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By Tom Harle at Lee Valley Velodrome
Laura Kenny was only battling for bronze, but it felt like a sixth Olympic gold was on the line.
England expected and Kenny was tasked with guiding a teenager, a 20-year-old, and a Commonwealth Games debutant onto the team pursuit podium.
Dame Laura is used to wielding the weight of a nation, but she is human after all.
“I’ve never felt under so much pressure to win a bronze medal in my whole career,” said Kenny, who is one of over 1,100 elite athletes on UK Sport’s National Lottery-funded World Class Programme, allowing them to train full time, have access to the world’s best coaches and benefit from pioneering technology, science and medical support.
“Just the fact that it’s such a young team, and obviously I’ve been lucky in my career that I’ve had some brilliant experiences and I’ve been able to step up on that podium.
“And this is their first taste of it. So honestly, going into that final, it could have been a gold medal ride at the Olympics, I was that nervous."
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In qualifying Kenny, Josie Knight, Maddie Leech and Sophie Lewis were five seconds off the Games record pace set by Australia and 1.5s shy of a place in the gold medal final.
Some epic turns on the front from the five-time Olympic champion delivered the goods in the clash with Wales for bronze, although she wasn’t about to take any credit.
She said: “I was going terribly. I think I was the weak link to be honest. I’ll take that, that’s fine. At some point you’ve got to hand it over to the next generation.”
It was only Kenny’s second Commonwealth Games medal - she won the Glasgow 2014 points race but missed the Gold Coast to give birth to son Albie.
In the last year she has been through more than any mother should, but you sense she is still hooked on the pressure, because she knows that there are bigger battles to be fought and won.
It was the frisson of the velodrome that kept her from retiring earlier this year after a nightmare six months that saw her miscarry and have an ectopic pregnancy.
The fresh-faced likes of Leech and Lewis have given Kenny a new lease of life, refreshing after the stresses and strains of the Tokyo cycle.
She said: “It’s been brilliant. Being able to ride with these youngsters, they bring a completely different, fresh, really like, enjoyable environment.
“One that I would say I haven’t been part of for the last 18 months or two years, just because the pressure of the Olympics is massive.
“So, to have that freshness and that happiness, where every session is enjoyable, has just been brilliant.”
The Lee Valley Velodrome was crackling just as it did ten years ago when Kenny, then Trott, took team pursuit and omnium gold at her maiden Olympics.
She said: “When the tandems rode before us, I took my headphones off and I was just like ‘Wow, this is amazing’.
“This is a Friday; you almost don’t expect it. I don’t know what Saturday and Sunday are going to be like. But no, it’s brilliant. I just love being back here. It holds so many great memories for me.
“To be honest, I didn’t even think I was going to be here. If circumstances had been different, I wouldn't have been here. To be able to come here and play a part for these girls is brilliant.”
Those girls are clearly in awe of their team-mate, always walking a half-step behind her and deferring in media interviews.
When given the chance to speak Knight, an Olympic silver medallist alongside Kenny in the Tokyo team pursuit, paid tribute.
“She is the strongest person I know,” she said. “To have dealt with everything and to just keep turning up.
“A week after one of her main troubles Laura was on a Zoom meeting with us pretending nothing had happened. She is the ultimate team player.”
Kenny goes again in Sunday’s points race and Monday’s scratch race. What does she make of her chances?
“Oh, slim to none,” she said. “I don’t know. Like I say at the Olympics, I just turn up and hope for the best. So, I’ll turn up and hope for the best.”
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