Leontien Van Moorsel only wanted to get faster eight years ago when a Dutch cycling official gave her a tip. I Lose a little weight, he told his countrywoman; you'll be a I better hill climber. Van Moorsel, then 22, was already on her way to becoming one of the world's most versatile cyclists. The women's Tour de France beckoned, with 2,200-meter climbs in the mountains. If trimming a few pounds would trim a few seconds, she thought, then pass the lettuce and hold the pasta. "The worst thing happened," she says, looking back. "I won. Then I won again."
She subsisted on salads and yogurt for months and took her victory in the Tour de France as validation that dieting was a precondition for success. But, like many anorexics, she couldn't see the spiral of deprivation to which she was subjecting herself. "Finally in '94 my body went empty," she says. "I trained six hours a day, and I ate nothing. It happened so fast that suddenly the life was gone."
Van Moorsel, who stands 5'6", had shriveled from 145 pounds to 95. "It hurt her to lift her arm," recalls Michael Zijlaard, a cyclist who married Van Moorsel in 1995 and now also acts as her coach and manager. "She would cry. She would scream. It was not her that I saw."
Van Moorsel quit the sport in '94, and nearly two years later the Dutch press reported that the former glamour girl of cycling had ballooned to 175 pounds. In '96, struggling with weight fluctuations, Zijlaard-Van Moorsel, as she is now known, began taking long, fast pleasure rides. "Before I knew it, I was training again," she says. "It was inside me." She returned to competition in '98 and won world time-trial titles in the next two years. In Sydney she became the most decorated female cyclist at a single Olympics, winning golds in the individual pursuit, the 74.3-mile road race and the 19.4-mile time trial, plus a silver medal in the points race.
"My gold medal is just being healthy," she said after the time trial, a race for which she had practiced repeatedly on a stationary bike in her Amsterdam apartment, pushing herself each time to try to complete the distance in 42 minutes. In the Sydney race she asked Michael to yell interval times to her as she passed by him on each of her two laps, but she couldn't make out what he was saying. "I only knew it felt fast," she says. "The time at the finish I couldn't believe." She crossed in 42 minutes flat, a staggering 37 seconds ahead of silver medalist Mari Holden of the U.S.
Zijlaard-Van Moorsel said her most cherished medal was the silver in the points race, her weakest event. To score points in that track race, cyclists sprint and then must force their way through traffic to get ahead of other racers at designated intervals. She has always feared collisions and bad falls, especially because track bikes have no brakes. "Something else to overcome," she says.
Zijlaard-Van Moorsel makes less than $100,000 a year from cycling and has no additional subsidies other than her share of what the Dutch 12-woman team receives from Farm Frites, a french-fry maker. She has modeled but has twice spurned Playboy's requests that she pose for the magazine.
She arrives for postrace press conferences only after first applying makeup. "Leontien always presents herself well," says Leo van de Ruit of the Dutch Press Agency ANP. "The good earrings, nails painted, hair always fixed." Michael sees it as part of Leontien's desire to please people. "She is really sensitive," he says. "It is not possible to get into an argument with her. If there is a handicapped person at her races, she will take the initiative and talk to them. If she sees young girls on bikes, she likes to ride with them. She likes people so much, and she wants them to like her. She never lost that when she was sick, but now she can fight hard too. The fire has returned."