Olympics

Penn State student puts school on hold, trains in hometown to reach Olympics

On a back road in Perkasie, track cyclist Matt Baranoski attracts attention.

Simulating the keirin, Baranoski pedals behind his motorcycle-riding father past a yellow diamond-shaped sign warning drivers — Please Slow Down for Farm Equipment — on one side of the road and past a sign for Iron Bridge Park on the other.

The pair cross a bridge at about 15 mph before Mike Baranoski starts to pick up speed on his blue Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle to start the effort. Matt keeps pace with his father, speeding toward a sign featuring Branch Road’s 35 mph speed limit.

Matt can reach a top speed of about 50 mph on his track bike during the approximate 700-meter effort.

“We’re going a lot faster than I think most people realize,” Baranoski said.

The training location in his hometown of Perkasie, located north of Philadelphia, has led to finger-pointing and confused looks from drivers waiting at red lights and people cutting their lawns over the years. Some people would ask what they were doing during breaks in between efforts at Iron Bridge Park.

This summer, they got more waves and visits during their training sessions ahead of the Olympics. People knew Baranoski was preparing to compete in Rio de Janeiro after seeing his story in the local media, so strangers and friends wished him luck when they saw him.

Baranoski, a Penn State student, will compete Tuesday for the United States in the keirin, a track cycling event paced by a motorcycle before competitors race the final 2 1/2 laps to the finish line.

Baranoski dedicated the past two-plus years to reaching the Olympics, traveling around the world to compete and training in his hometown “with very little.”

“It’s one of those things, if you want it, you can make it happen,” Baranoski said. “I think anyone can.

“If I can be here in Perkasie training for the Olympics on a back road with a motorcycle, then anybody can make that dream come true.”

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Baranoski’s path to the Olympics began with his decision to take a two-year leave of absence from Penn State.

“That was a really tough decision,” said Baranoski, who will return to school after the Olympics for his final semester. “But if I was going to commit to the Olympics and was going to really make a run at it, that was the only way to do it.”

The weekend after finishing finals in May 2014, he was racing in Texas, starting a whirlwind of travel and competition. In August 2014, Jim Miller, of USA Cycling, sent Baranoski with two other track cyclists to Europe with the Dutch national team to compete and prove themselves.

They didn’t have a coach, who usually takes care of travel logistics like baggage, rental cars, hotels and directions to venues. They just took their equipment to Europe and raced.

“You would find out right away how committed they were to this,” said Miller, the vice president of athletics for USA Cycling. “And Matt right away was like, ‘OK, it wasn’t ideal but I learned a lot, so I can do this.’ And I was like, ‘That’s perfect, that’s what I wanted out of that.’ ”

But Baranoski felt he had to prove himself every race. If something didn’t go well at a UCI Track Cycling World Cup, he said they were waiting for “the plug to be pulled.” At the World Cup in London in December 2014, Baranoski was worried the program would lose support. USA Cycling stopped funding the team sprint when it became clear they were not going to qualify for the Olympics, but the program stuck with Baranoski.

“Thank God they actually kept funding me that year because then the next World Cup we got a medal,” Baranoski.

Baranoski won the bronze medal in the keirin at that World Cup in Colombia in January 2015. Miller said USA Cycling was never close to “pulling the plug” on Baranoski, but the bronze medal grabbed the attention of the program’s board of directors.

USA Cycling took care of the funding for Baranoski’s World Cups, which determine qualifying for the Olympics based on a points system.

In December 2015, Baranoski captured another bronze medal at the World Cup in New Zealand.

“After that, it was mathematically impossible for me not to earn a spot in the games,” Baranoski said.

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Baranoski puts himself through early-morning weightlifting workouts in his basement.

Old board games like Monopoly and Yahtzee are stacked on a shelf next to the squat rack and its weights. Tools and equipment cover tables in the back of the basement, which doubles as a workshop for his dad’s projects. There’s a leg press, a machine that allowed him to build strength in his legs without hurting his back when he was younger.

On the white cinderblock wall to the right of his lifting area, there’s one word painted in gold in large cursive letters: Believe.

“It’s kind of my motto because that’s the one thing that really works for me,” Baranoski said.

