, after all, she was still an athlete.

And even if it was a goofy hope, she still pictured herself on the Olympic podium.

In 2002 a big bike race was held in Boise, and Armstrong's club was riding. Armstrong took some vacation days and practiced. She raced well and from that one day received a contract offer from T-Mobile to join its women's team. It was a two-year contract.

"I could get paid for this?" Armstrong asked. Yes, she could. Her husband told Armstrong to go for it.

Armstrong made the 2004 Olympic team. "I was a tourist," she said. "I wasn't really a competitor."

But coming into Beijing, Armstrong planned on less sightseeing and more medal winning. After all, she had won the 2006 world time trial championship and followed up with a silver at the 2007 worlds. Her arthritis is under control, though, and she understands at some point in her life, she will probably need a hip replacement.

Before she came here, Armstrong wasn't kidding herself about fame, though now she can test her theory.

"I could win a gold medal, and people on the street would still ask me about Lance," she said.

"But that's OK. I don't think he has a gold medal."

No, he has a bronze. This Armstrong has a gold.

--

diane.pucin@latimes.com

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