In the Bogota final Twigg cycled with steel control. She crossed the line in a world-record 3:36.081. Her victory was doubly astonishing in that it came 11 years after she had won the silver medal in the 1984 Olympic women's road race.
Now 33 looking 23, Twigg is filled with such fire and focus that you can't help but ask how she got that way. It is a question that Twigg, eyeing you over her black coffee, is prepared to indulge, albeit in the faintly distant, I'll-be-the-judge-of-that manner of one sublimely resistant to irrelevancy.
Twigg was born in Honolulu but grew up in the Seattle area. Her father, David, a computer programmer, and her mother, Barbara, who worked at various jobs, divorced when she was young. Rebecca and her younger sister, Laura, were raised by their mother—raised to be resolutely self-sufficient.
By the time Rebecca finished eighth grade, it was clear she was exceedingly bright, so Barbara had a fateful idea. She urged Rebecca to skip high school and matriculate at the University of Washington. Which Rebecca did, at 14. "My mother wanted me to avoid having problems socializing in high school," says Twigg. Yet what would have been merely difficult for the shy perfectionist in ninth grade was almost impossible on the vast, 40,000-student campus, where Twigg felt walled off from the life of the other students. "Grades apart," remembers Twigg. "I had low self-esteem."
Barbara tugged this upward by steering Rebecca into sports, especially cycling. For four years, in lieu of a true adolescence, Rebecca created herself as a bike racer. "I first trained on a bike my mother got at a police auction," she says. "Then it was stolen and we didn't have money for another, but one day Mom recognized it and followed the kid riding it and saw where he lived. We went back at night to resteal that bike. The people were eating dinner, and Mom crept right under the window and snatched it. We needed that bike."
Racing with appropriate desperation, Twigg soon was dominating U.S. junior girls' road and track cycling. In 1980 she was spotted by national-team coach Eddie Borysewicz. "He saw I could carry my sprint a long way, so he tried me in the pursuit," says Twigg. But the Polish-born Eddie B, the central figure in the rise of U.S. cycling during the '80s, soon saw much more. "She's a lady who, if she likes, she can do," he says. "Age is no factor. Mind, dedication, health are main factors. Every 50 years there is born one."
In 1981 Twigg elected to ride as a senior in the national women's pursuit championship, though at 17 she was a year away from automatically moving to that level. She won and went on to place fifth at the '81 worlds. The following year she defeated Connie Carpenter of the U.S. in the final to win her first world pursuit title. The pursuit was not yet an Olympic event for women, however, so Twigg, at Borysewicz's urging, moved to Colorado Springs to train for the first Olympic women's road race, which was to be contested in 1984 at Los Angeles.
As the world gathered for those Olympics, rumors spread that some European cyclists were engaging in blood-doping, the then-permissible process of withdrawing one to two pints of blood, storing it for several weeks while the body regenerates blood, then reinjecting it, thereby boosting (at least in theory) the body's oxygen-carrying capacity and endurance. "It was the week before the Games," says Twigg. "I don't know whose idea it was, but the person who talked to us [the U.S. cyclists] about it was Eddie B. Our blood was taken in a hotel room. It was totally dumb because there wasn't enough time to regenerate anything. It was unnecessary and ineffective and could have wrecked the team."
Carpenter refused to let her blood be drawn. Twigg, to her regret, did not refuse. Later the experience would act to strengthen her independence, but at the time the distraction was such a drain that it may have cost her the gold medal.
Six riders were in contention at the end of the 50-mile Olympic road race. With 200 meters to go, Twigg sprinted into the lead. Carpenter was close behind. Heading up the last hill, Carpenter came around, throwing her bike over the line inches ahead of Twigg's.