An interview with Anna Meares, March 24, 2009
Anna Meares won a sprint silver medal at last year's Olympic Games, but despite the inspiring journey to Beijing glory Meares won't contest the race at this week's UCI Track World Championships. Cyclingnews' Greg Johnson caught up with Meares prior to her departure for Poland.
Just 12 months ago Anna Meares was fighting to recover from a horrific accident that at first threatened her life, then risked four years of preparation leading into the Beijing Olympic Games. What a difference a year makes, as a fit and healthy Meares returns to the world stage this evening, going back to her beloved women's 500 metre time trial event.
Despite claiming a sprint silver medal in Beijing, Australia's only medal in a dismal campaign, Meares will not contend for the discipline's world title this week in Poland. Dropping the sprint in favour of the 500 metre time trial, where she has experienced the most success throughout her career, is a move Meares describes as refreshing.
"It's actually really exciting and I'm very much looking forward to a different focus," she said.
"I learnt that I could push myself to further limits or boundaries than I thought I could – both mentally and physically." -Meares describes how enduring her serious injury last year changed her.
"In a big way there is less pressure because the point of taking a break was to deal with the big high and big low that comes with Olympic competition. To be chasing events that I wasn't chasing previously is refreshing."
Meares will then team with youngster Kaarle McCulloch for Thursday's team sprint. At the ripe old age of 25, Meares is Australia's second oldest rider in this year's worlds squad, but hopes she'll be able to podium with 21-year-old McCulloch on her World Championships team sprint debut.
"I'm really excited about that because it's the first time I've ever been starter," said Meares. "It should work well because Kaarle has the speed to hang on to me in the first lap and she's got a good second lap as well."
Meares enters this week's UCI World Championships with just under three months of training in her legs. After her struggle to first qualify then ride the 2008 Olympic Games, she took two months off with husband Mark to visit both their families in Queensland.
While she described last season as roller coaster and stubborn year, Meares believes it was also a rewarding season. With her favoured women's 500 metre time trial stripped from the Olympic roster after her gold medal performance in Athens, Meares' serious crash at the Los Angeles Track World Cup in January 2008 wasn't the ideal preparation for contesting a new event at Olympic level. Yet Meares believe she's learnt a lot from the experience.
"I learnt that I could push myself to further limits or boundaries than I thought I could – both mentally and physically," she said. "I learnt a lot of things, probably not predominantly lessons, but I realised a lot of things. After my accident I probably got a better glimpse of what I want to get out of my life, where I want to head and what's important to me.
"I think because of that I've been able to take the year with a more relaxed approach and just a little more settled than I would have without having had the accident," she added.
The accolades continued to flow for Meares after her silver medal performance. At November's Cycling Australia awards she stole the show, winning the women's track cyclist, people's choice and the prestigious Oppy Trophy. The Oppy Trophy win was a huge surprise for Meares, given her rivals included Tour de France stage winner Simon Gerrans and Tour runner-up Cadel Evans.
"That was a big highlight," she said. "The way I was going I didn't think I was ever going to win that bloody award before I retired. I win an Olympic Gold, I don't win it, I get a world record and don't get it, I was like 'what do I have to do to get this fricken award – just break my neck and win Olympic silver'."
Unfortunately for Meares the low that came with her neck injury wasn't the only blow of 2008. Following Australia's disappointing performance at the Olympic Games, where ironically Meares was the highlight, news came that Cycling Australia had moved her long-time coach, friend and mentor Martin Barras, to the women's road squad, paving way for a fresh approach to the track program.
"That was a big blow," said Meares, in a sombre tone. "I was, I was a mess...when he told me he was no longer going to be my coach. Predominately because I'd worked with him for the last six to seven years and he was the only person I'd worked with since I left home in Rockhampton as a young, immature girl. So he's helped me through a lot of things in my cycling career but he's taught me lots of lessons that have helped in my personal life as well. He doesn't just fill the role of a coach because we worked with him every single day he became a very good friend.
"I was, I was almost lost with direction when he said he was going, because when we came back from Beijing we sat down and nutted out what we wanted to do over the next four years," she added. "We were both really excited about what we wanted to do and how we want to go about doing it, then all of a sudden he wasn't going to be my coach anymore."
Meares refused to say that moving Barras was the wrong choice, pointing out that it is not her decision. She did however admit if it was up to her they'd continue working together through to the London Olympic Games in 2012.
"I was very bitter and very angry about how that decision came about," she said. "A lot of mixed emotions, a lot of frustration. Having had a little bit of time to let it settle, I guess, there's nothing I could have done about it and I'm actually enjoying working with Gary West at the moment. But as far as I know he's just the interim coach so it's still unknown who is going to be the coach of the Australian sprint team."
Meares doesn't yet know how she'll go about replicating the relationship she shared with Barras with her new coach, when that person is appointed. She does believe there's enough time before the 2012 games to build an effective working relationship, providing a new coach is appointed this year.
"Marv and I had spent so long together that we knew what worked, what didn't work, he could tell just by looking at me whether he could approach me and talk to me or whether I was in a bit of a state, a bit upset or whatever," she said. "He knew exactly when he could come in and when he couldn't come in to talk about things. So that's why I think we worked really well, we had such an honest setup going. I could go to him and tell him exactly what I thought of his training, and he could tell me if my head was getting too big. That's what I really like about our relationship. We never upset each other over anything.
"So it will be interesting to see, depending on who the new coach is, it takes a long time to develop or find that niche, with what works and what doesn't work between the two of you," added Meares. "If you're going to stick around for another four years and absolutely bust your arse day in and day out you've got to be confident it will work out."
Besting the Brits
Australia is having to come to terms with a new concept on a sporting level – being beaten by those from its mother country, the United Kingdom. The countries enjoy a friendly rivalry in many sports, particularly cricket, and with the country spending national lottery money like it's going out of fashion ahead of 2012, the rivalry has arrived on cycling's doorstep.
Having come from a strong position at both the Sydney and Athens games, the Australian track squad now lags behind the poms. For Meares the woman she needs to knock off is Vicky Pendleton, who claimed gold in last year's women's sprint.
"You know it's not just Australia, every one in every country in the world is missing something," laughed Meares when asked how to overcome the British battalion. "It's one of those situations where you don't want to constantly focus on what are they doing, what are they doing, what are they doing, but they've set a benchmark that is very, very high.
"We've got to match that, we've got to beat that if we want to win in London so there's a lot of searching and figuring out to go on between now and the Olympics," she added.
While this week's UCI Track World Championships won't be an indicator for the next Olympiad, the Britons will certainly again be a force. Meares will be there to help mentor the next generation of Australian track cyclists. With 11 members of the team under the age of 21, she'll be helping set an example for those likely to represent Australian in London in three years time.
"I'm a bit of an old duck now," laughed Meares. "In seven years I've gone from being the baby of the team to the veteran and it's a very different feeling this year. I've been in teams where there were lots of older riders so their experiences and journeys were further along and their approach a lot calmer and more driven. Now there is a different level of fun and excitement in a younger team.
"I think they look to me for direction but I am really a part of the team and I'm not up on a pedestal where they don't feel they can approach me," she concluded.