There is this concept in sports, especially in our sports, of the perfect day, the perfect race, the perfect game. It is the day where you are exactly as good as you can be, you do everything right for what you are presented with, you handle every situation, you don’t hesitate, you perform to the very best of your abilities.
A perfect day doesn’t necessitate a win. (In fact, the woman who took 4th at the Rio Olympics in the cycling road race was caught after a day-long breakaway with just 100m to go; and she wrote one of the best things I’ve ever read about doing absolutely everything flawlessly, performing to the very best you are capable of, and still not having it be enough.)
The perfect day is also elusive. Sometimes I think chasing that day is what keeps us going in the early mornings and the long weekends. We are searching for that performance we know is in us.
The women’s race yesterday in Tokyo did not look like the perfect conditions for a perfect day. As the athletes huddled together and shivered in jackets before the start, in the midst of a typhoon-downgraded-to-a-tropical-storm, it looked miserable. But the thing about a day like that is it makes your choices so much clearer.
For most of us the concept of making choices in a race is difficult to truly understand. We’re mostly just trying to do our best, go as hard as we can, finish. The idea that you might be able to choose one set of feet over another, to surge at a certain time, to ease up slightly and then pounce strategically, is difficult to fathom. But for the pros, especially in an Olympic draft-legal race in the pouring rain, they are constantly facing choices that could make or break their day. And if you want to have a perfect day you have to make the right choices every single time.
Jessica Learmonth knew that the card she had to play in yesterday’s race was to string out the swim and break it up, to create a gap going into T1—and so that’s what she did, swimming just 45 seconds slower than the first man out of the water the day before (in choppier conditions). That is unbelievably hard, but it’s what she had to do, so she did.
And the women who wanted to medal knew they had to stick on her feet, so they did. And then that front group coming out of T1 knew they had to make the break stick on the bike. They couldn’t afford to get caught, to get caught up in the crashes behind them in the main pack. If they wanted to have a perfect day, they couldn’t risk it. And so the women who knew this was it made that bike breakaway stick, and the ones who couldn’t were gone off the back.
In that chase pack, Nicola Spirig knew she had to get on the front and chase as hard as she could, and so she did. It didn’t quite work, but it was the hand she was dealt and she played it to the best of her ability on the day (and still ran into 6th in her 5th Olympics).
When Georgia Taylor-Brown flatted with a bit over a mile to go, she evaluated her options in a split second and knew stopping to change a wheel would take longer. She made the right choice for the moment and gingerly rode the flat into T2. She didn’t panic or sprint out of transition trying to make up the time. She did exactly what she should have done exactly as good as she could and gradually ran her way up into a silver medal.
I could give you more examples. The best were on display when the going got tough. That’s probably why the DNF rate for the women was so high. The difference between having the nerve and not, between being exactly as good as you could be and not, was multiplied on a day like that. But the most important thing to understand is it’s not easy to have a perfect day, even when you know what you have to do it’s not easy. Kristian Blummenfelt, the day before, chose to go as hard as he could with a little under a mile to the finish. He knew he couldn’t wait to get outsprinted. He also probably knew his move would land him in the med tent. But he did it anyway.
It’s one thing to know, to try, and it’s another to have the courage to deliver.
Flora Duffy was flawless in the women’s race. She didn’t make a mistake all day. She did exactly what she needed to do at every point in order to win and delivered when the pressure was highest. It was a perfect day precisely when you want to have a perfect day.
But there’s a tendency for us to think since she bikes so well that it’s not hard for her to do. We throw around the word “fearless” as if she bikes without fear, but I don’t think that’s quite right. I think she has as much fear as anyone on an eight-loop course in a storm with over a dozen turns per lap. I think she chooses to bike hard not without fear but in the face of it, because it’s what she has to do in order to win, because if you want to be the best in the world then you have to make every choice along the way to set yourself up to make the best choice possible on the day it matters.
One of the things she told me once, when we were working on a story about her long journey, is that she has learned what she has to do to podium and so she simply does it.
She had a perfect race yesterday, but she’s had a lot of imperfect races in the past. She’s made a lot of mistakes over the years, over her previous Olympic races. She’s quit the sport and come back. She’s struggled. A perfect day is elusive. It’s what we all chase. But if you can learn from every one of those mistakes, if you can set yourself up for exactly the right choices when the time comes, if you can dig deep and find it in yourself to deliver what you need to all the way to the line, then you can be exactly as good as you’re capable of—if you have the courage to find out.