The Woman at the End of the Olympics

Rio 2016

It was strange that life just went on. It wasn’t just that the racing was over or that I was back home. It was the fact that the Olympics had been a part of my daily life for four years and suddenly it wasn’t. Even though it wasn’t the focus every day, “Rio” was the guiding reason for every training session, every race, and every goal. Now that it was over, I felt empty.

Right after Rio, I came home only to head up to Sweden. It was straight back into normal racing and, after the hype and stress of the Olympics, “normal” felt better than ever. I found an anchor with the standard logistics of regular trade team racing and familiar faces of my teammates. Life was moving forward, business as usual, and I appreciated the comforting familiarity more than ever…but I still wasn’t over the Olympics.

Downtime Rio 2016

Most of me had moved on but there was this lingering part that was unsettled. It was the part of me that thought about the podium every day. The part of me that would analyze the course and play out attack scenarios. The part of me that was fueled by a great sense of purpose that gave reason to everything. Sport always celebrates the end results, and I’ve made my peace with outcome of my races. What I’m not over is the abrupt end of a four year journey that became a central part of my identity.

Who I wanted to be was the reason so many people rallied behind my goals and who that woman was, was a medallist. It was a collective effort between coaches, managers, athletes, family, friends and even supportive fans to get the woman I needed to be ready for the Olympics. Our project was utterly engulfing and by the time I arrived on the start line, I had transformed into that woman. I had put the work in, I had made it to Rio, I believed I could medal.

Rio Olympics Road Race

*Photo credits ©Tim De Waele
*Photo credits ©Tim De Waele

Most athletes go home from the Olympics as losers. I’m one of them if you’re measuring by medals, but there is value elsewhere. A medal is actually such a small part of the process when you think about it. Even when an athlete does medal, the value of their win is often qualified by their journey, the struggles they endured and success they achieved, to become a winner. We often hear it’s “the journey, not the destination”. That’s a platitude that doesn’t seem to apply to the medal-driven world of the Olympics and, yet, we often acknowledge it’s the origin of value. Why was I so quick to write off four years because of one moment? The woman that came to the Olympics may not be a medalist, but that didn’t mean her value had decreased.

It’s truly impossible to reduce my Olympic journey down to a number on a results sheet. I may not have gold, silver or bronze around my neck but I am the woman I needed and wanted to be to win a medal. I’ve grown a lot in four years as an athlete, friend, wife, sister, daughter, teammate, woman, and as a human. I’m thankful to have been shaped by a collective of intelligent coaches, trusting managers, driven athletes, supportive sponsors, loving friends and family, my unwavering husband, and so many other beautiful and wonderful people. I may have walked away emptied handed but I’m sitting here full-hearted. Cliche or not, the true value of my Olympic experience was in the journey — who I have become — and that’s something you can’t measure in medals.

Where it all started: Discovering a talent

With only 10 weeks to go to Rio 2016, I found myself reflecting on my Road to London, and how far Carl and I have come from there. Sitting here reminiscing on these very fond memories, I thought I would start sharing some of the blog posts I wrote almost four years ago.

Discovering a talent

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It was during my studies at Stellenbosch University that I met the man of my dreams, my husband Carl Pasio. When we met, he was a serious triathlete and it was through him that I discovered my cycling talent.

I remember the day quite clearly. During our first University break, I joined Carl for a holiday at his home in Knysna. Carl comes from a very sporty family and on arriving at his home, it was not long before his Dad, Norman, had insisted we join him for an evening cycle.

Having only cycled socially before, I eagerly whipped on my running shorts, a pair of trainers and jumped onto my Mom’s hybrid bicycle, which I had borrowed for the holidays.

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Something unique about the Pasio family is their love for competition. We had hardly peddled out of the driveway, when Norman had turned on the pace and I found myself hanging on desperately to the Pasio pace line.

This was quite an intimidating experience to say the least, until Norman decided we should climb the hill to the top of the Heads just before returning home. On hitting the steep climb to the Heads viewpoint, suddenly I felt more in control.

In my running shorts and trainers (with no cleats) I held my own up the steep ascent and on arriving at the top, with the others breathing frantically; I felt a sense of achievement!

It was on this day that I heard Norman say to Carl, “you have found yourself a keeper. That girl can ride!”

