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‘The Olympics Now and Then’ comes to Vail

Special to the DailyDavis Phinney said that the title of his book, "The Happiness Pursuit," is based on "a philosophy of life, that we need to enjoy the journey - and the notion that every victory, no matter how small, counts."

Many young athletes dream of going to the Olympics. For Connie Carpenter, that dream came true when she was only 14. Now Carpenter is watching her son, Taylor Phinney, make his own goal of Olympic gold a reality. Carpenter and her husband, Davis Phinney, also an Olympic medalist, will give a presentation about their experiences, called “The Olympics Now and Then,” at the Donovan Pavilion in Vail tonight.

Carpenter first competed in the Olympics in 1972 as a speed skater. After a series of ankle injuries and tendonitis, she could no longer skate. She decided to try cycling because her brother was involved with the sport at the time. Cycling turned out to be the right fit for the young athlete, who won a gold medal in the 1984 Los Angeles games at the age of 27. This was not only a milestone for Carpenter but also for the sport itself.-

“It was the first time women’s cycling was included in the Olympics,” Carpenter said. “I had never competed (as a cyclist) in America, much less the Olympics.”

Bicycles made for competitive cycling normally aren’t built for two, but that didn’t prevent Carpenter and Phinney from connecting over the sport in the late ’70s. The couple married in 1983. Phinney’s first medal also came in 1984, with a bronze in the Team Time Trial. He then went on to garner two stage wins in the Tour de France (1986 and 1987). Phinney is a U.S. National Champion and has won more races than any other American cyclist in history.

A life-changing diagnosis

Phinney retired in 1993 in anticipation of the birth of their second child, Kelsey. At that time Phinney had no idea that the next chapter of his life would bring a challenge far more difficult than cycling. At the age of 40, in 2000, Phinney was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

“Getting diagnosed with Parkinson’s was life-changing,” Phinney said. “As an athlete, it’s a particularly cruel disease because it is a movement disorder and I am wired to move.”

Phinney’s diagnosis has affected the whole family, but both husband and wife said that it has also helped them treasure the tiny triumphs they overcome each day.-

“When you have an illness you learn to appreciate the small events in your life and the small victories,” Carpenter said.

Phinney, along with Sports Illustrated senior writer Austin Murphy, has written a book about his battle with Parkinson’s called “The Happiness Pursuit.” Phinney said he used the skills and tools he learned as a cyclist to help him deal with his disease.

“As an athlete, I have the fortitude for the long haul,” Phinney said. “It’s not easy and it took me a few years to adjust to it, but life does in fact go on and I’ve made the conscious decision to make the very best of it.”

Following in the parent’s pedals

Being the son of two champion athletes, you would assume that Taylor Phinney came out of the womb with a gold medal around his neck. But Carpenter said Taylor’s success came as a compete surprise to both her and her husband. While Carpenter and Phinney encouraged both their children (daughter Kelsey is a national class Nordic skier) to try a variety of sports, they knew that cycling was one of the toughest.

“It was nothing we ever expected,” Carpenter said. “It’s a really hard sport and you pick it for a couple of reasons. One is that you have the personality that can handle it. (Two) you do it not so much for the results, but for the experience and striving to be better. Perhaps he got a little bit of that from us.”

Taylor finished seventh in the Men’s Track Cycling Individual Pursuit at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China. He is currently competing for a bid to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. At Carpenter and Phinney’s presentation they will discuss the differences between their Olympic experiences and their son’s. Carpenter thinks that the changes have been both negative and positive.

“A lot of athletes talk about sacrifice, I don’t buy that.” Carpenter said. “Being an Olympic athlete is a privilege, a rare opportunity to pursue something so single-mindedly. It’s hard to live with pressure that you live with for any sport … but I didn’t have the resources my kids have, like coaching and sports psychology, a lot of it is for the better but the scrutiny and analysis, it really takes a special personality to deal with that kind of pressure.”

A speed skater turned cyclist, a cyclist dealing with a debilitating disease, and a son trying to honor his parent’s legacy, the story of Carpenter, Phinney and Taylor is one for the record books.-

Rosanna Turner is a freelance writer based in Vail. Email comments about this story to cschnell@vaildaily.com.