by Jim Provenzano
May 8, 2006
Wheels on Fire: Olympic Cyclists Rossner and Arndt Keep Riding
It’s rare enough when an Olympic athlete comes out as a lesbian. It’s more extraordinary when a lesbian couple – partnered in life and in sport – comes out. But for partners Petra Rossner and Judith Arndt, their success as two of Germany’s most accomplished cyclists is what matters most to them.
Rossner, 38, recently ended a stunning 20-year professional cycling career, including 25 German national titles, 10 World Cup victories, a 1991 world championship win in Stuttgart, and an Olympic gold medal at Barcelona in 1992.
Arndt, 30, won the bronze medal in the 3000-meter pursuit event at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics at just 20 years old. She won the gold medal in the Elite Women’s Road Race and the silver medal at the 2004 world championships.
When Arndt won the silver medal in the 118.8 kilometer race at the 2004 Athens Olympics, she was already out to friends and fellow athletes. But as she rode across the finish line, she raised her middle finger in a gesture of defiance. The focus of her anger was the German Cycling Federation, which had refused to nominate Petra Rossner, her partner, to be on the Olympic team. The two women met in 1995 in Columbia at the cycling world championship, and have lived together in Leipzig since 2000.
When the media swarmed Arndt for an explanation, the mention of her partner resulted in the couple joining the nearly one dozen out gay and lesbian athletes who competed in Athens. Arndt says her team could have won the gold medal if Rossner had also competed.
Arndt, who noticed the media coverage of other out athletes, says, “I wondered why, of 11,000 competitors in Athens, only 11 were out of the closet. It was a lot of publicity for us, and it was a mix of the fact that it was not fair to leave Petra home, as well the fact that we are partners.”
Rossner says there are more gay and lesbian Olympic athletes who are out but haven’t come out to the media. “In cycling, at least, I know for sure that women are out more than in any other parts of life,” says R^ssner. “They don’t have a sign around their neck, but they are not hiding if asked. Nobody asks us anymore if we have a partner. It was so loud in 2004 that everybody knows, and that’s fine.”
While she would prefer to focus on cycling, R^ssner says the couple is content to be considered role models for others. “Since 2004, the focus on us as partners is much bigger,” says Rossner. “Lesbian and gay magazines have an interest in us, and we try to support gay events as much as we can. We’re trying to give people more self-confidence to be what they are and to enjoy it.” The two are also ambassadors for Gay Games VII, which will be held July 15-22 in Chicago.
Having moved beyond the Athens publicity, Rossner coaches Team Narnberger Versicherung, while Arndt trains and competes with Team T-Mobile.
Currently racing in Australia, Arndt prefers to train in warmer climates rather than through the cold winter in Germany. The two often travel to California and Mallorca, Spain, for the winter. Most of the courses are the same every year, and cyclists can train with some familiarity.
American fans recently got to see the two compete among 150 cyclists in the Philadelphia Liberty Classic. The competition was part of the Women’s World Cup Classic, with the best athletes in the world taking part. Arndt and Rossner have seven victories between them at the annual event.
Rossner says watching the 1984 Olympic Games – where women’s cycling events were first included – inspired her to pursue competition. Already an accomplished track-and-field athlete, Rossner began cycling a year later. By 1992, she won the gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics.
That same year, Arndt began her years of serious competition. Born to a family of avid cyclists, she eventually became a member of the German cycling team. When not cycling, Arndt enjoys cross-country skiing, inline skating, running, and playing soccer.
So, how does what is considered an individual activity become a team sport? Wind and draft aerodynamics play a large part in cycling speed. “If someone sucks wheels, it can save 40 to 60 percent [of effort],” R^ssner explains. “Other teammates can ride in the wind, saving the teammate behind. If the race starts to split up, the ones with the most energy left are in front. Often the best rider doesn’t win, but the rider with the strongest teammates is the winner.”
Rossner’s transition as a team director is also a challenge. “To put a team together you have to look for chemistry within the group,” she says. “That is more important than talent. Selfish riders will not work in great teams. One rotten apple can ruin the whole basket. If the team has no team spirit, it’s nearly impossible to have success. Each leading team takes part in 100 races worldwide each year.”
This reflects on her own victories as well. “All my victories are based on a strong team – I was just the goal-getter.”
Yet, of all her competitions, Rossner says that the Olympic Games are very different, “much more exciting than other competitions. Just to be there with other athletes from all over the world is unique. Goosebumps are there nearly constantly. It’s such an overwhelming feeling you can’t describe. In general, you have to try to stay cool, otherwise you can’t concentrate on the competition.”