Going for the gold: Olympians reunite for Freeride Festival

The entire United States Mountain Biking Team for the Sydney Olympics. From left to right: Travis Brown, Ann Trombley, Alison Dunlap, Ruthie Matthes and Tinker Juarez.
Courtesy Photo |

The year is 2000.

Alison Dunlap and Ann Trombley walk side by side down the track at the Stadium Australia, donned in matching blue skirts, bright red blazers and white cowboy hats.

The scene is surreal.

They wave endearingly to a deafening crowd of over 100,000 people from around the world, and struggle to keep their emotions in check as the realization kicks in that they’re about to represent the United States on the world’s biggest stage: the Sydney Olympic Games.

“Being at the opening ceremonies, and just knowing that you are with all of the best athletes in the world is unreal,” said Trombley. “I liken it to being the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin. Everyone is there to see you.”

Together Dunlap and Trombley represent two-thirds of the women’s cross-country mountain bike team. For Dunlap, it was the second realization of a life-long goal. For Trombley, it’s an impossibility come true.

Alison Dunlap grew up in Denver, where she played soccer for Smoky Hill High School. After graduation she attended Colorado College, planning on walking onto the Division 1 soccer team. She was the final person cut, but the failure opened the door for something greater.

“I remember being pretty panicked,” said Dunlap. “The sport I had been playing all those years was gone, and I was going to have to find something else to do. I was paranoid about gaining the freshman 15, and I thought if I didn’t do something I was going to get fat from all the food in the dining hall.”

Dunlap stumbled onto a flier for the Colorado College cycling team. A freshman with no racing experience, she stepped into tryouts the lone woman among 35 men. She excelled from the moment she hopped on the bike, and three years later won the National Collegiate Road Championship.

After college Dunlap decided to cycle full time, earning sponsorships, a modest salary and racing internationally.

“That first year out of school I was traveling abroad and getting to do all the big national events for the first time,” she said. “My dream has always been to go to the Olympics since I was five years old. All of a sudden it was a very real possibility.”

Dunlap attended the Olympic trials for the 1992 Olympics in Spain, but fell short. But just being at the trials showed her what it took to make the team, and four years later she earned her spot on the road racing team for the summer games in Atlanta.

Despite the massive achievement, the race was a disappointment. Dunlap was never a favorite to win, but a rainy day and poor showing dropped her to a middling 37th place.

After the Atlanta games, Dunlap grew weary of the political nature of road racing, and considered retirement. At the time there were no trade teams in Europe, meaning any woman who wanted to race overseas needed to be part of a national team.

“If you wanted to go to the Olympics or world championships you had to go to Europe,” said Dunlap. “It became this very political thing, and it was just a lot of red tape and hoops to jump through. I just got tired of it.”

But at only 27, she still had racing to do. At the time her boyfriend, now husband, Greg was a professional mountain biker, and inspired Dunlap to switch disciplines. She signed a contract with GT Bicycles, and left the road for a new career on the dirt.

She went on to win two Union Cycliste Internationale World Cups, her first in just her fourth race. In 2000 she was invited to compete in the Sydney Olympics.

Ann Trombley grew up as a tomboy in Oakland, Calif., and didn’t race until she was nearly 30. When she was 21 years old a group of friends chipped in to buy her a mountain bike. They wanted her to race, but her life was already in motion.

She attended the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center with the plan of earning a degree in physical therapy and teaching physical education, but outside influences kept pushing her into the world of mountain biking.

“I had another friend there push me into mountain bike racing,” said Trombley. “I had my first race above Boulder on somebody’s private property. I actually won the beginner race. Mountain bike racing at that time was still pretty new, but it was a great community of people. “

After graduating, Trombley decided to try her hand at racing. She traveled around Colorado with friends participating in local races and making a name for herself. In 1996, she decided to go pro.

The learning curve was steep. Moving from 90-minute amateur races to pro competitions lasting over two hours, she had to increase her training and intensity.

“I remember in ’98 coming in fifth at one of the pro national events, and almost passing out,” said Trombley. “I remember finishing and thinking ‘oh my god, I’m literally going to pass out.’

“I think after that I realized I could do it. A lot of training and racing is just increasing your ability to suffer. So once you get to that top five and you see that you can tolerate it you’re able to do it more often.”

At that point Trombley, for the first time in her life, set her sites on the Olympics.

She finished top three for the United States in the world cup races for the world championships and earned her spot on the cross-country mountain biking team.

“Growing up in Oakland with a single mom, at the age of eight, living on food stamps the Olympics was never on my radar,” she said.

Trombley arrived in Sydney exhausted from the qualifiers, but ready to race. She took in the festivities at the opening ceremony and explored the Olympic village. Not considered one of the best in the world, her goal was to finish in the top ten.

Dunlap had been here before. She’d done the ceremonies, and had the Olympic experience. This time, entering ranked top three in the world, she was laser focused on winning a medal.

The race started well. A rider in front of Trombley crashed allowing her to move into eighth place in the early going. Dunlap moved toward the head of the pack and was ready for her podium run. But it was not their day.

Trombley panicked.

“I freaked myself out,” she said. “I thought I was too far up too soon in the race, and I slowed down a little bit. I kind of backed off and I never should have done that.

Dunlap was close. A metal was nearly in her grasp, but as she moved into second, full of adrenaline, she clipped a tree and went down. The first place rider pulled away along with the second, third and her shot at the Olympic podium.

“Lots of four letter words were going through my head,” said Dunlap. “I couldn’t actually believe I had just crashed. I still daydream about what would have happened if I hadn’t. Could I have moved into first? Would I have stayed in second? Would I have blown up anyway?”

Dunlap went on to finish the race in seventh, and Trombley took 15th. Neither of them ever medaled at the Olympics, but their achievements in racing are impressive nonetheless.

Dunlap would go on to become a three-time national cross-country champion, and in 2001 was the UCI Mountain Bike Cross Country World Champion. These are just a couple examples in a list of accolades too long to list.

Trombley was the NORBA National Short Track champion in 2000, and was the US National Cyclocross Masters National Champion in 2014.

Today they’re both retired from racing, and have moved into the world of coaching. Dunlap opened the Alison Dunlap Adventure Camps in 2003, coaching and running a mountain biking skills camp.

Trombley, unable to support herself through racing alone, started Trailmaster Coaching & Physical Therapy in 2001. She also founded an organization called WISE, Women in Sports Enrichment, which awards grants to female athletes so they can pursue their sport longer without having to worry about money.

“I wanted to help other women because I feel like women, more than men, feel like sports is more of a thrill and not a job,” said Trombley. “We want women to do that as a job because it makes them stronger people. Whatever they go on to do after their sport, they will be amazing at because of what they learned struggling through athletics and sports.”

Dunlap and Trombley are reuniting this weekend at the Rendevous Mountain Bike Capital USA Weekend, running a skills clinic with former Olympian Alison Powers.

The clinic runs Friday through Sunday at Hideaway Park in Winter Park.

“Winter Park is such a great community and mountain bike community,” said Trombley. “They really embrace biking, and it sounds like we’re going to have a pretty good turnout for the skills event.”

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

The Sky-Hi News strives to deliver powerful stories that spark emotion and focus on the place we live.

Over the past year, contributions from readers like you helped to fund some of our most important reporting, including coverage of the East Troublesome Fire.

If you value local journalism, consider making a contribution to our newsroom in support of the work we do.