CONQUERING THE GOLDEN ROUGH
Anna Meares is one of the world’s greatest ever cyclists. A multiple Olympic gold medallist on the track, she has overcame adversity and a near crippling neck injury to dominate her sport.
Anna it’s fair to say we’ve never seen you as emotional as you were after winning that gold medal in London. What brought that on?
Working at something for a very long time. Losing belief but still winning or achieving. After the keirin I had so much doubt in my head it wasn’t funny. I wasn’t sure I could still win the sprint so I guess there were a lot of things that kind of accumulated into that emotional outburst. It was the keirin, it was the fighting going on in my own head. There was the ‘do I believe or don’t I believe’ going on. There was the pressure of racing against Vicki (Victoria Pendleton), there was the pressure of not having success at the level of expectation and added on top of that our team wasn’t performing as well as had been expected as well so there was a lot there.
Sure was because you came fifth in the keirin two days earlier. Is that when the lack of belief you mentioned begin to surface?
Unfortunately in the keirin if you make one wrong decision you can be made to look very silly and it can cost you dearly and that’s what happened to me. I made one bad decision. I went to the front far too early and misread the movement of Victoria and my other rivals and was caught napping. I tried to salvage what I could but I couldn’t do anything with it.
That’s cycling though isn’t it?
It’s a strange feeling to come off the track and feel like you haven’t hurt yourself. You feel quite embarrassed and really disappointed and that wasn’t a result that I felt was deserving of what went into putting me on the start line in London.
So what did you do to bounce back from that?
I was very negative towards myself initially. I took a lot of blame on myself and was my own worst critic. I just really felt like I’d let a lot of people down and didn’t live up to expectations. I wore that pretty heavily on myself. I beat myself up a little bit and it took me a while to let that go and let the positivity from people around me seep in. I just had to tell myself that I’d stuffed up and I was just going to make myself even madder if I let it continue.
Who did you seek counsel from?
Initially when I went back to the village my roommate Karlee (McCulloch) was awesome. She pretty much just gave me the biggest hug and let me cry until I couldn’t cry any more and then I got to the point of numbness where I just had to decide which way I went. Whether I was going to continue feeling sorry for myself or go the other way and try and find a way to get myself back up. My coach Gary (West) was very good. He just constantly re-iterated that he believed in me which kind of made it worse because I had no belief at that stage. And my husband Mark was very, very good. He just seems to be the sort of person who knows what to say in any situation so I spent as much time with him as I could between the keirin and the sprint because I knew that would rub off on me.
It was a combination of them all. And also Mark made me break my chocolate ban and that made me feel good because I could have something sweet. Mark telling me medal or no medal he still loved me. Gary reminding me that I’d been in this situation before and fought through it. It was mainly being told that people believe in me.
Don’t underestimate the role of chocolate then. Sounds like that’s the secret to Olympic gold.
Haha. Well I hadn’t had any for eight months. I didn’t have a lot. Only three little squares. It was just some dairy milk chocolate but unfortunately it was wrapped in a Union Jack because we were in the UK. But I got past that.
They say chocolate makes a greyhound faster so maybe that’s the future.
Yeah well now it’s proven it makes cyclists go faster too.
So after all that adversity, does it make that race in London the most satisfying win in your career?
Oh I think a couple of the others are its equal. It’s hard to compare those things. I mean how do I compare my first Olympics where I was 20. It was my first Olympics. My first year away from home. My first year with the Australian Institute of Sport. I was the underdog and I came away with a gold medal and a world and Olympic record time at just 20 years of age.
Fair call. That takes some beating.
That was just a phenomenal moment in my life. I’ll never forget what that was like to cross the finish line and be so eager to look up to the scoreboard and see where I’d finished. Then it hit me that I’d won. I just remember screaming at the top of my lungs “holy shit you’re the Olympic champion” because it resonated. All the time I’d been watching all the Olympic champions before me on TV and then all of a sudden I felt like I was inside the TV as opposed to looking in. So that was huge. My first sprint world title was too. That was only in 2011. So it’s hard to compare.
