Cycling hero welcomed
Friends, family and fans of Manawatu cyclist Simon van Velthooven have welcomed him home with the kind of fanfare fitting for an Olympic bronze medal-winning cyclist.
Palmerston North Boys' High School's cycling squad lined the airport's arrivals gate yesterday, hoisting bicycle wheels into an arch to herald the former pupil's return to the hometown he has set neither foot nor wheel in since his trail leading to London began in June.
Most had never seen an Olympic medal in the flesh, and van Velthooven humbly gave up his bit of bronze for a few minutes for a crowd of snap-happy school children clamouring to get a shot of themselves with a piece of the London Games.
Van Velthooven, 23, touched down after his flight from Auckland exhausted but appreciative of the excitement surrounding a hard-won and very shiny bit of metal which he tries to play down.
"I'm happy to see everyone here supporting cycling in the Manawatu where it's so strong," he said.
"When you're in the [Olympic] village you see all the other superstars and your bronze medal seems quite insignificant. But to come to New Zealand and see everyone froth over a bronze medal is just crazy."
As for the much-anticipated celebratory party at the van Velthooven's place, the host assured the Manawatu Standard it was very much still on, showing only a glimmer of regret for extending the invite to the whole country.
The proud parents of the bronze medallist remain overseas until tomorrow but van Velthooven's younger sisters - Emily, 16, and Laura, 20 - were there to celebrate their brother's arrival home.
Palmerston North Girls' High student Emily said she stormed out of the room in disbelief when she watched her brother race, thinking he had finished in fourth place.
When she realised he had won a medal, she cried.
"Half an hour after [the race] he called us and was like: you happy? . . . I've never known someone to work as hard.
"Even when he comes home, it's never time to rest or stop, he's always focused."
The family was sporty, she conceded, but there was only room for one cycling star.
"We just left it to him, I wouldn't want to show him up or anything!"
Palmerston North Boys' High cycling coach Mike McRedmond can lay claim to introducing both van Velthooven and fellow Olympic medallist Jesse Sargent to the sport.
McRedmond said it gave the young cycling squad members a sense of aspiration to see one of their own in a blaze of success.
"For the young boys to see that, and think in eight years that could be them . . . to see Simon coming home is a really great reflection of the school's cycling programme and of Manawatu cycling," Mr McRedmond said.
Squad captain Jaycob Humphreys, 17, watched all of New Zealand's Olympic cycling events and said the boys looked up to van Velthooven, who had offered them support in the past.
"He's always been available to us, he's never been a snob and has always looked after us and showed an interest in all the kids' riding," he said.