How does a skinny kid with asthma end up competing against brawny sprint cyclers in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing?
Michael Blatchford, 24, grew up in southern California in Cypress, a suburb near Disneyland. Like any other kid, he rode his bike around town. But it held no fascination for him until age thirteen, when his friend’s family invited him to the Velodrome, a 250-meter oval for high speed cycling built for the 1984 Olympics.
The Amateur Athletic Foundation (AAF) maintained the Velodrome with surplus funds from those Games. The AAF provided a track bike, a helmet and a coach for any interested young person. Blatchford was captivated.
“I was supposed to work the concession stand, and I couldn’t tear myself away from watching the bikers,” he remembers. “They were just flying around this big old concrete oval. It was love at first sight.”
Thus began Blatchford’s ten-year road to Beijing.
His parents never pushed him into athletics and still don’t quite understand his cycling obsession. His father, Ed, grew up in a small town in Texas. Though not Jewish, Ed had a fascination with the people of the Book. He moved to California and graduated from Bible school, but his career took a different path. However, he married a nice Jewish girl, Judith Yolken, who, while in high school, had come to believe in Jesus as her Messiah. Judith thought her family would disown her. Though disagreeing with her decision, their relationship remained solid.
After her marriage, however, there was some tension at the holidays. For many years, the Blatchfords held two Passover seders—one for their immediate family, in which they expressed their belief in Y’shua (Jesus), and another for the extended family, led by Judith’s father.
One year the Blatchfords invited Judith’s parents to the Y’shua seder. Michael recalls his grandfather’s reaction: “He clammed up real quick. He certainly would not berate our family, but it struck a nerve. Despite not having gone to temple in years, it was still ingrained in him from his parents and grandparents that when it comes to Jesus—you just don’t go there.”
Michael fondly remembers Purim, when his father would entertain him, his younger sister and brother by frantically changing costumes for each character as his mother read the whole megillah. His family also celebrated Christmas (without a tree) and Hanukkah, and his friends were jealous of the multiple presents he received.
There were no other Jews at the church the Blatchfords attended in nearby Long Beach. But Michael knew at a very young age that Jesus was a Jew who, Michael believed, had died for the sins of his people as well as for the gentiles. Nevertheless, his parents would not allow Michael to make a profession of his faith until they were sure he fully understood it. At age nine, he did so.
That same year, he began to have chronic migraine headaches. The family tried everything from food elimination diets to neurologists, without success. When he was eleven, his parents took him out of public school and homeschooled him. At school, if a migraine hit, he was at its mercy. At home, he had more freedom.
“When I was headache free, I would work at my studies,” Blatchford explains. “And it didn’t matter if it was a Saturday or Sunday or normal school hours. Whenever I could, I would.”
Cycling was the cure.
“I felt better when I was riding,” he says. “It heightened my pain tolerance. Today, I can still get some nasty headaches, but they don’t knock me down like they used to.”
Blatchford also has asthma, which restricts his large airway to about 80 percent capacity and his small airway to only 40-50 percent.
“Sprint cycling is an anaerobic sport [requiring brief spurts of high intensity activity],” he says, “and my doctor has always wondered how I can do what I do.”
What makes Blatchford an even more unlikely candidate for his chosen sport is his size.
“When I came to the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs at age seventeen,” he recalls, “I was a skinny kid, 150 pounds, and I’d never lifted weights. In my peak during the Olympic Games, I was 180-185 pounds, and I’m only 5’ 10.” Almost all the international cyclists are six feet or taller and always outweighed me. Jamie Staff of Great Britain has got to be 250 pounds, just a brick wall of a man.
“But I was fast and just able to develop that. That’s why I’ve never felt boastful about my exploits. I always knew that my strength came from my dependence upon God, because there was always something that was beyond me to overcome.”
Competition cycling is a circuit, including four World Cups a year, the world championships and the American championships. That’s a lot of traveling for a teenager who has never been away from home. Blatchford began to ask himself why he was doing this.
“Maybe I win a gold medal eventually. What then? But I came to understand that I had a very specific talent that was given to me for a reason,” he says. “Whether it was hard or not became less of an issue. When you’re competitive, the results are important, but they never fully mattered to me in the overall scheme of things.”
Armed with that attitude, Blatchford qualified for the team sprint in the 2008 Olympics by beating the automatic time standard in the 250-meter time trial. He then qualified for the individual sprint by posting the fastest time in the American selection camp. So he headed for Beijing.
“The [Beijing] Velodrome was not nearly as big as track and field, but we had a crowd,” he remembers. “And you knew that cameras were rolling, that people were staying up at three in the morning to watch you compete. There was definitely a sense of pride when we donned that Olympic gear.”
His team advanced to the first round by finishing eighth in the team sprint, then fell to Great Britain, the number one seed. Although Blatchford recorded a good time, he confessed that he was too tense to perform his best.
“One of my biggest struggles was having fun during my competition,” he says, “Racing for me was always a job, and you don’t want to mess up. On the team sprint, I was expecting more from myself than I had ever given. By doing that, I let myself down when I didn’t achieve it.”
But Blatchford had an epiphany as he approached his true love, the individual match sprint, when he is paired up against one competitor for a lap around the oval. After finishing 15th out of the 24 competitors in the seeding, he lined up against the cyclist with the second best time.
“I was getting on the line and the nervousness left me,” he recalls. “I finally embodied the fact that I have nothing to lose. I’m at the biggest stage of competition, facing the best in the world, and I can get out there and have fun. I was really happy with how I took control of the race. I was just not as fast as the next guy.”
After some recovery time following Beijing, Blatchford looked toward the future.
“When I initially made the commitment to compete, it had only been through 2008,” he explained. “But I felt like there was more in me, and I decided to pursue the 2012 Olympics in London.”
But just as he came to that decision, the national governing body for cycling abandoned the sprint events in favor of road and endurance. That meant no funding for any track cyclists, even Blatchford, their best. So in March 2009, he retired. Although he still daydreams about his competitions, he has no regrets.
“I have other things I’d like to do,” he says. “Before I can have a family, I need a job. I’ve been riding in circles for ten years. It paid the bills, but it didn’t put anything in my bank account.”
Blatchford is back at home in Cypress, attending Long Beach City College and planning to transfer to Cal State Long Beach. “I really enjoy electronics and computers,” he says. “If it has an ‘on’ button, I’m interested.”
He has made the adjustment from Olympian to everyday college student without a big emotional letdown. Maybe that’s because he was never living just to attain a medal. To Blatchford, the more central matter is a person’s relationship with God.
“Everybody is driven to win a gold medal, that’s why they’re there,” he reflects. “I never felt that drive. I did not sign up specifically because I thought I was going to be in the Olympic Games. I was content with competition and with continuing to push myself and see where it led.”
That perspective may have caused fellow athletes to scratch their heads, but it served Michael well as he advanced. Expectations can be crushing.
“I’ve seen some athletes that were expected to win, and some that weren’t expected to do anything and came out with a medal,” he says, “It’s an emotional roller coaster. If the Olympics are everything and the person doesn’t know God or have any hope beyond this life, they have nothing else if they lose.”
That’s not to say Blatchford doesn’t cherish his Olympic memories. In fact, he still wears his Olympic gear when he’s just riding his bike around Cypress. If you see him, flag him down. He’d love to get to know you.