When I asked Kathryn Bertine, professional cyclist and former professional triathlete, what made her want to be a writer, she replied to me, “Writing is one of those things—it’s the same for anyone who is an artist—that is born in you. I can’t say I chose to be a writer. It was what was in the cards for me. As a kid, I was an avid reader , devouring any book I could get my hands on. I was always making my up own stories and poems.” But as a child, and even later when she took a job as a sports writer, I hardly expect that Kathryn knew her skills as a writer and her sense for adventure would be put to the test by a challenge from her bosses at ESPN: to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games in two years, in any sport.
For the ESPN editors, it began as a small challenge, maybe even as a joke. There was “tongue-in-cheek” banter of “what it takes to go to the Olympics” going around the ESPN office, but for Kathryn, this challenge became a near reality. In a matter of months, Kathryn’s life spiraled into a series of adventures and travels in a hunt for Olympic qualification.
Luckily for her, Kathryn grew up as an elite athlete in a multitude of sports. At a young age, she began figure skating, swimming, and skiing. She competed heavily in skating until she was 23 and traveled internationally on professional tours Ice Capades, Holiday on Ice, and Hollywood on Ice.
In college, Kathryn ran cross country (she was recruited to run for Colgate), but soon left the team and joined the rowing team, where she spent four years making lifelong friendships with the girls on her boat and balancing figure skating along with regattas. After graduation, she took a year of international travel to pursue figure skating, but the writing passion kept nagging at her—and eventually brought her to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona for an MFA. Although she had completed her goals for skating, Kathryn still felt what she calls “the athletic journey” alive inside. This desire combined with Arizona’s warm training weather got Kathryn into triathlon racing, which she steadily progressed in for six years before becoming a professional for three years. This is when, at 31 and as a writer for ESPN, the assignment came: It was time to try to make it to the Olympics.
Kathryn knew from her triathlon experience that she was strongest in cycling (the muscle groups for skating and cycling are very similar and transferrable). With ESPN pushing her to do any sport and whatever it took, she decided to pursue the Olympic challenge through women’s cycling. Eighteen to 20 hours a week of training on the bike and one dual-citizenship later, Kathryn traveled around the world to reap up UCI points for Olympic qualification—where she’ll race for The Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis. She came within 2 races of Olympic qualification for Beijing, surprised not only her co-workers at ESPN, but herself as well. “It was such a crazy journey,” she said. “I now race and represent a different country. Who knew that would ever change my life so much for the better! So when I finished the ESPN series, and I came that close to making it to Beijing and didn’t, I knew I wanted to go for 2012. When that the project was over, and I’m wasn’t getting paid to go on this mission, I said, ‘I want to do it for myself.’”
This time, Kathryn knew what the journey would take. She launched herself into another four years of hard training, balancing her writing career alongside her cycling dreams. In the end, she fell just short of qualification for London. Kathryn described the past four years: “This time, it was much closer. My talent level and ability was far ahead of where it was in 2008.” I asked her what happened and she replied, “to tell you how I didn’t make it or fell short, I would have to go into the entire structure of the UCI. Regardless, when I didn’t make it to London, I was satisfied by the feeling of putting myself completely out there and doing the best I could. I may not have made it into the games, but I did give it everything I could have given.”
Kathryn, however, had quite a bit to say about watching the wet, cold women’s road race on Sunday, July 29, which was won by Dutch rider, Marianne Vos: “Watching that race was bittersweet. I was able to have an interesting objective in watching the race. The weather was terrible for the women, and as soon as the race started, I thought, ‘Wow if this doesn’t clear up, it’ll come up to a European winner because those ladies know how to race in the rain with confidence and skill’—and sure enough, Marianne won.” I asked her about her thoughts on the win, and she replied, “I adore Marianne Vos. I couldn’t pick better person to win gold. Vos is one of the classiest female racers out there: She is humble, victorious, hopeful, and kind. She has a bigger picture of what it means. I am thrilled that she won, and she’s usually even-keeled about her emotions, so to see her emotional, well, it was emotional for me!”
Currently riding for a US-based professional women’s cycling team Colavita/ESPNw, Kathryn is continuing to make and reach new cycling challenges. I asked her whether she would consider Rio in 2016, and she paused before her reply, “I knew back in 2008 that I would immediately go for 2012. Now, I decided to keep my schedule open to see what develops and changes for me in the next three years. Maybe my path will be trying to get women in sport and media, and maybe that will take over my Olympic passion in the upcoming years.”
For now, between her work as a senior columnist for ESPNw, discovering her talent and eye for screen plays, and riding for Colavita/ESPNw, Kathryn Bertine’s life is a full-scheduled adventure. But like all adventures, the journey can sometimes have a mind of its own, and Rio 2016 may be just one additional stop on the way.
Photos courtesy of Kathryn Bertine and Shelley Welander.