Schenectady County

Emma White comes home with much-cherished Olympic bronze medal

Duanesburg High School and Union College graduate Emma White presents her bronze medal, won in women’s track cycling team pursuit at the Tokyo Olympic Games.
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Duanesburg High School and Union College graduate Emma White presents her bronze medal, won in women’s track cycling team pursuit at the Tokyo Olympic Games.

DUANESBURG — There’s a pizza in Emma White’s near future.

But the only flat disk that mattered on Thursday was the elegant metal one hanging from the blue Olympics lanyard around her neck.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games will continue to crank along through Sunday, but the 23-year-old White is already back home with her bronze medal in tow, which she earned as a member of Team USA’s women’s track cycling squad that competed in team pursuit at Tokyo.

As reigning world champions from the gold medal they won at the UCI Track Cycling World Championships in Berlin last year, the Americans came in as de facto favorites to win the Olympic gold medal. They may have fallen short of that goal, but don’t try to tell the beaming (albeit extremely jet-lagged) White that Team USA didn’t have a winning Games, especially since the 4,000-meter world record was broken four times, and the Americans’ three runs all were under the mark that stood before the Tokyo Games began.

“We certainly wanted to win, being defending world champions, and going in as the favorites, we had high expectations,” the Duanesburg High and Union College graduate said. “But after riding a couple rounds and figuring out where everyone was at, I’m so much happier with bronze than I ever expected to be.

“This medal really shows all the commitment and work that everyone has put in through the last year and a half and the pandemic, picking up and moving to Colorado Springs and working as a team through all the good and the bad since our last race in Berlin. It really just shows how much strength we have, not just leg strength on the bike, but as a team.”

White teamed up with Chloe Dygert, Jennifer Valente and Megan Jastrab to get through Tuesday’s first round and advance to the medal round, but couldn’t ride faster than the dominating team from Germany, as Great Britain took the silver.

White’s Wednesday travel saga included an 8 a.m. departure from the hotel for a 5 p.m. flight that touched down in Chicago 11 1/2 hours later. She arrived at Albany International Airport at 9 EDT Wednesday night to a pair of firetrucks creating a congratulatory fountain by spraying arcs of water toward the plane at the gate.

“It was beautiful, two arcs pouring down and meeting at the plane,” she said. “The pilot made a special announcement, everybody was cheering on the plane. It was just so special and really made coming home that much greater.”

By then, her phone was blowing up with messages, too, and continues to do so.

While White was being interviewed in the driveway of her parents’ house in a wooded section of a rural part of Schenectady County, a well-wisher stopped his red pickup truck in the road to congratulate Emma’s mom, Chris.

“It is still so overwhelming and so special,” Emma White said. “I’m just so grateful for all these people that I didn’t even realize were following my career, people who got up in the middle of the night to watch. I can’t even believe it.”

Like all the Olympic athletes, the Team USA women’s team pursuit has ridden a stressful rollercoaster of uncertainty since the last time they competed, which was the world championships in Berlin that finished at the beginning of March last year, just before the pandemic reached full force.

They also had no way of knowing how the other teams were progressing in their training.

In team pursuit, four riders cycle in single file around a small velodrome, with the lead rider occasionally angling up the banked turns and coming back down to the fourth position to allow the rider behind her to set the pace for a turn.

In an unusual move during qualifying, Lily Williams pulled out from the second wheel, behind Dygert, leaving White to close a gap while losing drafting advantage and trying not to leave Valente with a gap behind her.

“That’s definitely not something you want to happen, so it’s immediate damage control,” White said. “Knowing that I had a teammate still on my wheel, Jennifer Valente, I have to make a decision. I have to close that gap as quickly and as smoothly as possible. I can’t jump the gap, because then that leaves her hanging. I don’t think I could’ve jumped it if I tried, anyway. Chloe is so strong.

“You probably couldn’t tell on the video, but we were communicating by me shouting. Chloe didn’t realize that Lily was gone. She knew there was panic, and she knew she needed to kind of calm down. We use the word ‘steady,’ and just the voice of how that word is projected, is how we communicate.

“So when I’m screaming at the top of my lungs desperately, that means that we are in serious panic mode,” White said with a laugh. “So she got the hint.”

It didn’t cost Team USA a shot at the medal round, as they posted fast times in all three runs over two days.

Germany was just too fast.

“Ultimately, Germany was so strong and truly set a new standard in team pursuit,” White said. “I don’t think that record will be broken at least until the next Olympic cycle. They really set the bar so high and are so deserving of that gold.”

Based on her performance and how confidently she competed in her first Olympic Games, White should be a mainstay on this team for a long time.

As Team USA was lining up for their standing start before their qualifying run on Monday, a video camera panned across their faces, and White was quietly looking down with a small smile on her face.

“The pressure’s on,” she said. “You’re thinking the whole time what could go wrong and how do I make it not happen. I kept telling myself to relax, ‘I’m here,’ and if I finish feeling like I didn’t give it all, I would regret it for the rest of my life. So I made sure that I put everything on the line in every round. I rode each round like it was the finals. I think the whole team did.

“And that’s why this bronze medal is so special, because I believe we put everything out there.”

White won’t bask in the afterglow of the Olympics for long.

She’s a professional road racer with Rally Cycling and needs to crank up training for that season.

She will take a short, much deserved break, though.

“Definitely going to the beach next week and eating some pizza,” she said. “Then it all starts up again. I’m racing with Rally and all the road racing that I missed out on in the spring, I’m going full gas the rest of the summer.

“On the bike and off the bike, I feel like I’m only growing. It’s a really great feeling to know I can go in any direction I want, and have so many people behind me.”

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