Van Velthooven wins bronze
The man they call Rhino charged on to the Olympic cycling podium today, and said he felt the whole of New Zealand pushing him in a desperate final lunge to dead-heat for bronze.
Manawatu's Simon van Velthooven proudly stood beside the remarkable Chris Hoy, who broke down while accepting his sixth Olympic gold medal in his final Games after a gripping, deafening keirin final at the velodrome.
The 23-year-old, 13 years younger than Great Britain's cycling knight, had an interminable wait of about five minutes before a dead-heat for third with Dutchman Teun Mulder was confirmed. The pair got a bronze each, as the New Zealand and Dutch flags were raised together.
Hoy won the six-man final from Germany's Max Levy, van Velthooven's friend and training partner.
“The wait wasn't really that long, because I backed myself," said van Velthooven, who claimed New Zealand's sixth Olympic cycling medal and the first for a sprinter.
"That final lunge was huge. The whole nation was pushing me in that lunge, and I'm just glad I got that medal. It's a big sigh of relief.”
He matched the bronze of the men's pursuit team, including his former Palmerston North Boys' High School mate Jesse Sergent.
“It's a nation medal. All that hard work, everyone that's looked after me, billeted me and fed me.
"It's just a huge moment for everyone in BikeNZ, in track cycling and in our team. I'm lost for words,” van Velthooven said.
He announced his medal credentials in the heats, when he was drawn with Hoy and stalked him all the way in a strong opening statement. Then in the semifinals, the New Zealander was in strife as the last of the six riders with a lap to go, before looping the field and getting within a whisker of Levy.
In the final, Hoy led out and Levy followed. Van Velthooven tried to track Hoy up but had to go wide, and Mulder poked through on the inside.
Van Velthooven punched the air, but there was no confirmation. As Hoy accepted the adulation of a roaring full house, van Velthooven did several laps with nothing showing on the big screen. Even with splits down to one-thousandth of a second, he and Mulder couldn't be separated.
“If Levy wasn't between us in the photo, it might have been a different story. That's how close Olympics are, and a photo finish isn't enough. I'm glad they handed out two bronzes, because I would have hated to get fourth.”
When the result was confirmed, the dead-heaters embraced. Van Velthooven was mobbed by his sprint team-mates Eddie Dawkins, Ethan Mitchell and Sam Webster, clad in their black and white New Zealand blazers. A beaming van Velthooven waved to the crowd from the podium and offered a cheeky "devil horns" sign.
“To see [Hoy] to the right of me with a gold medal was quite humbling. Racing as a knight and a crowd favourite and with the whole nation on your shoulders, in my eyes is a hard thing to do.
“To be on the podium with him and Max Levy and Teun Mulder, they're all living legends, and last year I was looking up to them, thinking, ‘They're the ones to beat'. To be on par with them is amazing.”
The New Zealand track sprint programme is in its infancy but van Velthooven - who dreamed of being a road rider before he got too big - has made giant strides.
He won keirin bronze at the Delhi Commonwealth Games in 2010, then was third across the line in the world championship final in April before being relegated to sixth for interference.
He was planning a big celebration in London.
“I'll probably catch up with my parents and family and friends. They've been at Kiwi House, drinking it dry.”
The other New Zealander in action on the final night at the velodrome, Jo Kiesanowski, finished seventh in the women's omnium after being 11th overnight. Great Britain's Laura Trott won her second gold, beating the United States' Sarah Hammer and Australia's Annette Edmondson. Fairfax NZ
The Marlborough Express