Comment
0
Tweet
0
Print
RSS Feeds

US firefighter becomes surprising sprint star

Sunday - 8/5/2012, 2:00am  ET

By SAMUEL PETREQUIN
AP Sports Writer

LONDON (AP) - No wonder Jimmy Watkins is a fast sprinter. He's used to running up slopes with a hose to extinguish fires.

The powerfully built Watkins, a 29-year-old firefighter from Bakersfield, Calif., can already be proud of his achievements at the Olympic Velodrome. On Sunday, he will compete in the quarterfinals of the sprint tournament, track cycling's blue-ribbon event.

Not bad for a guy who doesn't have a specific training program and lives 124 miles (200 kilometers) away from the closest velodrome. He keeps a bike next to his fire engine so he can train.

"When I'm at work, I'm trying to train, but a lot of times we are obviously interrupted because we have to go on a call," he said. "You come back after your call, you finish up your training or you're just too tired."

Watkins became a full-time fireman after trying his hand at track and field, baseball and football. To stay in good shape, he started to ride his bike at the age of 21 and quickly found he was good at handling it. So he started entering road races. But growing up, he was always a good sprint athlete, and his eye began to drift toward track cycling, mass sprints and the unpredictable, fast-paced keirin.

"I thought: 'That's perfect for me.' So I started doing it, and progressed," he said.

Watkins holds four national titles and three national records on the track. He represented his country in various international competitions but would never have imagined to advance so deep in an Olympic tournament. In the next round, Watkins will take on the experienced Shane Perkins of Australia, a contender for the gold medal.

On Friday, Watkins got off to a mediocre start, finishing with the 12th time in the flying 200 meters qualifying lap.

But he then defeated Seiichiro Nakagawa of Japan before demolishing Pavel Kelemen of Czech Republic with a devastating acceleration.

Watkins, who has a 2-year-old daughter, says he is not jealous of the professional racers he is facing in London. He's thankful for his family, and says if he were a full-time cyclist, he couldn't raise his daughter or be at home with his wife. He's also appreciative of all of the guys who are covering his shifts back home at the Kern County Fire Department so he can compete.

"Everybody is just super supportive. It's cool to know that you have a lot of people behind you. It make you not want to let them down because a lot of people have sacrificed a lot for me to be here," he said. "I just want to make sure that I don't waste any of their effort."

In Sunday's other events, Bryan Coquard of France will try to maintain his small lead in the omnium, a newly introduced event which mixes endurance and sprint.

Each rider receives a score in each of the six races equivalent to their finishing position. The rider with the lowest score wins the competition.

Coquard won the elimination race after finishing 5th in the flying lap and ending fourth in the points race to lead the field with 10 points ahead of Elia Viviani of Italy and Glenn O'Shea of Australia.

"I couldn't make a better start," Coquard said. "I'm very happy and really pleased with my points race, where I used to struggle in the past. In the elimination race I've been winning for the last two years and I didn't want to miss this win. I'm first in the ranking at the moment, but it's not over yet, we'll see tomorrow."

Fresh from the gold medal he won with his British teammates in the pursuit, Ed Clancy got off to a strong start in the event, winning the flying lap with a time of 12.556 seconds. Clancy moved down to fourth overall with 17 points after the points and the elimination races but is still in contention for the gold medal.

The three remaining races are the individual pursuit, the scratch race and the time trial.

"In the omnium, we experience joy and disappointment," Coquard said. "Today there was just joy for me. Tomorrow I'm going to have the individual pursuit, which is not my strongest discipline. I have to hold on and I hope to break my record."

In the women's competition, Victoria Pendleton of Britain will start the defense of the sprint title she won in Beijing. Pendleton, who will retire after the Games, will be facing archrival Anna Meares for a final time in the wake of her keirin's triumph.


(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)