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.

Aviva Women’s Tour – Channeling Adversity into Victory

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It was the queen stage. Stage three of the Aviva Women’s tour had a climb as steep as the Muur de Huy, as wall-like as you could get. We had one teammate, Clara, up the road but just as the race was heating up to take on the climb, we lost Stephanie to a crash. We had only started with 5 riders. It was just Lotta and I against all the big teams.

The peloton was in full lead out mode, racing full speed and then some toward the climb. A one woman lead-out isn’t a fair match against teams like Boels Dolmans with 6 riders but Lotta, on my front wheel, took me and put me on the back of the Boels Dolmans train. Now, it was just up to me.

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When you feel like you’re alone trying to make a difference, the task ahead can seem pointless. Even if you know you have the capability, there are so many uncontrollable elements and outside influences that can throw you off before you even begin. But adversity can be channelled into victory. So what if I was alone against all the big teams? Their lead riders still had to get to the finish line and we all had the same climb to ride over first.

I attacked right at the bottom. I didn’t wait to see what everyone else was going to do, I just went. Elisa was the only one that could follow but then Lizzie caught up. We smashed up the climb, catching the break and then leaving all but Amanda Spratt behind. As we rounded the final corner and hit the cobbles of Chesterfield, Lizzie found a small gap while I sprinted past Elisa to take second.

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Now sitting second on GC, we did exceptionally well on stage four to hold our position, especially when Marianne Vos won all the time bonuses at the sprint hot spots and the stage. On the final day, we really showed our team skills and not only managed to defend my 2nd place again but Lotta won the stage.

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Cervelo Bigla isn’t the biggest team on the race circuit but we never let that stop us from racing like we are. We don’t let what is perceived to be missing make us blind to what we have and what we have is a whole lot of heart, grit, and drive. That’s a spirit that channels whatever adversity we encounter into victory and it’s the same spirit that sets the Aviva Women’s Tour apart.

The Women’s Tour is setting the benchmark for women’s racing. So many complain about the viability of women’s cycling but the Women’s Tour has demonstrated once again that women’s cycling can be successful. They operated the race on a business model that took advantage of a proper marketing campaign and strategic planning that involved the community to run a markedly professional race. They too showed heart, grit, and drive and the quality of the racing, the community and spectator support, and total success of the tour leaves them with a winning reputation that not only demonstrates how viable women’s cycling can be but sets the standard of success.

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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.