IZU, Japan — Four years ago Kelsey Mitchell was behind the wheel of a municipal watering truck, riding the brake as her co-worker sprayed weeds in a ditch.
A former university soccer player, Mitchell knew she wanted to stay in competitive sports. She would run on her lunchbreaks and go to the gym when her shift was over.
Now the 27-year-old track cyclist from Sherwood, Park., Alta., is an Olympic gold medallist in track cycling, winning Canada's final medal of the Tokyo Games on Sunday. Mitchell beat Ukraine's Olena Starikova in two straight heats to capture the title, riding out front and never relinquishing the lead.
"I had no idea where I would end up," said Mitchell of her days as a municipal worker. "I hadn't ridden a track bike before, I'd ridden a bike as a kid but nothing since.
"I had dreamt of going to the Olympics, and in the back of my mind you want to go and you want to win. So to have a gold medal, it's pretty surreal."
After her summer watering weeds, Mitchell attended an RBC Training Camp qualifier in September of 2017, a program sponsored by the Canadian Olympic Committee and other organizations designed to widen and deepen the pool of high-performance athletes by recruiting them from all levels of different sports.
A Cycling Canada recruiter witnessed Mitchell generate 1,300 peak wattage on a stationary bike wearing running shoes, without the aid of clip-in shoes.
"If she came to us four years ago, five years ago, we would be like, we wouldn't know what to do with that talent, right?" said Curt Harnett, former Olympic medallist in track cycling and board member for Cycling Canada, in January 2020.
"We wouldn't have that capability to focus energy on that. Now we can do stuff like that. And that's going to start happening more and more."
Although Mitchell won sprint gold at the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru, and set a world record in the women's flying 200-metre sprint in Bolivia during the Pan American track cycling championship that year, she still feels she has catching up to do as a cyclist.
In that respect, having the Tokyo Olympics delayed by a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic worked to Mitchell's advantage.
"I figured out how to ride my bike better and get stronger in the gym and just become more of a cyclist," said Mitchell. "It definitely benefited me and I think it benefited a few other athletes as well."
Mitchell won her gold-medal heats against Starikova on Sunday in commanding fashion, swooping down into the bowl and past her opponent and then simply overpowering her.
She won the first race by 0.061 seconds and the second race by 0.064.
"I was out there on the track alone and up on the podium alone but it was a team effort. Everyone was behind me," said Mitchell. "I was as ready as I could possibly be to go and perform in that race.
"Everyone's support was helping me push those pedals faster."
Lee Wai Sze of Hong Kong took bronze.
Mitchell produced Canada's 24th medal, which is the most at a non-boycotted Summer Olympics, and beat the 22 earned in Rio de Janeiro five years ago.
She is the second Canadian woman to win track cycling gold in an individual event following Lori-Ann Muenzer's sprint gold in 2004.
The two Olympic gold medallists had actually met four years ago, just after Cycling Canada had first approached Mitchell about joining their team. Mitchell's aunt was in Muenzer's spin class and suggested she take part to meet the former Olympian.
After a gruelling workout, Mitchell approach Muenzer.
"I went up and introduced myself and I said 'I want to try track cycling and I want to go to the Olympics,' and she was probably like 'who the hell is this girl?,'" said Mitchell. "But she was super nice and was like 'oh, that's awesome.'
"It was a long time ago. It feels like it was a really long time ago but I guess it was only four years."