But this time you beat Victoria Pendleton. And that rivalry was pretty intense wasn’t it?
It’s all out there. It’s in the past. Everyone knows everything about it. It’s not something I need to dig up any more.
But how did it get so bitter between you two?
Just time I think. And both of us not really engaging with one another. And using the media as our form of communication didn’t help.
Would you say you know Victoria Pendleton?
No. And she wouldn’t know me.
Do you think that might change? Do you think there will ever be a point where you two are friends or at least on speaking terms?
I can’t answer that really. She lives on the other side of the world. I know her fiancé and when we were in communication a lot more often he would say ‘if you got to know each other outside of the velodrome you’d be surprised how similar you are in like your interests in life such as art and stuff.’ He thinks we’d get on like a house on fire but we weren’t in a position to be friends. We were in a position to be competitors and I think between the two of us with all our history we just got to a point where we weren’t prepared to go any further. But we have amicable respect I think in the end.
You’ve done everything in track cycling. Why are you riding on?
A lot of people ask that and the thing is I don’t see being successful as a limiting factor, I see it as a springboard for being better and I feel like I can still improve. I feel like there are still things that I want to accomplish before I leave the sport. I love what I do. You don’t see a businessman take one big deal and then go ‘oh that’s enough, I’m leaving.’ They want to keep being more successful and achieving more, working harder and being challenged. I think that’s the same for me. I love what I do. I haven’t lost any level of desire to work hard and I feel like I’m still challenged. I don’t think I should call it quits just because I’m successful.
Most walk away though because they say it gets harder to stay motivated and keep going.
Well I haven’t found that. Not even close. It’s the competition that makes it bearable at training. The training is the hard part. It can be very difficult on a daily basis, mentally and physically to drag your body out of bed and make it work when you’re tired. To make it work when it’s cold in winter. And just to get motivated when you’re feeling really flat. But I’ve come to a point where what I do is addictive. I’m addicted to feeling strong. I’m addicted to going fast on the bike. I’m addicted to being physically powerful.
Always the competitor hey?
Yeah and I realised that even more when I had my break after London. Probably six weeks into that break I was a bit of a nightmare for my husband. I started to feel glum. I started to feel unhappy with how I was feeling because I wasn’t as active physically as I normally had been. So I guess I’ve learnt a lot even out of my break of what I need to do when I do eventually retire.
Despite how successful you’ve been sponsorship is no easier to attract is it?
I’m in a god place. I’m very happy my current sponsors re-signed me after London. Toshiba, BHP, Uvex, Musashi have kept me on. I managed to find a new sponsor too. CQ Properties which is a real estate company up in Gracemere where I grew up which is very rare to have a local company get on board like that. But it has been challenging because of the Lance Armstrong affair. That very much has tarred cycling. Unfortunately they’re the cards I’ve had to deal with.
That makes you angry doesn’t it?
It irritates me. One name and one person’s bad decision has gotten so much coverage that public awareness of cycling is more about his indiscretions than some wonderful people involved in the sport. Their hard work and their achievements just get forgotten.
Over the years, did you believe he was innocent?
Yeah. Why wouldn’t you be?
Well because there’s been so much speculation over the years. There’s always been doubts about him.
I guess I’ve always believed in innocent until proven guilty. And I never want to speculate on other riders because I don’t want them speculating about me. I look at others the way I want them to look at me. Which probably explains why I was as disappointed as I was.
Have you ever been offered performance-enhancing drugs?
Do you know of any cyclists who have?
But Armstrong makes out as though it’s pretty widespread.
But that tars cycling all with the same brush. And that annoys me. I’m a track cyclist. I’ve never ever crossed paths with Lance Armstrong. Road cycling is such a different sport to track. Track is such a different sport to BMX and mountain biking. And that’s what’s irritating about it. It’s been cast over every discipline of cycling. I’m not saying cycling doesn’t deserve the reputation that it’s got. Because it does. It does because of the distrust that’s happened in the past. The relationship it has with its followers has been broken.
