AIS training camp, Part I: An interview with Warren McDonald, December 23, 2005
The past two years, since Australian national women's road cycling coach Warren 'Wazza' McDonald signed on for the job, has seen highs and lows to the very extreme. Kristy Scrymgeour caught up with McDonald at a training camp at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra to find out how he is looking to move forward into 2006.
It could be said that 2004 was the golden year, with 'Wazza' leading the AIS women's team to World Cup success for Oenone Wood, and then training the AIS riders to help deliver an Olympic Gold medal to Sara Carrigan. They were too good for a 'development' squad, with the majority of the girls going on to sign with professional teams by the end of the year.
But this year, McDonald and Australian cycling were hit with disaster, that of losing one of their athletes, Amy Gillett, in a tragic accident which saw another five riders severely injured.
"Being here will hopefully give them the opportunity to gain strength from each other, and also from the other girls." - McDonald believes the AIS camp will be good for the five survivors of the German tragedy
Five months have passed since the accident, and Wazza and 25 Australian women cyclists gathered at the AIS in Canberra to get everyone together and look to the future. Present at the camp were Katie Brown, Lorian Graham, Katie Nichols, Alexis Rhodes and Louise Yaxley, who were involved in the accident, as well as Commonwealth Games prospects - including the Australian women with professional contracts - and also young or new riders that McDonald and the state coaches have identified as future talent.
"We have over 25 riders here," says McDonald, "and we probably would have had 30 if one of the MTB selection races for Commonwealth Games wasn't on this weekend. It shows that the structure we have, with state institutes around the country, is really working. The state coaches are continually feeding new talent through to us. Coming out of the state system myself, I have a good understanding of where the athletes are coming from and where we need to go with them.
"This camp is to do a bit of testing but also to get everyone together to do some good training to learn from each other and to gain from each other."
While we talked, Katie Brown brought in her new bike to have it set up by the AIS biomechanics specialist Brian McLean so that she can start riding again in comfort, while Louise Yaxley spun away on the indoor trainer that had been specifically set up for her, with the handlebars upright so that she could support herself properly. Other athletes came in to talk to Wazza, set up physio appointments, or warm up for their lab test.
One thing that is clear when you see Wazza with the athletes is how much he cares about them and how much they look up to him. While overseas, he acts as their second father as well as coach, director and manager. Of course, he does this with the help of his wife Sian, who's provided enormous support for him, particularly since the accident.
Moving forward - together
It is only natural that one of his greatest concerns this camp is that the girls from the accident get the treatment they need. "It's great that they are also here so that they feel part of us moving forward," he explains.
"The hardest time for them was when they all first got home, but now they're all seeing improvements in the rate of their recovery and it's good for them to have a bit of normality again. Being here will hopefully give them the opportunity to gain strength from each other, and also from the other girls."
As we talked in the physiology lab of the AIS, young talent Amanda Spratt powered away at one of the dreaded AIS lab tests. Spratt is former Junior World Champion on the track and also very successful on the road. Next year she moves into the senior ranks and is definitely an athlete that many say has a big future.
"We know what we're looking for here," says Wazza. "We are trying to look at what's out there, spot the talent and develop it. Our plan for next year will be the same as this year, very much focused on a developmental program. We'll still be riding some big races but we'll be allowing riders to come to Europe for short stints to get some experience in small doses.
"Our aim is to develop riders slowly and make sure we keep them in the sport, moving them towards a career in the sport. We still want to give them time to develop other aspects of their lives while they're young. For example, last year we were very flexible with Alexis, allowing her to finish university as well as race her bike. Shorter stints make it easier for developing riders to achieve. We all know that spending a lot of time overseas can crack you."
In the interest of the athletes, and making things easier for women to make a real career out of cycling, McDonald and Cycling Australia's head coach Shayne Bannan have plans to start an Australian professional women's team in the lead up to the next Olympics.
"We'll start ramping things up in 2007 and if we need to turn professional in the lead up to the Olympics we will," he says. "For Olympic preparation it's important for the girls to have the kind of racing program that suits them. Riders like Oenone Wood have enough say within their pro teams say 'this is what I want to race', and create their own schedule so that they're not over-raced. Some other riders can't negotiate with the team like that and just have to fit in with the schedule they're given.
"If we have an Australian professional (women's) team we'll be able to make sure we are giving our athletes the best racing schedule and training program leading up to the Olympic year. Of course we would only go pro if we can keep the same structure. We'll still also have the development team, but again they'll probably just come in for very short stints for the experience."
