As the last notes of the U.S. national anthem echoed across Hampton Court Palace, two-year-old Lucas Savola was finally allowed to join his mother, Kristin Armstrong, on the podium. Smiles spread across their faces as Armstrong scooped the toddler up into her arms and held the gold medal around her neck.
“I think it brought a tear to all our eyes,” Armstrong’s sister-in-law Marge Wilson said, “just to see her on the podium and hear the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’”
For the group of 12 -- sisters-in-law, nieces, nephews and significant others -- seeing Armstrong win her second time trial (the first was at Beijing in 2008) was the highlight of their trip to the London Olympic Games.
The family finally got a chance to relax Thursday morning when it sat in the lobby of the London Hilton Metropole and reflected on its last few days while making plans for the rest of its trip.
“It was surreal,” Marge said. “[My husband] Brady always knew she’d win. You just want it so bad.”
Between two races, a minor crash and a gold medal, the days leading up to Armstrong’s second gold medal were full of both excitement and anxiety for the Wilson clan, related to Armstrong through her husband, Joe Savola.
Anxiety at the sidelines
Joined by Lucas, the Wilsons stood by the 500-meter mark near Buckingham Palace late Sunday morning and awaited the start of the women’s cycling road race.
The family didn’t have any signs or American flags to hang over the railing lining the course (“We’re lamenting that fact,” said Armstrong’s nephew Matt Wilson), but it brought love and family support.
Although the group was there to cheer Armstrong on, her brother-in-law Brady Wilson knew it wasn’t her event. Amidst gasps from his family, he said he doubted she would win the race.
“She’s not much of a sprinter,” he said, defending himself.
The nerves the family felt as the race drew closer weren’t firing just because it was about to watch Armstrong compete. About 30 minutes before the race, the group grew anxious as umbrellas popped up along the course.
Armstrong had broken her collarbone on a wet track in a race in her hometown of Boise, Idaho three months earlier, and no one wanted her to slip again. But two-thirds of the way into the corner, Armstrong crashed at the bottom of Box Hill, falling on the same shoulder she broke in May.
“We all got sick to our stomachs,” Marge said.
Crashes like these churn the stomaches of cycling families. According to Marge, Armstrong’s mother can’t bear watch her race — live or on TV.
Armstrong recovered after the fall but couldn't win the road race. She placed 35th with a time of 3:36:16.
‘No luck. No nothing.’
Although Sunday didn’t bring a medal, the family was more confident on Wednesday as it prepared to cheer Armstrong on in what cyclists call the “race of truth” -- the Time Trial. With just the rider against the clock, it’s the true test of their ability.
“She can just do her tunnel vision,” Armstrong’s niece Audrey Wilson said. “She just goes out there and knows what she has to do.”
Wednesday morning, as Marge stood by the side of the course accompanied by her husband, daughters and son, she could feel the electric tension in the air. This was Armstrong’s last attempt at a gold medal.
The family positioned itself as close to the finish line as it possibly could without tickets. Shortly after 1 p.m., everyone watched on a big screen as Armstrong rolled down the ramp, the last of the cyclists to start her time trial.
As Armstrong neared the point where her family was standing, many around it had realized the group was related to the reigning gold medalist defending her position. Murmurs of, “That’s Kristin’s family. That’s her family,” swelled through the crowd.
Although Team Great Britain fans surrounded the family, cheers still erupted throughout the area as the 38-year-old cyclist crossed the finish line and claimed her gold medal. Her family couldn’t have been prouder.
“She deserved this,” said Armstrong’s sister-in-law Sue Henderson, one of the few able to stand in the ticketed area with Lucas to see the finish line. “No luck. No nothing. She just worked hard.”
Sharing in the celebration
Despite the pride the family has for Armstrong, it isn’t always easy having an Olympic athlete in the family.
Want to go out on a leisurely bike ride with her? Not possible, said her niece Audrey Wilson.
“You could only stay with her for half the ride,” Audrey’s brother Matt said.
Even Armstrong’s husband, Joe Savola, who also cycles, can only keep up with her for half the ride, Marge said.
It’s no surprise for the family Armstrong won her second gold, but it also knows how far she’s come since some first met her. Then, she had just picked up cycling after being diagnosed with osteoarthritis in her hips and told she could no longer participate as a triathlete.
“We were just so happy when she made her first pro cycling team,” her niece Michelle Wilson said.
BSU At The Games is a project of Ball State University's immersive learning initiative and features reporting from more than 40 students from eight disciplines who will provide coverage of the from July 23 to Aug. 15.
Correction: An earlier version of this story spelled "Savola" as "Salvola."