Are drugs less likely to permeate the track scene because it’s more power based as opposed to the pure endurance of the road?
It’s the nature of the beast. It’s the nature of drugs in sport. People are sneaky about it. They’re not going to go out there and tell everyone what they’re doing. They’re trying to go under the radar to take the short cuts to get the reward at the end of the day. And that takes away from the people who are working hard and don’t get the reward at the end of the day.
Is that even more frustrating for you given what you’ve overcome? I mean you broke your neck a few years back and still medalled at the Olympics that year.
I very rarely look back on that. And when I do I think of it as ‘I overcame that’ more than ‘oh I don’t want to go there.’ I think I’m a little bit different on how I look back on my own experiences and I’m very proud that I was able to go through what I went through and achieve what I did. I gain a lot of strength out of that as opposed to fear.
You did a pretty thorough diary of your recovery. Was that therapeutic?
Ooh yeah. My husband suggested I do it because I’m a thinker and I have a lot going on in my head. I’m normally a note-taker. So he suggested I write about it just to get it out of my head. And once I put pen to paper I could not stop and I just kept writing. Re-counting what happened, how I felt, what I remember and I continued that all the way through and it was very therapeutic and probably took a load off Mark as well because he didn’t have to handle it.
Do you genuinely love cycling or do you do it because it’s what you’re good at?
I have a huge passion for it and I don’t think I’ve ever really done anything in life that I haven’t wanted to or enjoyed doing. And I think because of that I have been successful. I was a very good student. I was junior dux of my school. Mainly because of my personality type I love being organised. I used to re-write pages that were messy in my notebooks. I love art. If I wasn’t a cyclist I probably would have gone to University to do an art major as a teacher. I’ve never been someone who hasn’t had an idea of where I want to go or what I want to do.
I guess they’re some champion traits?
Maybe. But in saying that I wasn’t very good at cycling when I started. I was very short and very skinny and just made up the numbers. I never picked up medals. I always got the competitors ribbon until I was about 15 or 16 and I filled out physically. But what kept me in the sport was I had fun doing it. I went in every weekend to see my friends who also rode their bikes.
Your older sister was a Commonwealth Games champion herself. How competitive were you and Kerrie?
Very. Haha. Initially we started in BMX and I was better than her. So it was a bit of a nose out of joint for me when we went to cycling and Kerrie was better. So that carrot was always dangled to try and beat Kerrie. But because of the age difference we only raced each other every second year so I did have a focus shift which allowed breathing room for us growing up so it wasn’t just about me beating Kerrie. But as the years went by it did happen that way because she was the best in the country so if I wanted to be the best I had to beat her.
Was that satisfying or sad? Blood is thicker than water.
Initially it was satisfying until I started to see the effects of it. I’d see the press clippings the next day or the news headlines the night after and I saw how they affected Kerrie and I became much more aware of how difficult and how challenging this was going to be.
And I guess it’s even harder when only one of you gets to go to the Olympics?
Well Kerrie was out of the running for Athens because of a back injury and that left the door open for me. It’s fair to say I was very aware that there could have been a different Meares girl standing on the podium in Athens. Then it was challenging leading into Beijing because I got so focused on my own rehab and recovery from my neck injury that I had very little time and paid very little attention to the challenges that Kerrie herself was facing with trying to make the team. There was one position available because of the points I’d earned to gain that spot. We could have had two but the other girls, including Kerrie, hadn’t earned enough points to take that second position. I was pushing myself through my recovery to get to Beijing but by doing that I was the reason Kerrie didn’t get to go.
Is that bridge mended now?
Oh it’s difficult, as you would expect especially given the passion and love we have for the sport and for each other. But we’ve just kind of mutually got to the point where we don’t talk cycling. There’s a lot more happening in our lives. I know she’s very proud of me. She’s told me that a lot but it still hurts her I think.
So a fourth Olympics is realistic?
And that’s the focus now?