For many Olympic athletes, “retirement” is a four-letter word, one which is reserved for a day when their skills have faded, and the glory has long since disappeared. But for 1996 Olympic Mountain Biking bronze medalist and 2012 U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame inductee Susan DeMattei, retirement was something she had to be talked out of, just months before the crowning achievement of her athletic career.
THE OLYMPIC DREAM
The year was 1994, and in her early 30’s, DeMattei was ready to end her mountain biking career and focus on nursing, her college major, but a vocation she had yet to jump into because of the demands of cycling. She was also engaged to fellow pro mountain biker Dave Wiens and ready to start a family. For Susan, biking was part of her past and present, but she had no interest in letting it continue into her future.
That is until she got a phone call saying that mountain biking had been accepted as an Olympic sport for the 1996 Games in Atlanta. For at least one more year, retirement would have to wait.
“I was planning on leaving in 1995,” DeMattei said recently from her home in Gunnison, Colo. “But the sport was growing, and it was now going to be in the Olympics. It was a reason to stay another year.”
|Susan DeMattei earned her spot in the history books as the first American to win an Olympic medal in mountain biking.|
EARNING A SPOT IN THE HISTORY BOOKS
Still, even after deciding to stick with the sport, there was no guarantee DeMattei would earn a place on the Olympic team, let alone medal there. The U.S. would only send two women to the Games, and one spot had long been wrapped up by Juli Furtado, the proclaimed “Queen of Mountain Biking” at the time. The second spot would come down to a battle between DeMattei and two of her contemporaries, Ruthie Matthes and Tammy Jacques-Grewal, with the winner determined by cumulative results of about a half dozen races from late 1995 into early 1996.
Tension grew as it came down to the last qualifying race. It was a day DeMattei’s future husband Dave Wiens remembers vividly.
“There was a lot of suspense in that race because it was so tight between those three,” Wiens said. “It was anybody’s Olympic bid. Nobody had the upper-hand at all.”
Finishing second to Furtado, DeMattei qualified for the second spot and headed to Atlanta less than a month later. And once she did arrive in Atlanta, in a weird way, DeMattei actually experienced a sense of relief.
“I was going to the Olympics, my (future) husband was going to be there with me, I was getting married later that fall,” DeMattei said. “I felt unbelievably lucky.”
Of course the women who raced against DeMattei in Atlanta didn’t feel nearly as lucky. On the day of the race, DeMattei shocked the field, and took home the bronze medal, which up until this past summer was the only medal an American woman had ever won in Olympic mountain biking (Georgia Gould won bronze in London this summer).
FAST FORWARD TO 2012
Despite her personal accolades and the growing profile of the sport itself, DeMattei decided to step away from cycling after Atlanta. She had her nursing education to fall back on, and a confidence that came from taking up the sport so late in her life. That’s right, unlike so many other Olympians, DeMattei hadn’t spent her whole life training for mountain biking, but instead fell into the sport in its infant stages in the late 1980’s, after she’d already found her true calling in life. For DeMattei, mountain biking was never the end game, but instead a temporary diversion from a career in nursing.
“Susan didn’t grow up wanting to be a mountain biker, none of us did,” Wiens said. “Her passion all along was nursing, and she dove right into it.”
Just months after winning bronze in Atlanta, DeMattei settled into a relatively normal life in Gunnison, Colo., a small town of a little over 5,000 smack dab in the middle of the Rocky Mountains. There she married Wiens and got a job at a local hospital, the same hospital where she still works today – in the surgical unit.
DeMattei and Weins also have three sons: a 14-year-old and 12-year-old twins. With Wiens’ work schedule (he’s the Director of the Mountain Sports Program at Western State Colorado University and he also helps design mountain bike trails), it is DeMattei who now takes on more than her fair share of the workload around the house.
“I don’t think I’ve made a single lunch this entire year,” Wiens said jokingly.
|Susan and Dave have three sons: 12-year-old twins, Sam and Ben (top) and 14-year-old Cooper.|
GIVING BACK TO THE SPORT
Despite no longer racing competitively, DeMattei still has a hand in cycling and loves to give back to others, many of whom may be getting on a bike for the first time. She has done clinics and charity rides around town, and more recently has begun to assist the high school program in Gunnison part-time. There, she sees the value that a bicycle can bring to a young person, especially female.
“For women especially, I do think biking can be an empowerment thing,” DeMattei said. “They come out in their tennis shoes and a helmet, and sometimes are unsure of themselves. But by the end of their ride they’re so proud, and so pleased that they got out of their bubble.”
DeMattei can also see how cycling is changing lives for the young women she teaches, in the same way it changed her life a few decades ago.
“I didn’t come out of high school thinking I could rule the world,” DeMattei said. “But the sport gave me a lot of confidence to do things I never thought I could do.”
It also gave her a chance do something that many athletes take for granted, which was see the world outside of the Northern California town she grew up in. Over the course of her career DeMattei raced all over the United States as well as in Italy, Spain, and in Asia and Australia. DeMattei believes traveling was one of her most important life experiences. She also believes it wouldn’t have happened without mountain biking.
“I don’t want to say I was sheltered growing up,” DeMattei said. “But my parents weren’t big travelers, so I was probably a little naïve to the world. Without cycling I don’t know if I would’ve been able to do all that.”
That’s also why DeMattei encourages children of all ages to call their local bike shops if they’re interested in the sport. It doesn’t matter whether they’re a future Olympian or not, and whether the sport takes them abroad or just around the neighborhood. For many, getting on a bike will allow them to go places they never imagined, and build bonds which will last a lifetime.
“Even just riding around town, a bike will take you places a car or walking can’t,” DeMattei said. “But more than anything, it’s just a great way to socialize.”
For Susan DeMattei, mountain biking never was about fame or money, or even the Olympic glory that came with it.
It was about all the priceless experiences that mountain biking brought her instead.
|Susan was inducted into the US Bicycling Hall of Fame on Nov. 3, 2012.|