In other years, the end of my career never seemed to be in the near future," says veteran cyclist Connie Paraskevin-Young, who won the first of her four World Championships 10 years ago. "I may not have another chance at an Olympic Games." The 30-year-old's gold chasing began on the ice. In the Winter Olympics of 1980 and 1984, Paraskevin-Young competed as a speed skater. After a 13th-place finish in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, the Detroit native decided to hang up the skates and concentrate exclusively on cycling.
The transition paid off: In the Summer Olympics of 1988, she won the bronze medal in the match sprint. In 1990, after two years filled with injuries and disappointments, she came back to win the World Championships.
"A lot of things are different this time around," says Paraskevin-Young. "I'm injury-free, I'm physically fit, and I'm strong. But most of all, my attitude has changed. I know that the end is near. I'm not sure if that's a sign of maturity or fatalism – I just hope that it works."
Janie Eickhoff's entry into the world of competitive cycling sounds more like a Brady Bunch episode than Breaking Away. "My dad saw some cycling events in the 1984 Olympics," says the 21-year-old, "and decided, 'We've gotta do this together.'" So off they went, down the Pacific Coast Highway, Janie, big brother Kurt and Mom and Dad on the tandem. They even got matching family jerseys.
"Gosh, what a mistake that was," says Eickhoff, who says gosh a lot. "The jerseys were red, white and green. We got comments like 'Viva Italia!' Embarrassed wasn't the word! I just wanted to die."
Inspired by her father's enthusiasm, nonetheless, Eickhoff retreated to a velodrome to train as a track cyclist. She won the gold at the 1990 Goodwill Games, took third place in the 1989 and 1991 World Championships and last year broke the world record for one kilometer. In Barcelona, she'll be competing in the pursuit event, where two cyclists chase each other around a track.
"You say a lot of things to go along with your folks," Eickhoff says. "This time Dad was right."
He hates weights. Barbells, dumbbells, curls, squats – especially squats: He can't stand them. But Ken Carpenter does not want to fail again at the Olympics, as he did in Seoul in 1988. So three times a week, as he has for the past five years, the La Mesa, California, cyclist lifts and squats and presses and . . .
His event is the match sprint, where two cyclists meet on the track and play cat and mouse for 1,000 kilometers, finishing with an incredible burst of speed, sometimes in excess of 45 miles per hour. In 1988, Carpenter replaced the reigning medalist, Mark Gorski, on the U.S. cycling team and was expected to bring home the gold. He was knocked out in an early round in the Olympics, losing by the width of a bike tire. In Barcelona, Carpenter, 27, will count on his hard-earned strength to shoot him across the finish line first.
"Last time around, I really prepared for the Olympic Trials, and then that was it," says Carpenter. "I wasn't prepared for the games. That won't happen again."
Dan O'Brien carries a tattered piece of paper with him. It's his talisman, the words a kind of mantra: "I am going to be the greatest athlete that ever lived." Other people might engrave the saying on a T-shirt or on their forearm. O'Brien keeps it in his pocket.
The World's Greatest Athlete is the unofficial title bestowed on champions of the decathlon, the two-day, 10-event competition where men run, hurl, vault, throw, jump and, in some cases, inspire. As Bruce Jenner did in 1976. As O'Brien did last August in Tokyo, setting a new decathlon world record.
But for now the 25-year-old champion – who in his wilder days preferred beer and pot to track practice – must clear a different kind of hurdle. He must concentrate on his multisport amid the glare of worldwide attention: the cameras, the advertisements for Reebok and VISA, the calls to his Idaho neighbors whose phone numbers are perilously close to his ("Dan doesn't live here! I wish he did").
Despite the pressure, O'Brien is learning to find peace. "There's a solitude that I try to find in the decathlon," he says. "That's what the event does to you. It makes you a loner. It separates you from the other athletes. It's so tough, but once you get past the pain, it gets easier. Everything gets easier, every day."
Lance Armstrong is tired of hearing it, he's tired of saying it: "I'm not the next Greg LeMond. I'm the first me." But comparisons between the 20-year-old Texan and the three-time Tour de France winner are likely to continue, especially if Armstrong, possibly the U.S.A.'s most promising young distance cyclist, keeps winning international races. In April 1991, he was the first American to win the 11-day, pro-am Settimana Bergamasca through mountainous northern Italy. Seven months earlier, at age 18, Armstrong placed 11th at the World Championships – the highest finish for an American since 1976.
Armstrong, however, prefers to finish first. As a high school student, he showed up at the 1989 National Sprint Triathlon Championships and beat the world's best professional triathletes. He did the same thing a year later, just to prove that it wasn't a fluke.
This summer Armstrong will be one of three Americans competing in the 150-kilometer individual road race, which courses through the streets of Barcelona. Unlike traditional multiday bike tours, the Olympic race is a one-day event. "The thing about the Olympic road race is that you've got to be prepared perfectly on one day for one goal," says the driven Armstrong. "There's no second chances to win. If you're the first American but tenth overall, who gives a shit? You didn't win anything."