Learning at Work

Early days riding for Toyota Cyclelab team in South Africa
Early days riding for Toyota Cyclelab team in South Africa

There are less than 100 days to the Olympics and that has made me think about the woman I want to be on the start line. I’m not the same person I was when I started cycling and it’s been the bike that has changed me the most. From thinking I could maybe be a cyclist, moving to Europe to ride pro, becoming an Olympian and all the crashes in between, it has been the challenges on the bike that have taught me the most about who I am and who I want to be.

When I started out in the women’s pro peloton, I had a lot to learn about cycling. I knew I had to be a student of the sport but, all too often, I thought that meant being quiet, going with the flow and just accepting whatever I was dealt. If I made a mistake, it would throw me. If I succeeded, I almost wouldn’t believe it. The ups and downs were unpredictable and I finally realised that I only had myself as an anchor.

Reflecting after a challenging Tour of Flanders
Reflecting after a challenging Tour of Flanders

That anchor was my self-confidence. It wasn’t my values, thoughts, or passion that were lacking, it was my confidence to stand up for my values, thoughts and passion. I was afraid to rock the boat and stand up for what I believed in but, the more self-confidence I gained on the bike, the steadier I became off the bike. If I failed, it was on my terms. I would learn and move on and I was okay with that. And so was every one else. Even if people disagreed, having the self-confidence to act according to my true beliefs meant at least I was respected.

It’s taken a lot of lessons, a lot of people, and a long personal journey but I know now that it’s not about being loud or liked, it’s about being true. That’s the woman I want to take to Rio. That’s the woman I want to show the world. That’s the woman I am on the bike.

Great motivation on the top tube of our Cervelo S3 bikes
Great motivation on the top tube of our Cervelo S3 bikes

Persistent Courage

“Never, never, never give up!”

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Getting back on the horse

That Winston Churchill quote was on a bookmark my mom gave. It wasn’t just the gift of the bookmark, it was when I received the bookmark that made Churchill’s words  so continuously inspiring

I was in hospital at the time recovering from a life threatening head injury. I was out riding my horse on a casual Sunday afternoon group ride. Since I had been away  on school holiday, my horse hadn’t been ridden in a while and he was feeling nervous around the presence of other horses. When a bird flew out of a bush and spooked him, off he galloped. I desperately gripped the reins but his mind was made up as he ran full tilt towards home. I decided to stay calm and ride it out; he eventually had to stop.

The last thing I remember was seeing the stables. No one really knows what happened from there but we think he took a corner too fast and stumbled on loose gravel. I came off head first and hit a concrete block…and I wasn’t wearing a helmet.

Ten days later, I finally woke up in the ICU. I had been in a coma on full life support, suffered a collapsed lung, I had a broken basal skull bone and a pressure-release valve had been inserted in my head. The initial prognosis was bleak. The doctors said there would be brain damage. I was never going to be the same and I would never finish school.

Then came the bookmark with Churchill’s words and I took them, not just to heart, but to action. I finished school four months later with 7 distinctions and went on to study chemical engineering. But that wasn’t the hardest obstacle I had to overcome.

My dad insisted that, as soon as I was strong enough, I had to get back on the horse. The very same horse that had run away with me. The very same horse that left a scar of fear along with my physical injuries. The very same horse that changed my life.

Whenever I find myself in challenging situations, I think of my bookmark. I think of Churchill’s words and I think of that horse. I got back on that horse. I overcame my fear and I proved to myself that I am capable of overcoming whatever knocks me down. I learned that persistent courage has the ability to breakthrough whatever we think are limits.

Fighting back after crashing at Momentum 947 last year
Fighting back after crashing at Momentum 947 last year *photo credit: Erik Vermeulen

It took persistant courage to make a full recover from my head injury

It took persistent courage to get back on the horse and conquer my fear.

It takes persistent courage be on the start line amongst all the best women in the world and race for the win.

It takes persistent courage to overcome the obstacles and challenges that inevitably come along the way.

Fighting to overcome challenge, whether it’s getting back on the horse or winning a pro cycling race, can be scary and seemingly impossible but, with persistent courage limits are only the starting point of success.

Never. 

Never. 

Never give up.