Schreyer Scholar Matt Baranoski reflects on Olympic racing experience

Jeff Rice
August 26, 2016

Olympic athletes spend so much time and so many resources preparing for a short window of competition that the immediate aftermath can be a shock to the system, causing restlessness or even depression.

Schreyer Scholar Matt Baranoski hopes to counter that dynamic by returning to the classroom this fall. The 23-year-old U.S. Olympic track cyclist, who competed in the men’s keirin event in Rio last week, is back at Penn State after a two-year training hiatus and on schedule to graduate with a degree in electrical engineering this December.

“It’s really changing pages,” Baranoski said. “That’s what I wanted to do when I came back, was to turn the page from cycling to school for a couple of months, and once school ends, figure out what the next page is gonna be with school/career, cycling, or both.

“I think ideally it would be both.”

Baranoski spent two months this spring training in Milton, Ontario, and wrapped up his Olympic prep near his home in Perkasie, Pennsylvania, this summer. He and his coach — his father, Mike Baranoski — arrived in Brazil the day before the opening ceremonies. Baranoski, who became the youngest USA Cycling Elite National Champion in 2010 at age 17, rides in several international events each year, so the 27-man keirin field was more familiar to him than his fellow Americans in Rio.

“You know the other athletes in your sport, but you don’t really know the other athletes from your country,” he said. “So it’s kind of an interesting mix when you get into the village.”

After finishing fifth in his preliminary heat, 0.237 seconds behind heat winner (and eventual gold medal winner) Jason Kenny of Great Britain, Baranoski was leading the fourth heat of the repechages (additional qualifying rounds) when he was bumped by Great Britain’s Collum Skinner. It was enough to knock him back into third place and prevent him from moving on to the second round (Skinner was relegated for a rule infraction and did not advance either).

“Whether I would have won it or not, I don’t know, but it would have been really damned close,” Baranoski said. “It’s one of those things in bike racing — there’s some days you can do everything right and just not catch a break at all, and there’s other days where you can do everything wrong and still get a good result just on dumb luck.”

“Keirin” is a Japanese term meaning “racing wheels.” The event, which first came to the Olympics in 2000, begins with riders pedaling around an oval-shaped, 250-meter banked track called a velodrome. They will initially ride for five and a half laps behind a pacer, who is usually on a motorcycle.

The pacer then pulls away with two and a half laps remaining, at which time the cyclists, paced by the motorcycle, are traveling at speeds of 31 mph. The winners’ speeds typically top 40 mph.

“It’s a bit of a crapshoot,” Baranoski said. “You line the same six guys up on a track 10 times, you’re going to get nine different results.”

Baranoski has dabbled in road and endurance cycling, but was hooked on track cycling from the time he first took his bike onto the track at the Valley Preferred Cycling Center, also known as the Lehigh Valley Velodrome, in Trexlertown, Pennsylvania, before he was 6 years old.

That the cycling program was the most well-funded sport at Penn State’s Lehigh Valley campus when Baranoski, who also considered Lehigh and Drexel, was looking for colleges didn’t hurt, either, nor did the campus’ close proximity to the track. He spent his first two years there before transferring to University Park in the fall of 2013.

Each day, he would rise at 6 a.m. to be in the gym before 7. Class would run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., followed by another workout or homework.

“I enjoyed my time here being on such a rigid schedule,” he said. “You knew what you were doing every day but it was something that you wanted to do.”

Baranoski competed in the collegiate nationals that year, but balancing sport and his studies took its toll. He knew that in order to earn one of the keirin starting spots in Rio, he would need to devote more time to his cycling. There was also the matter of funding.

USA Cycling is not funded by the U.S. government, and just 7 percent of its budget comes from the Olympic committee. Much of it comes from donations and membership fees.

“The problem initially is there’s just not enough money,” he said. “When you have a limited budget, you have to pick and choose what’s going to get funded.”

The national team sent Baranoski and a few other riders to Europe in the summer of 2014 to see what they could do in international competition, which would help them determine the level of funding they received. He won races in Germany and Switzerland, then took bronze medals at the World Cup events in Colombia and New Zealand in January and December, respectively, essentially locking in his Olympic spot.

Still, the financial concerns about the future of the organization weigh on Baranoski’s mind when he thinks about making a run at the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo.

“The hope would be that over the next few months that the national team can put something together where we could fund a full sprint team,” he said, “and bring in some resources to make it happen.”

Without knowing if Rio would be his last Olympics as well as his first, Baranoski made a conscious effort to soak it all in both during his time in Brazil and even in the months leading up to it. The lessons he learned during the experience — about how to deal with doubters, how to make pitches for money, how to plan out weeks or months of training at a time — will all help inform his decision about whether to pursue the next Olympic start spot.

“Your second Olympics, you don’t want to go and compete again,” Baranoski said. “You want to go and win. To start out with the goal of medaling versus starting out with the goal of qualifying is a huge difference, and there’s a huge mindset change as well as change in how you would operate.”

Baranoski’s current objective is completing his honors thesis, which he was able to work on a bit during the last two years. His racing bike — for now, anyway — is in boxes back home in Perkasie.

“I’m just going to enjoy four months of school, and try to relax and not stress about riding a bike and enjoy my last semester here,” he said. “It’s kind of nice to be here without a bike. I just have a mountain bike to ride to class on.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated August 29, 2016