26 Sep 2000
By the time she was 23 years old, Dutch cyclist Leontien Zijlaard had already enjoyed incredible success on both road and track. She had a track world title and two road titles to her name, and was acclaimed by many as the world's foremost female cyclist. She looked set to dominate her sport for the foreseeable future, but then illness forced her to withdraw from competition for a period of years.
It was only in the late 1990s that she returned – healthy, fit and, once again, with a huge appetite for success. More world championship titles followed and she was then able to turn her attention to the Olympics.
Zijlaard had competed in 1992 but had not been at her best, finishing no higher than eighth in any of her events. In Sydney, she was determined to do better. Much better.
She was entered into four individual events. First up was the 3,000m individual pursuit, in which many favoured either France's Marion Clignet or the defending champion Antonella Bellutti. However, it was Zijlaard who qualified fastest before brushing aside New Zealand’s Sarah Ulmer in the semi-final. She then crushed Clignet in the final by the stunning margin of five seconds, to mark an emphatic debut on the Olympic stage.
Next came the points race, an event for which she had barely prepared, but in which she still managed to win a silver medal. Zijlaard had looked like missing out entirely until the closing stages, when she scored vital points to move up to second overall.
Her focus now switched to the road and her next two challenges: the time trial and the road race.
The road race was contested on a relatively flat course, but the monsoon-like conditions stiffened the challenge. Nobody managed to break from the pack and the race ended in a bunch sprint for the line. Twenty-six riders were awarded the same time, but the photo finish showed that Zijlaard had finished a fraction ahead of the field to secure the gold.
Four days later came her final contest, the time trial. If Zijlaard was weary, it didn't show and she rounded off an incredible Games with a suitably magnificent performance. She won the event by a margin of 26 seconds over the USA’s Mari Holden.
Leaving Sydney with three gold medals and a silver, her efforts were acclaimed as one of the greatest ever displays by an Olympic cyclist.
Zijlaard returned to the Games four years later, winning a further time trial gold and a bronze medal in the 3,000m pursuit.