Baranoski started by writing the word on his handlebars after a disappointing performance at junior nationals when he was 14. Baranoski and his mother, Linda Baranoski, both remember him finishing fourth at the event that year in Colorado Springs, Colo. Baranoski was so angry and told his mother “this isn’t working.”

When they got home from the trip, his mother told him his performance wasn’t about his ability or his equipment.

“The problem is you don’t believe in yourself, you don’t believe you can win,” his mother said. “You could beat every single one of those kids up there.”

Linda started putting the word “Believe” all over the house — the word is still on a sign in his bedroom and signs in the bathroom and Christmas decorations.

Baranoski wrote it on his handlebars and always taps the word twice as part of his prerace routine. He added it to the basement wall in metallic gold spray paint when he started lifting weights.

On tougher days, it helped him power through workouts.

Baranoski goes through his workouts alone, though his dog, Chex, often keeps him company.

He starts a lifting session in July with squats, then goes through his first set of Romanian deadlift.

When he drops the bar, he startles Chex, who was lying next to the lifting area.

“You all right buddy,” Baranoski said. “You do that every time.”

He then completes sets of bench press and barbell sit-ups, finishing his weightlifting session in less than an hour at 10:25 a.m.

Baranoski said he plans to lift three more times before Rio and adds he might lift once in Rio, but he’s cutting back on those workouts.

“At this point, the bike is what really matters,” Baranoski said.

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More than seven hours after his weightlifting session, Baranoski is ready for his first effort on Branch Road.

It’s a disadvantage training outside on a road running through cornfields instead of training at an air-conditioned indoor velodrome. Mike Baranoski is constantly concerned with deer, and they have to plan their training schedule around the weather.

But it’s also an advantage for Matt Baranoski to train this way. He can sleep in his own bed, eat home-cooked meals and stay relaxed at home. He couldn’t take advantage of the facilities in Colorado Springs after learning he has acute pulmonary edema from high altitude exposure. Some athletes move to Los Angeles to train at the country’s only indoor velodrome, but that means living out of a hotel room or on somebody’s couch.

“You have the better facilities but once you’re outside the facilities, ... you’re not at home,” Mike Baranoski said. “He goes 11 and a half months a year. He gets like two weeks off a year and that’s all he gets.

“Being at home, I think, has saved him in a lot of ways.”

So Matt Baranoski trains on a road located a few minutes from his home.

When Mike Baranoski gets home from work as a mold designer at the Rodon Group, he starts his “second full-time job” as his son’s coach.

They head to Iron Bridge Park and start their efforts simulating the keirin.

In the event, the cyclists receive a push off the starting line and settle in behind a motorcycle to start the eight-lap race. They build speed until the motorcycle pulls off the track with 2 1/2 laps to go, setting off a sprint for first place.

Mike Baranoski started with a smaller motorcycle, but after a few years, Matt could beat it. So he got the Kawasaki Ninja, a motorcycle than can accelerate quickly and reach speeds of 70-75 mph.

He paces Matt on their efforts, accelerating once they pass the bridge. Linda said Mike has been coaching Matt since he was 12 after he decided to quit other sports. They drove to Trexlertown three or four nights a week when he was younger to get race experience. Now, they train five days a week.

Mike has been there to support his son as a father and as a coach.

“It’s a very unique situation,” Mike said. “I’m not saying I did it perfectly, there’s times where I’m yelling on the sidelines like his biggest fan, which I’m definitely in the running for.”

It’s worked for him and his son.

Living and training at home has worked, too, as he can just focus on his goals in his “sanctuary.”

“For me, this is about as low stress of training as it can get,” Matt Baranoski said, “and it’s some of the best training in the world.”

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The process isn’t glamorous, but Baranoski said it’s all worth it to reach his sport’s biggest stage.

He’s done it with the support of his parents, who will be in Rio de Janeiro. They have “Team Matt” shirts made, a reference to Baranoski and his parents.

He found a gym and strength coach to help develop his weightlifting routine, and he found a sports psychologist who worked with him on the mental aspect of competing.

But his parents have been there every step of the way, helping him overcome limited resources to achieve his dream.

“That’s, I think, kind of the beauty of my story and kind of the coolest part of it, is that we’re making something from nothing,” Baranoski said, “but it’s what I want so I’m making it happen.”

Ryne Gery: 814-231-4679, @rgery

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