The coolest five-year-old in America, Tyler Nothstein, was wandering around a USA Cycling brunch in Sydney, showing off an autographed newspaper photo of him and his famous daddy, Marty. But the signature was not his father's; it said, rather, TYLER. At least that was what the block letters vaguely resembled, certainly nothing Mrs. Minich can't fix now that Tyler is back in her kindergarten class at Weisenberg Elementary near the Nothsteins' home in New Tripoli, a country town tucked away in northeastern Pennsylvania. Tyler has so much to tell his classmates: He collected Olympic pins, saw the Botanic Gardens, ate in a restaurant that looked out on the Opera House. Then he did something not listed in any guidebook to Australia: He took a surprise bicycle ride with his daddy around the Olympic velodrome as 6,000 people cheered. This could be the mother of all show-and-tells.
"The gold medal," Marty said as Tyler fidgeted on his lap last Friday. "You can bring the gold medal to school."
Tyler had seen his daddy win championships before. But when Marty plucked Tyler out of the stands, he wanted to make sure the boy knew that this gold medal was special. Marty had come to Sydney not to march in the opening ceremonies or to make friends from faraway lands at the Olympic Village. He had come to win the match sprint, to win it convincingly, to prove he is the fastest man on wheels. If this unfiltered arrogance made him the difficult child of the Olympic family, tough.
For four years, ever since a strong and sly German named Jens Fiedler had nipped him for gold in Atlanta, Nothstein had plotted. Every mile he rode and every ounce he lifted were pointed to this moment. He lost 12 pounds. He changed the contours of his body. He trained voraciously. The blond moppet who clung to his neck with one hand and waved to the smitten crowd with the other was the one who needed to understand the significance of it all: This was why Daddy sometimes had to go away and leave you and your little sister, Devon; why he's staying in an apartment in Sydney while you, Devon, Mommy and Nana are staying in a hotel.
Nothstein, the first U.S. track cycling gold medalist in a non-boycotted Olympics since 1904, held up the medal as he slowly pedaled. "It doesn't get any better than this, Tyler," Marty said over the wall of sound.
"I know," said the coolest five-year-old in America.
You dole out your life story to your children a little at a time, no more than they can handle in one sitting. Maybe someday after supper, when Tyler is old enough to write in connected letters, Marty will tell him about the match sprint semifinal back in 2000: It was a dandy. The four cyclists—Nothstein, Fiedler and a pair of Frenchmen named Florian Rousseau and Laurent Gan�—had combined for 14 Olympic or world titles; it was like a Duke-Kansas-North Carolina-Kentucky Final Four banked at 42 degrees. Fiedler was the two-time Olympic champ, but Nothstein's coach, Gil Hatton, had been telling him all day that he was the fastest and strongest cyclist in the world, and Nothstein believed him. The 250-meter oval had been a front-runner's track all week, but Nothstein hung back at Fiedler's shoulder and then reeled him in like a trout, pumping those 30-inch thighs—the gams of the XXVII Olympiad—and winning the best-of-three semifinal in two straight races.
Rousseau never had a chance in the final either. Nothstein whipped him in two straight too, turning to peek with 50 meters left in the second sprint. This was the exclamation point. This was setting the record straight.
As the 6'2", 210-pound Nothstein stood on the podium and listened to the national anthem, he was a long way from the skinny teenager coming home with his first racing frame. The fourth of five children, he had been riding since he was younger than Tyler is now, going up ramps, popping wheelies, once riding down the cellar steps and scaring the wits out of the women in his mother's ceramics class. He went on to make his high school football team, but he came home one day and announced that he was giving up other sports to concentrate on cycling. He was already thinking about an Olympic gold medal.
He had everything going in his favor: genetics (his great-grandfather Martin Nothstein raced high-wheeled bicycles), attitude, geography. The Nothstein family lived in Trexlertown, three minutes from the Lehigh Valley Velodrome, right in the middle of nowhere. Friday-night bike races in T-Town are a miniature version of Friday-night football in West Texas. If the Nothsteins had lived elsewhere, Marty might be playing tailback for the Redskins.