Georgia Gould back out front among U.S. mountain bikers
Four years after eighth-place finish in Beijing, Baltimore native expects to medal in London
Georgia Gould competes in the women's mountain bike race in the Beijing Olympics in 2008. (Joe Rimkus, Jr., MCT / August 23, 2008)
She knew she'd blacked out on the mountain biking trail in Santa Barbara during the Santa Ynez Valley Classic professional race. She knew she'd come to at the finish line, transported there by medics. She'd been told she'd been in a bad crash. She just couldn't remember it.
But if you knew what actually happened to Olympian Georgia Gould, you would know that she couldn't remember the crash because she didn't crash at all, that she'd stepped off her bike in midrace, delirious with heat stroke, and had passed out on a hill. And you would know this: she was four minutes ahead of the second-place rider and just 10 minutes away from the finish line, and you wouldn't be asking what happened — you'd be asking how she kept pushing herself to the point of collapse.
"It's interesting," said Gould's mother, Susan, who raised Georgia in Baltimore along with Georgia's father, Frank, and owns a photo gallery in Greektown. "She does a lot of riding off the front. … Georgia seems to do the best once she steps out in front or is challenged with something new or something she's not sure that maybe she can do or not, and I think that really kicks that determination into overdrive."
Gould said it took her months to fully recover — mentally and physically — from the heat stroke, which played a role in a somewhat disappointing eighth-place finish in 2008 at the Beijing Olympics.
Now 32, Gould has become a favorite to medal in the Olympics in London by attacking trails, and life, from out in front. As a child in Guilford, and later, Ruxton, Gould spurned competitive sports — even though she was a natural athlete — for pursuits like horseback riding and, for a time, the unicycle.
"She could probably beat me up, until we were teenagers," said her brother, Franco Gould, a former Army Ranger. "Some people were really surprised when she started to excel. I think that anybody who grew up with her wasn't really surprised."
After breaking away from Baltimore, where she attended Roland Park Country School, in favor of boarding school in New England, Gould bounced around from four different colleges before earning her degree. Gould's collegiate trail led her to Ghana for a time, despite repeated protests from her mother.
"Finally she really called me out on it. She was like, 'You are not really being really supportive,'" Susan said.
And that was that. Gould went off to Ghana to study.
Gould happened upon mountain biking at the age of 19, when she raced off to Ketchum, Idaho after taking time off from school. There, she took up mountain biking as a way to see the landscape.
"Have you ever watched one of those races?" Franco said. "It's insane. To start, you ride up the side of a ski mountain and [then] ride down it at breakneck speed. And they go back up it again."
In Ketchum, she also met David "Dusty" LaBarr, her future husband (and mechanic). LaBarr, also a mountain biker, accompanied her to local races, which turned to regional races and then national races until, by 2005, the two bought a 15-passenger van with a futon in the back to travel to places like Texas and California for Gould's events when they weren't working part time.
"People were pretty supportive," Franco said. "But I also don't think Georgia particularly cares what people think. She wanted to ride bikes, and she went off to ride bikes. She's perfectly willing to sleep in a van and live in marginal poverty to race. To see if she can be that good."
Still, by the end of the 2005 racing season, Gould said, "I was like, I sure hope someone will sponsor me because I can't afford to do this another year."
Someone did. LUNA Women's Mountain Bike Team, one of the best mountain biking teams in the world, signed Gould as a developmental rider for 2006. She rewarded them with her first professional victory at the end of the season at the national championships.
"That was the thing that clicked for her," LaBarr said. "She's like, 'I can win these races.' It's like the switch that goes off in her head."
In 2007, as a full LUNA team member, Gould grew accustomed to starting — and finishing — in the front. She became the first person since 2007 to win every National Mountain Bike Series cross country race in a season. Her success continued into 2008, up until the heat stroke incident caused her to fail to finish a race for the first time in her career.
"People drop out of races all the time. And it infuriates her," Franco said. "I think that's a hint to her character. She gives her competitors the respect of always going her hardest."
Gould competed in Beijing in 2008, but with the effects of the heat stroke still lingering, she finished a somewhat disappointing eighth.
"It was really hard for me to be motivated to push myself [in Beijing] when I had this internal limiter going on, especially in hot races," Gould said. "And Beijing was really hot and humid."
After two more national championships in 2010 and 2011 and two second-place finish in Union Cycliste Internationale events in 2012, she's more confident. In Beijing, Gould hoped for a medal. In London, Gould expects a medal.
Her coach, Ben Ollet, said the London course's series of shorter climbs favors a taller, more powerful rider like the 5-foot-9 Gould.
And some more good news for Gould. London's average temperature for the Aug. 11 race: just 72 degrees.