Notwithstanding a sports-miracle podium finish, the result was never really going to be the story of prolific mountain biker Catharine Pendrel’s swan-song performance at the Olympic Summer Games.
The 40-year-old Kamloops resident gave birth to daughter Dara on Jan. 26 — just being at Tokyo 2020 is the story.
A noteworthy 18th-place finish on Tuesday in rainsoaked Izu, Japan, in her fourth Games is muddy icing on caked tires and her beaming smile while waving to fans and crossing the finish line is the lasting memory.
“Heart is full,” Pendrel wrote on Instagram. “It is such an honour to compete at the Olympics and crossing the line having done my best, with cheering fans and the special group of women that make up the mountain biking circuit surrounding me is a memory I will cherish.”
Jolanda Neff topped the all-Switzerland podium, dominating the field to finish the 20.55-kilometre course in one hour, 14 minutes and 56 seconds. Swiss teammates Sina Frei and Linda Indergand won silver and bronze, respectively.
Pendrel finished eight minutes and one second behind Neff and was the top Canadian, with Haley Smith of Uxbridge, Ont., finishing 29th.
“I’ve had so many women message me, women that would like to have children and women that do have children and recognize what it takes to get back to this level,” Pendrel told the Canadian Press after the race. “Having these really visible examples of what is possible is really inspiring, because you do get a lot of people coaching very, very conservative approaches. And I think [for] a lot of women, being athletic is a huge part of their identity, and having that permission to be who they are and who they want to be, as a mom, as they were before.”
Pendrel has placed 53rd, 23rd, 26th and 21st in four 2021 World Cup races since giving birth and sits 26th overall in World Cup standings, so the Olympics result — obtained on a slippery, muddy course that was pounded with rain on Tuesday morning — has to be considered the best of her season.
“You soak up every Olympics, because you never know if you’re going to get an opportunity to have another Olympics,” Pendrel, who was competing internationally three months after giving birth, told the Canadian Press. “But yeah, after the race, I was more nostalgic than other times, just getting to see the girls who had the races they dreamed of, the girls that had really big disappointments, and having experienced the highs and lows of Olympics before myself, and having that perspective to kind of be there for them.”
Overcoming postpartum challenges was only the latest hill for Pendrel to climb on course to Tokyo.
Injuries, including a broken arm that scuttled much of her 2018 campaign, factored into a 2019 slump, along with an Olympic hangover year in 2017, when the mental and physical stresses that accompanied a banner 2016 season took their toll.
“I was supposed to be good!” she wrote in a 2019 blog post, an aging athlete mired in a period of self-doubt.
The plan was to retire after the 2020 season, but the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the World Cup schedule and led to the postponement of the Tokyo Games.
“Right now, I don’t think I’d feel the sense of completion if I didn’t see this season and this Olympic quadrennial through,” Pendrel, an Olympic bronze medallist, two-time world champion and three-time World Cup series champion, told KTW in May of 2020.
She also did not want to put off motherhood.
Husband Keith Wilson and Pendrel decided to try for a baby during the pandemic break. The Fredericton, N.B., product was training 13 to 15 hours a week in the final stages of her pregnancy, biking and cross-country skiing with Dara on board.
“It was really hard to know what my expectations were coming in.... You can hope for a miracle. But this is just where I was able to get to six months after having a baby. And I’m proud of that,” Pendrel told the Canadian Press.
Pendrel has four more major events before she retires from competitive riding: two World Cups, the world championship and the national championship.
The Olympics resume: fourth in her 2008 debut in Beijing, a ninth-place finish in 2012 in London — a bitter pill considering she was among favourites — an inspirational ride in Rio in 2016, when she crashed but recovered to claim bronze, and Tokyo 2020, when mom showed Dara what it means to be determined.
“Catharine is obviously very, very special,” Smith told the Canadian Press. “She’s an incredible athlete, a very, very kind and impressive human. Catharine has helped me manage [the pressure] as best I could, and I’ve learned so much from her. She’s just the perfect teammate. I couldn’t be more grateful that I got to experience this Olympics with her.
“It’s pretty cool to be here with your idol. I’ll just leave it at that.”