On Thursday, June 23, USA Cycling announced the 21-rider team for the Rio Olympics. Based on the nation’s UCI ranking, only one of those 21 spots was allocated to the men’s mountain bike team. Twenty-seven year-old Stephen Ettinger, America’s top-ranked rider in 33rd, was a non-selection for Team USA. The one and only spot was given to 23-year old and first year elite rider, Howard Grotts.
So is it potential or experience that matters? In 2012 it was experience. In 2016 it’s potential.
Four years ago, leading into the London Olympics, Ettinger was part of the rider pool from which USA Cycling chose the two-rider team. Ettinger was not selected. Instead Olympic veteran Todd Wells and first-time Olympian Sam Schultz completed the team. Last time Ettinger was told Wells, a more “experienced” rider, was the better choice. Ettinger and Wells had similar results that year, but Wells had already been to Athens and Beijing and that mattered.
“I was told ‘you don’t have enough experience, we’re taking Todd’,” Ettinger said. “USAC explained that my trajectory was very steep and that I was likely to have great opportunities in the future but that I needed to get more experience to go next time.”
“So, I get the experience,” continued Ettinger. “I put the time in. I show my stripes but then that experience I gained and the palamares I put together bite me in the ass because I no longer have the trajectory.”
It’s the inconsistency that frustrates Ettinger the most.
“So why wasn’t I ‘medal potential’ 4 years ago,” asked Ettinger. “Why do they think he’s any more medal capable than I was then? People’s memory is short, but I was regularly in the top five my last year as a U23 in the World Cups. And why does experience no longer matter? That being applied so arbitrarily is what is so frustrating right now.”
“The argument they gave me this time was since neither Howie or I are medal capable in Rio they have to look towards 2020,” Ettinger said. “This is the scenario I was afraid of and it came to fruition. But why it stings so badly was because in 2012 they used the exact opposite of that argument against me.”
Aside from the unpredictable nature of the selections, Ettinger’s frustration also extends to USA Cycling’s lack of follow through to make sure the United States would have enough UCI points to qualify a two-person team in Rio.
“As a country we didn’t rise to the occasion,” said Ettinger. “There were only two people who scored points. The third person to score points was Todd and he wasn’t racing internationally. It’s not that people didn’t try but the opportunity wasn’t given. We needed to have more people at races like the Pan Am Continental Championships or a team that went to Brazil for some stage racing. Anything to score UCI points.”
A year ago the United States had enough points to send two riders to Rio, but the country was on the bubble of losing that second spot if it didn’t consistently earn UCI points. It was a concern that Ettinger raised, but it seemed to fall on deaf ears.
“We as the United States should not only have one spot at the Olympics – that’s a shame,” Ettinger said. “If you put athletes in a position to help score points and be part of the system, people are going to do that. We should have done a better job to ensure we were in a position to have two spots. Why wasn’t Howie at Pan Ams? Why wasn’t Todd asked to do two world cups and take one for the team? Other people tried, but it just didn’t come together.”
By mid-spring the United States has lost its second allocation as the country fell down the nations UCI rankings. The pressure was on, but Ettinger was up for the task. He thought that his experience and his results would stand up to USA Cycling. But his Olympic dreams were dashed in a simple email that explained Grotts was on an upward trajectory and the blood, sweat and tears that Ettinger had accumulated accounted for nothing.
So it goes that Ettinger will instead turn his focus to other opportunities and events, all the while knowing where he would rather be come August 21.