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The Front Row with MARK NELKE April 8, 2010

| April 8, 2010 9:00 PM

Kristin Armstrong used to be known as the most decorated woman in U.S. cycling history, after winning a gold medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and capping her career last September by winning the time trial gold medal at the world championships.

But that all changed after filming a commercial last summer, in which she rode her bike fast enough down a country road to make the wind turbines spin, then polished off her ride by downing a bottle of chocolate milk.

"It used to be, 'Hey, aren't you the gold medal girl?'" Armstrong said. "Now, when I go to the grocery store it's like, 'Hey, where's that chocolate milk of yours?'"

Armstrong, who attended the University of Idaho and has lived in Boise since 1995, returns to North Idaho this weekend. She is among a group of five who will be inducted into the Idaho Athletic Hall of Fame on Saturday night at the Best Western Coeur d'Alene Inn.

"The first thing I thought of was, this is an honor," Armstrong said earlier this week in a telephone interview from Boise. "But then, the second thing I thought of was, it's really similar when the University of Idaho called me up and asked me to be the commencement speaker, I always relate commencement speaker, and even hall of fame, as ... retired. Retired, and also a little bit older."

She is retired but, at 36, Armstrong is definitely not old.

NOT ONLY is she being inducted, she has been asked to be the featured speaker, which is fine with her, as she says she'd rather talk about how sports and life intertwine than talk about herself anyway. She will speak to a group largely made up of the area's top high school and college coaches and athletes.

"I get to reach out to one of my favorite groups, which is athletes and youths," Armstrong said. "It's exciting for me to be part of the hall of fame, but I really like to be an inspiration to high school-age kids."

Armstrong retired following the world championships last year. She won two world championships and four national championships, as well as the Olympic gold.

"Since Beijing in 2008, people ask how my life has changed," she said. "And I tell them, 'My life has changed, but who I am hasn't changed." I can talk about how athletics and sports made my life in general successful. Athletics taught me a lot about life."

Armstrong said she retired "before I got burned out" because she wanted to start a family. She's been married for two years to Joe Savola and the couple is expecting their first child in August.

She remains part of USA cycling by directing a women's team at the national level, but still plans to spend the rest of her life in Idaho.

The United Dairymen of Idaho is one of Armstrong's sponsors, and she said doing the chocolate milk commercial was a natural fit, as chocolate milk had become her recovery drink after riding.

She said - mostly in Europe - she is asked if she's related to Lance Armstrong (she is not).

"Plus, his ex-wife has same first name as me, so it becomes really confusing," she said.

Born into a military family, Armstrong attended Idaho because her mom grew up in Idaho Falls, making her a resident. Her parents formerly lived in Spokane and her brother lives there now. Armstrong has been in Coeur d'Alene before, last year for a cruise ride for Blue Cross of Idaho. And she plans to be back up here in July for another Blue Cruise ride.

"Very pregnant, but I will be up there," she said with a laugh.

Armstrong got into cycling just as the Women's Challenge cycling race in Idaho was winding down its 19-year run. She competed in the final race in 2002 - her first year of cycling after making the transition from triathlons.

HAD SHE not developed osteoarthritis roughly a decade ago, we may have never seen Armstrong develop into the cycling champion she became. A budding triathlete, she had to give up that sport because the cartilage was deteriorating in her hips, so she had bone rubbing against bone, and that obviously made it difficult to run.

So she switched to cycling. And, as they say, the rest was history.

"I think it's a blessing in disguise," Armstrong said. "Things happen for a reason, and you take the next path ... I don't wonder because I can't imagine going any higher in the sport (of cycling).

"It was very difficult (having to give up being a triathlete)," she recalled. "I had a hard time, and I wasn't going to go back to the sport. One thing led to the next and I was competing again; it was in my blood."

And then she became the gold medal girl - or was that the chocolate milk girl?

Mark Nelke is sports editor of The Press. He can be reached at 664-8176, Ext. 2019, or via e-mail at mnelke@cdapress.com.

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