Leontien van Moorsel only wanted to get faster eight years ago
when a Dutch cycling official gave her a tip. Lose a little
weight, he told his countrywoman; you'll be a better hill
climber. Van Moorsel, then 22, was already on her way to becoming
one of the world's most versatile cyclists. The women's Tour de
France beckoned, with 2,200-meter climbs in the mountains. If
trimming a few pounds would trim a few seconds, she thought, then
pass the lettuce and hold the pasta. "The worst thing happened,"
she says, looking back. "I won. Then I won again."
She subsisted on salads and yogurt for months and took her
victory in the Tour de France as validation that dieting was a
precondition for success. But, like many anorexics, she couldn't
see the spiral of deprivation to which she was subjecting
herself. "Finally in '94 my body went empty," she says. "I
trained six hours a day, and I ate nothing. It happened so fast
that suddenly the life was gone."
Van Moorsel, who stands 5'6", had shriveled from 145 pounds to
95. "It hurt her to lift her arm," recalls Michael Zijlaard, a
cyclist who married Van Moorsel in 1995 and now also acts as her
coach and manager. "She would cry. She would scream. It was not
her that I saw."
Van Moorsel quit the sport in '94, and nearly two years later the
Dutch press reported that the former glamour girl of cycling had
ballooned to 175 pounds. In '96, struggling with weight
fluctuations, Zijlaard-Van Moorsel, as she is now known, began
taking long, fast pleasure rides. "Before I knew it, I was
training again," she says. "It was inside me." She returned to
competition in '98 and won world time-trial titles in the next
two years. In Sydney she became the most decorated female cyclist
at a single Olympics, winning golds in the individual pursuit,
the 74.3-mile road race and the 19.4-mile time trial, plus a
silver medal in the points race.
"My gold medal is just being healthy," she said after the time
trial, a race for which she had practiced repeatedly on a
stationary bike in her Amsterdam apartment, pushing herself each
time to try to complete the distance in 42 minutes. In the Sydney
race she asked Michael to yell interval times to her as she
passed by him on each of her two laps, but she couldn't make out
what he was saying. "I only knew it felt fast," she says. "The
time at the finish I couldn't believe." She crossed in 42 minutes
flat, a staggering 37 seconds ahead of silver medalist Mari
Holden of the U.S.
Zijlaard-Van Moorsel said her most cherished medal was the silver
in the points race, her weakest event. To score points in that
track race, cyclists sprint and then must force their way through
traffic to get ahead of other racers at designated intervals. She
has always feared collisions and bad falls, especially because
track bikes have no brakes. "Something else to overcome," she
Zijlaard-Van Moorsel makes less than $100,000 a year from cycling
and has no additional subsidies other than her share of what the
Dutch 12-woman team receives from Farm Frites, a french-fry
maker. She has modeled but has twice spurned Playboy's requests
that she pose for the magazine.
She arrives for postrace press conferences only after first
applying makeup. "Leontien always presents herself well," says
Leo van de Ruit of the Dutch Press Agency ANP. "The good
earrings, nails painted, hair always fixed." Michael sees it as
part of Leontien's desire to please people. "She is really
sensitive," he says. "It is not possible to get into an argument
with her. If there is a handicapped person at her races, she will
take the initiative and talk to them. If she sees young girls on
bikes, she likes to ride with them. She likes people so much, and
she wants them to like her. She never lost that when she was
sick, but now she can fight hard too. The fire has returned."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON BRUTY