WHERE ARE THEY NOW? Chasing Down... Mari Holden


by Aaron Torres

Mari on the podium in Sydney
Mari on the podium in Sydney
Like many young children, Mari Holden dreamed of becoming an Olympic champion long before she won the silver medal in the Women’s Time Trial at the 2000 Sydney Games. As a small child, Mari fantasized about standing on the podium and hearing her country’s national anthem played, a dream which was only solidified after she attended the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, located just an hour from her Ventura, Calif. home.   

Of course at the time, Holden had no idea that not only would she eventually make it to the podium, but that she’d do it in a sport that was almost completely foreign to her as a 13-year-old in 1984.

“I was really into horse riding at the time,” Holden said with a laugh about her experience at the Los Angeles Games. “I wanted to go to the three-day horse riding event like you wouldn’t believe.”

Little did Holden know that cycling- a sport she had just picked up just a few months earlier- would eventually lead her back to the Olympics, and help her fulfill her dream of one day reaching the medal stand.

The Olympic Dream:

From the moment Holden began to ride in a program at her small Ojai, Calif., school, she was a natural, although as a youngster she didn’t focus on cycling specifically. Instead Holden turned her attention to triathlons and quickly became adept at them, winning the U.S. Junior Triathlete of the Year in 1991. However, it wasn’t until she moved to Colorado a few years later to train with USA Cycling that Holden realized her future wasn’t as a triathlete, but strictly on her bike.

“In triathlons, I always had to focus my training on the things I wasn’t good at,” Holden said. “But cycling came natural to me. I wasn’t getting to do it as much because I had to focus on my running (to train for triathlons).”

Working at the Energy Tour
Working at the Energy Tour
Apparently Holden was a natural on her bike, since just a few years after giving up triathlons to ride full-time she won her first USA Cycling National Championship in 1995 in the time trial. She followed it up with another time trial national title in 1996.

And it was by that summer of 1996, when Holden appeared to be on top of her game, and believed she was ready to compete for a spot on the Olympic team.  

Although she won both of her time trials rather easily, she wasn’t nearly as strong in the road race, and at the time Olympic selection required a rider to be strong in both disciplines. Looking back, even she admits that now.  

“In 1996, I was riding great,” Holden said. “But I also knew my road racing wasn’t the best.”

Holden was left off the Olympic team, and almost quit cycling all together because of it. After a while though, she decided to stick with the sport and take a different approach to her road training: Following the 1996 Olympic Trials she moved to Europe to compete and train against the world’s best.

“That (going to Europe) was probably the best thing that ever happened to my cycling career,” Holden said.

Earning A Spot in the History Books:

In the fall of 1996 Holden packed her bags and departed for Europe, where she spent the next three years conquering the road while riding for two German teams and an Italian team also. In the process, she embraced European culture and gained important perspective off of her bike as well.

“When you’re young, you don’t have a huge world perspective,” Holden said. “There’s nothing that comes close to living in another country to help you realize the world is a small place.”

And beyond just the cultural aspects, there were important cycling lessons to learn as well. The entire experience better prepared for her for the next Olympic trials when they came around in 2000.

“I came back from Europe knowing I’d have to do something wrong to not make the team,” Holden said. “I had been riding really well and getting good results on the road.”

Cycling in Aspen
Cycling in Aspen
This time Holden did make the Olympic team. And she fulfilled her lifelong dream of making it to the medal stand, when she won silver in the time trial in Sydney. As Holden stood on the podium, the experience was both exactly how she’d imagined it as a small child, and completely different as well.

“It was all one big blur,” Holden said of the experience. “I remember crying a lot, not only that day, but over the next couple months too. Like every time I thought about it I realized, ‘Wow, I really did accomplish all my goals and dreams.’”

Fast Forward to 2012:

Following her Olympic triumph in Sydney, Holden continued to race competitively for a few more years before injury and mental fatigue eventually wore her down. In particular, Holden needed major surgery on her Iliad artery in 2004, which was cutting off circulation to her foot and caused it to go numb every time she raced. After the surgery Holden stuck around the sport for a few more years before eventually retiring on her own terms in late 2006.

By the time retirement did come, Holden was ready for a fresh start. She found one working with the “Million Dollar Challenge” in San Diego.

The Million Dollar Challenge is a major fundraising campaign which partners with the Challenged Athletes Foundation by raising funds for disadvantaged and disabled young athletes. The organization’s signature event is a one-week ride down the California coast from San Francisco to San Diego. Holden competed in the ride herself a handful of times and helped coach as well.
“That was really good for me to get involved with,” Holden said. “When you’re coming off the stresses of racing, where you’re so self-absorbed… to go out there and help people get on their bikes. They just love being out there.”

Through the Million Dollar Challenge Holden also had the opportunity to coach Paralympians, and in more recent years has worked as a representative for Powerbar and with Medalist Sports, organizer of major road races in the U.S. such as the Tour of California and Tour of Utah. She also does private coaching as well.   

Trail running in Aspen
Trail running in Aspen
And after being away from the sport for a few years now, Holden is ready to jump back in on a more day-to-day basis. Without the grind of daily training and competition, Holden can now see the value that cycling brought to her, and would like to bring it to others too.
“It’s been long enough now that I haven’t been racing that I can step back and look at it from a different perspective,” Holden said. “When you’re all caught up in it, it probably takes a few years to decompress.”

No details are set in stone yet, but Holden eventually hopes to work with young riders getting involved in the sport for the first time. She recently had a chance to ride with a group of juniors in her old hometown of Ventura, Calif., and when she did, saw the same joy in young riders that she once had herself.  

“To me it’s more about the happiness of seeing a kid get on the bike for the first time and ride down the road,” Holden said of her experience with the youngsters around Ventura. “I think it’s one of the greatest feelings in the world.”

And with her years of experience racing both competitively and recreationally, in both the United States and abroad, Holden believes she’s got plenty of wisdom to impart on young riders. With Holden though, it isn’t such much about riding style or technique, but instead the life lessons learned from time on a bike.

“The lessons you learn from cycling are the ones that you can use in general,” Holden said.

“It’s that you need to work hard. You have to be able to work through adversity, have patience and focus on the little things.”
She then continued, “It’s about making the small decisions every day that lead to the big results down the road.”

And while Holden has no intention of training the next Olympic champion, maybe one day one of her students will follow her path. Maybe they will go from dreaming about the Olympics, to standing on the podium themselves.

It happened for a young girl at the 1984 Olympics, and who knows, maybe it will happen again.

To contact Mari for personal cycling lessons, feel free to e-mail her at mariholden@me.com

This Article Updated January 10, 2013 @ 09:54 AM For more information contact: