ROCKFORD, Mich. (WOOD) — When Olympic cyclists hit the road in Rio this weekend, Rockford native Brent Bookwalter will be among them.
Bookwalter, 32, has been a professional international competitor for more than a decade, but these are his first Olympic Games.
“To race for the USA, with the stars and stripes jersey on my back, it’ll be a career highlight at the Olympics,” Bookwalter told 24 Hour News 8 via Skype in June.
“I wouldn’t be here without the community West Michigan,” he added.
His road to Rio started on the streets of Belmont and the trails at the Cannonsburg and Pando sports parks.
“He loved to ride his bike,” his neighbor, Brian Kommer, said.
Kommer, a young man at the time with two children of his own, was a mountain bike racer himself. One day, he asked Bookwalter, then about 10, if he wanted to go mountain biking with him.
“He loved riding bikes, so he said, ‘OK.’ After that, he was hooked,” Bookwalter’s mother, Connie Zinger, recalled.
“Brian took me to my first mountain race out at Pando and Cannonsburg and really that spirit, that passion, that love, and that’s what got me into it and that’s what continued to drive me to the top,” Bookwalter said.
Later, Bookwalter earned a scholarship to join the prestigious cycling program at tiny Lees-McRae College in North Carolina. He was a nine-time collegiate national champion.
In 2005, he turned pro.
“Never dreaming that he would go on any of these grand tours,” Zinger said.
Bookwalter has since raced in the Tour of California — he finished third there in May — and completed his fourth Tour de France in July. There was a jarring moment early in the Tour de France when Bookwalter crashed.
“When I hit the ground that first stage in the Tour, one of the first things that popped in to my mind was Rio, Olympics. I had worked so hard just to get selected, and I’ve seen how fast it can go away. But fortunately I was able to push on and continue and I think my experience and just tenacity just paid off to get me to the finish of the Tour,” Bookwalter said Wednesday, speaking to 24 Hour News 8 Sports Director Jack Doles at the Athletes Village in Rio.
He had less than two weeks to rebound after the grueling Tour before the Olympic Games. He will be one of only two men from the U.S. competing in the road race in Rio.
“Brent is one of them because of his commitment, his dedication, his talent, his experience,” retired U.S. cyclist and TV commentator Bob Roll said.
“The first goal is just to get on the team to Rio, so I’m happy to accomplish that and now we’ll work on being the best I can be there and doing a great performance,” Bookwalter told 24 Hour News 8 in June.
“I’m very proud,” his mother said.
The road race begins at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, so Bookwalter may or may not take part in Friday night’s opening ceremony.
Wednesday, he said there’s “always a chance” he could medal.
“It’s the Olympics,” he said. “Especially in cycling, I think a lot of the athletes here, they’re used to competing against each other and I’m used to competing against these guys in the Olympic road race in TT (time trials). But (it’s a) different team dynamic — the team sizes are a lot different, the field size is different, the depth is different. And we saw the course the past two days. It’s really demanding, really brutal and I think really unpredictable, too. So keep dreaming.”
–24 Hour News 8 Sports Director Jack Doles contributed to this article from Rio de Janeiro, where he is reporting for Media General.