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Reed was on the verge of retirement

ATHENS, Greece -- Jennie Reed was alone on the track,
winding up a twilight practice when the magnitude of the Olympics
suddenly hit home.

"The Star-Spangled Banner" -- blaring at the adjacent swimming
stadium in honor of Natalie Coughlin's gold medal -- began echoing
through the nearly deserted velodrome.

Reed's eyes quickly filled with tears. She let her mind drift
away, imagining the view from atop a medal stand, olive wreath on
her blond head, gold dangling from her neck, her flag rising, her
anthem playing.

Right there, she realized the fantasy is tantalizingly close to
becoming reality.

"When you see someone living that moment, see someone else
achieve something they've wanted, it amazes me," Reed said. "It
would be awesome."

When six days of competition begin on the Olympic velodrome
Friday, Reed will be perhaps the United States' best hope for
adding to its Athens medal haul. She'll be among the favorites in
the women's sprint, which has opening rounds Sunday and continues
through medal finals Tuesday.

Reed also qualified for Friday's 500-meter time trial, but is
skipping that race so it doesn't interfere with her preparations
for the sprint competition. No Americans are entered in any of
Friday's track events.

"It's very difficult to predict what will happen in the
sprints," U.S. track cycling coach Andrzej Bek said. "Whoever's
feeling well on that day can win. But Jennie's medal chances are
going up, no doubt about it."

On the track, seven Americans -- five men and two women -- will
vie for more medals. Led by Tyler Hamilton's time trial gold, USA
Cycling won three medals, one more than any other nation, in the
road competitions that ended Wednesday.

Two-time medalist Marty Nothstein, the sprint gold winner in
Sydney, will ride the keirin Wednesday; the only other Olympic
returnee is Erin Mirabella, who'll ride the points race and
individual pursuit.

The rest of the track team are all Olympic rookies; the sprint
squad of Adam Duvendeck, Giddeon Massie and Christian Stahl will
ride on Saturday, and points racer Colby Pearce competes Tuesday.

Reed's new to the Olympics, but hardly a stranger to the ranks
of cycling's elite.

She narrowly missed an Olympic sprint berth in 2000, and that
was a bitter pill. The next three years were largely a downward
spiral for Reed, whose World Cup rankings plummeted to 20th in the
sprint and 23rd in the keirin by the end of last season. Retirement
was prominently in her thoughts.

"I had some really down times," Reed said. "The results were
bad. But in the end, I gained a lot of experience. And when I came
back, I had a lot more confidence. In a way, it make me a lot
stronger."

This year's turnaround includes a keirin bronze medal from
track's world championships and a fifth-place showing in the
sprint.

She flourished when working with Bek in 1999 and 2000. And
Reed's resurgence neatly coincides with Bek's being rehired to
coach the national team late last year. Reunited with her mentor,
Reed's form didn't just return, her times got faster than ever.

"Jennie's definitely coming back strong this year," said Bek,
who coached the American sprint cycling team at both the 1996 and
2000 Olympics. "She's doing very well. Her world championships
performance proved that. ... She will have a chance here, no
question."

It's a good chance -- so good that her father is footing a
$15,000 travel tab so he, Jennie's stepmother and stepsister can
see what they hope is a ride into history.

"I'm excited for it," Reed said. "From the track, I can see
the swimming venue. I can see all the flags out there in the
backdrop. All that really lets you know you're in the Olympic
Games. I'm ready."