A professional team will also be good for track endurance riders, allowing them to use the road, but also fit in their road racing with their track program. It will also be beneficial for Australian mountain bikers. Damian Grundy (national MTB coach) and McDonald have also talked about how they can work more closely together in the future. Road racing can help the MTB girls get to a new level and the MTB riders can help the roadies with their technical skills.
"The U23 continental team (see story is ideally how we'd like the women's program to look," he added. "We're trying to make sure the women are still riding in the future. It's still going to take some time, but hopefully in the future with more sponsorship dollars a career path will be a lot more probable for female cyclists.
"The UCI has committed to improve women's cycling in this direction and hopefully we can grow with the UCI. Whether we're working with young riders or others like Liv Gollan, who come into the sport in their late 20s, we need to be able to provide the opportunities to develop the talent."
Personally for Wazza, it's been a tough year, one which will take him some time to recover, but he says the support has been "amazing".
"Obviously with such a tragedy, I've been through the toughest time in my life. The Germans in the hospital were blown away, not only at how caring all the Australians were, but also with the joking way we dealt with the accident. Larrikinism as a way to gain strength is very much the Aussie way.
"That time in the hospital was a special time, especially because a lot of the pro women were at the race and it really brought everyone from Australian cycling together. It was also something that affected cyclists worldwide, not only Australians.
"The camp is an opportunity to look ahead as well as for helping those at the elite level. I've always wanted to have a big camp like this each year. So I'm happy this week just to provide another way for us to bond together to take Australia to another level."
While Wazza is keen to move forward and keep the positive vibe and enthusiasm going, he says that in this coming year he will need some help taking on the huge role of coaching, directing and managing the women's team. "I'm hoping to get someone to assist me in the next 12 months and leading into Beijing, because doing two or three jobs at half effort isn't going to have the same effect.
"Coaching is what I love. Taking people to that next level. Last year was something special. It was an awesome year with the AIS winning the World Cup Series and Australia getting gold in the road race at the Olympics. This year was a totally different thing.
"Going from car number one in the convoy to bringing a whole new group of girls over to get experience was very rewarding. I was really looking forward to the last part of the season. That's another thing that pisses me off. The fact that the girls didn't get the opportunity to race that second half of the year and to see how far they'd come."
Comm Games next
With the team now looking ahead, the next thing on the agenda is the Commonwealth Games squad, which should be announced at the end of January. "We have to wait until after National's," he explains, "because the winner of the time trial is an automatic selection and that will also affect the road race positions.
"There is also the cross over of disciplines that we have to consider. For example, track riders like Kate Bates, Rochelle Gilmore or Katie Mactier who could also be part of the road team."
But before the Comm Games comes the domestic season with the Jayco Bay Classic, the Australian Open Road Championships and then the start of the UCI Women's World Cup series, which kicks off in Geelong, Victoria.
This will also allow the new talent coming through to race against the world's best in their country, and also lining up to race in Melbourne next month will be Katie Nichols and Alexis Rhodes, a staggering breakthrough considering they were in hospital in July.
(Also in January is a very special ride for everyone in Australian cycling - the Amy Gillett-Safe Foundation ride on January 7: www.amysride.com.au)
April 3, 2006: Mark Webber cautions motorists to watch for cyclists in Amy Gillett's name
February 21, 2006: AIS survivors tell of crash and recovery
February 7, 2006: AIS crash verdict: "German law was applied"
February 4, 2006: AIS crash: driver sentenced
December 25, 2005: An interview with the survivors of the German tragedy
December 23, 2005: An interview with Warren McDonald
December 13, 2005: Emotional conclusion to Amy Gillett Charity Ride
Amy Gillett Foundation Charity Ride diary
October 28, 2005: AIS women at charity luncheon in Sydney
October 20, 2005: Yaxley making solid progress
October 6, 2005: Investigation in Gillett's death almost complete
August 24, 2005: Graham vows to return
August 22, 2005: Yaxley and Rhodes home
August 18, 2005: Rhodes and Yaxley bound for home
August 14, 2005: Yaxley and Rhodes continue to make progress
August 11, 2005: Brown vows to return to cycling
August 8, 2005: More support for Gillett-Safe Cycling Foundation
August 3, 2005: Rhodes and Yaxley out of intensive care
July 29, 2005: Amy Gillett's life recalled in moving service
July 28, 2005: Rhodes and Yaxley recovery 'amazing'
July 24, 2005: Yaxley improving, Rhodes still unconscious
July 21, 2005: AIS head 'optimistic' about recovery; 'Brownie' tries his best
July 19, 2005: Unprecedented carnage in GermanyJuly 18, 2005: Amy Gillett dead after crash in Germany