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Kristen Dieffenbach studies athletes, and even she's stumped by Schultz, beyond categorizing him as "a rare breed." An assistant professor of sports psychology at West Virginia University, Dieffenbach met Schultz when he was still competing at the junior level with USA Cycling. For the last six years, she's served as his personal coach, sending him weekly training regimens via e-mail and talking with him every couple of days on the phone.
"In my job of working in sports and coaching psychology, we look at hundreds of athletes and what makes them successful," says Dieffenbach. "Sam's right up there with what you look for in the elite-level athletes for having the passion to put in the hard work, and still be laid-back when he wants to be. He's in that rare class for an elite athlete."
Dieffenbach describes Schultz's early challenges as typical of a "very talented teenager." He used to overwork, lie about injuries and fight with his coach about going too easy on him. Now, he's proven more patient, savvy and in tune with his body. "He's gotten better with the big picture," she says.
Schultz offers a perfect example of that perspective when talking about the highlight of his 2009 season. During a rain-soaked World Cup race in Bromont, Canada, last August, he navigated the narrow, rock and root-encrusted course and found himself near the leader's wheel midway through the race.
"Everything was completely clicking, shaping up to be the race of my life," says Schultz. "I was in fifth position and feeling really good."
Then he felt his back tire go flat. Later, mechanical issues slowed him even more. The race of his life left him in 39th place.
"It didn't end up with the best result. In fact, it was a pretty horrible result after the problems," he says. "But it was a breakthrough for me personally because I can actually ride with those guys at the front. I was comfortable because I was completely riding within myself, and I was mixing it up with some of the best guys in the world. I realized, you know, I can be there."
Dieffenbach says that attitude—the one that allows Schultz to call a frustration-filled 39th place finish the highlight of his season—comes entirely from the rider. Genetics? Mental make-up? Training? She's not sure what instilled that ethic in Schultz, but it's what sets him apart.
"There are always going to be mechanical mishaps, flat tires, other things that can derail a rider in competition," she says. "Sam seems to have the ability to go, 'Huh, okay,' and then cope with it. He can battle through that and still keep that—how do I say this...Let's just say he's always got that big grin on his face. I don't know how to explain it. Sam's special. It's the sort of thing people in my field spend a career studying."
Schultz collected another classic story on the eve of his current season. During a routine drive across town for his morning training ride in Tucson, a swerving Buick cut off Schultz's team-issued, stickered-up Subaru. Schultz mustered a scowl when he eventually passed the Buick, and instantly received a double-bird in return. At the next light, the driver of the Buick hopped from his car, approached Schultz's open window, and sucker-punched him with a one-two combination.
"He asked if I wanted to fight, and I said no," says Schultz. "I guess I should have said yes."
The punches left Schultz with a bloody nose, scratched face and the unexpected pride of taking his first two hits.
"I had no idea I could take a punch," he says. "It's actually comforting to know that I can. I mean, I waited 24 years to learn this. It feels pretty important to finally get it out of the way."
Schultz missed the license plate number of the Buick. He reported the attack to local police, but knew nothing would come of it. He stopped the bleeding and inspected the damage, which wasn't more than a cut on his cheek and some swelling. Then, in typical Schultz fashion, he figured the best thing to do was go on his scheduled five-hour training ride.
"It was great," he says without a hint of sarcasm. "I don't know if it was the extra adrenaline or what, but it was one of my best rides."
Schultz's ability to channel a crazy brush with road rage into a positive training experience is already paying off. During his first ride of the 2010 season, a cross-country race in the inaugural Triple Crown national series, Schultz reached the podium with relative ease.
"The first race of the season is all about seeing where you're at, how your training stands up to the competition, and I felt really good," he says of the third-place finish. "I was able to stick with the leaders, make a few moves of my own just to see how my legs held up, and I felt solid. I couldn't have asked for a better start."
The biggest tests for Schultz will come later, when World Cup races in Belgium and Great Britain measure him once again against top international competition, including an Aug. 28 race in Windham, N.Y., the first such event on domestic soil since 2005. The July 15-18 Mountain Bike National Championships back in Granby, Colo., are also circled on Schultz's calendar.
"With the way last year ended, I feel good about things," he says. "I'm never really completely happy with my results—I always want to squeak out a little better finish—but looking back, I definitely have something to build on."
But first things first: Back in Tucson, Schultz had more pressing matters. The assistant chef needed to help his brother finish dinner, and a full slate of guests at The Cycling House needed to hear how, exactly, the world-class mountain biker acquired a bruised cheek and swollen nose. Holding court among hardcore fans and lifelong friends and family, the resident storyteller couldn't have been more in his element.
"He tells the story, and the whole time he's smiling," says Gue. "He gets attacked, and he's laughing about it. With Sam, even when you get punched in the face, it can be a really good day—as long as you got your ride in."