Cyclist Emma White’s Olympic dream back on track

Publication Date

Track pursuit events set for Aug. 2, 3 in Tokyo

Emma White and teammates
From left, Lily Williams, Jennifer Valente, Emma White ’19 and Chloe Dygert at the UCI Track Cycling World Championships on Feb. 27, 2020 in Berlin, Germany, where the team won gold in the team pursuit.

To anyone who follows cycling, there’s not much drama in the news that world-level cyclist Emma White ’19 is headed to the Olympics in Tokyo.

In the winter of 2020, she and her track pursuit teammates were fresh off a decisive World Cup championship, a stellar performance that buoyed U.S. gold medal hopes for the Olympics six months hence.

Then came COVID.

White and her teammates dealt with the disappointment by training harder and using the next 18 months to refine their routine in a sport that requires precise teamwork and strategy.

White and her team – which (with an alternate) also includes Chloe Dygert, Jennifer Valente, Lily Williams and Megan Jastrab – are set to compete at Tokyo’s Izu Velodrome on Aug. 2 (qualifiers) and Aug. 3 (finals). Live TV coverage is to begin at 2:30 a.m. EDT on NBC.

White is one of two alumnae going to the Tokyo Olympics. Nina Cutro-Kelly ’06 is competing in judo.

In team pursuit races, a four-member team covers 4 kilometers on a track, usually with another team starting at the opposite side. Riders take advantage of drafting, following in a close line and taking turns as leader. White and her team will finish in just over four minutes, averaging about 36 miles per hour.

White, who graduated as an interdepartmental major in computer science/science, medicine and technology, hails from Duanesburg, N.Y., a dozen hilly cycling miles west of campus. Her athletic family includes a brother, Curtis ’18, another world-level cyclist. Their dad, Tom, is head coach of Union’s men’s and women’s crew.

White has long held promise for the world stage. At 11, just two years after she first started racing, she won a national championship in criterium. As a teenager racing in cyclocross, she competed in two world championships and tallied seven national titles. In 2014, she finished fifth in the time trial at the road world championships in Ponferrada, Spain. The next year, she finished second to current teammate Dygert in time trial and road race at the world junior championships. She turned pro in 2016 with Rally Cycling. She is coached by three-time Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong.

In 2018, while juggling her classes at Union and racing, she became the first Under 23 American woman to capture all three road cycling disciplines in the same year – time trial, criterium and road race. Then came the call from USA Cycling. She gave up cyclocross for the track and moved to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado to prepare for the Olympics.

We caught up with White in late June to ask her a few questions before the Olympics:

Q: The pandemic was not ideal, but did it give you a chance to refine your training? Has the extra year given you an edge?

A: Right before the pandemic hit, we were in Berlin winning the World Championships (with what was supposed to be less than five months to the Olympics!). So initially, the postponement was really not easy to wrap our heads around. How would we keep our fitness and speed up when we didn't even know if there would actually be an Olympic Games one year later? When the initial disappointment and fear passed, we acknowledged how young our team is, and also how new we all are to the sport of track cycling. Three of the five of us have been riding [track] for less than 3 years! So an extra year has definitely been to our advantage.

Q: What has been the effect of having fewer opportunities to race this past year? Are you fresher, or can you train differently without having to taper a few times during the season?

Typically, I am racing all year long so there is little time for a break or "off-season." This past year I was able to take my first ever off-season! Otherwise, training is still very similar. I still take rest weeks after a hard training block and I have been using this time to go on hikes in Colorado or go home and visit family in New York. The biggest challenge of not racing is not knowing where our competitors are at. Usually, we race against each other often enough to know who is fast at the time, but there may be a few surprises in Tokyo.

Q: How have you been filling your "free" time? Where have you been living/training?

I am currently living in Colorado Springs where the Olympic Training Center is. Our team is based here because of the velodrome in town and also the never-ending resources the training center offers. Our team is a very close group so we spend a lot of time with each other on and off the bike. I've loved exploring hikes in the area when I have some time off the bike, which isn't very often these days. Right now, free time is spent sleeping, eating, or some other form of recovering.

Q: What was it like to race road in Knoxville [USA Road Nationals on June 20] now that you've been so focused on track?

Rejoining my road team [Rally] was really special because they have been so supportive of my Olympic mission on the track! Even though we train on the road for track, ultimately I am training for a 4 minute race. So 70 miles was a shock to the system. I was happy to play a supportive role for my team but pretty disappointed that I couldn't do more for them at the end of the race.

Q: What's the rest of your summer like? Are you getting home? When do you head for Tokyo?

We will continue training as a team in Colorado Springs for the next couple of weeks and then we have a week of final prep in LA, as the velodrome there is much more similar to the velodrome in Tokyo. We depart to Tokyo from LA on July 25 and race our qualifying round on August 2 and the final two rounds on August 3! I will return home to New York immediately after.

Q: Have you ever met Nikki Stone '96, Union's last Olympian? Things went well for her in Japan [gold medal in aerial freestyle at Nagano in 1998]. Here's hoping for a repeat.

I have not met her! I would love to someday.

Q: Any other thoughts?

I am so grateful for Union's continuous support through this journey! I couldn't have asked for a better college experience and I am so happy that it has extended past graduation. I will absolutely be back in the fall.