Kaarle McCulloch will be looking to cement her place in Australia’s track sprint team for the Olympic Games in Rio later this year. She faces a tough battle with sprint star Anna Meares and up and coming talent Stephanie Morton also in contention.
McCulloch won bronze with Meares at the London Games four years ago, but her subsequent journey through the next Olympic cycle has been nothing less than a rollercoaster. Two years ago, a chronic knee problem almost forced her into retirement at just 26. She relocated over 1,000 kilometres from Adelaide to Sydney and worked with a new coach and now she’s almost back at her best.
Cyclingnews spoke with McCulloch ahead of the World Championships in London to discuss her journey back to the top and her expectations in the coming weeks and months.
Cyclingnews: How have you been settling into London?
Kaarle McCulloch: I’ve been a little bit unwell since I got here, so I’ve been juggling that with the amount and intensity of training I’ve been doing. I’m just thankful that I’ve been ill now rather than last week. It was exciting to get back on the track.
CN: What is it like being back at an Olympic velodrome where you have had some success?
KM: Walking into the velodrome was special, and seeing my name in there was special. I had forgotten what that track was like, but it reminds me of my home track in Sydney. I’ve been training and living in Sydney for the last two years which has been nice.
CN: It’s less than a week before the World Championships, how are the legs feeling?
KM: Pretty good actually, I did my last two weeks of preparation in Adelaide with the track team. As I said, I haven’t been living in Adelaide for the past few years, so that was fantastic to be down there and to spend more time with the team rather than just meeting them at the event. I think I’ve got some good form, I just have to get over this illness, and I can hopefully do something quite special, and solidify my spot on the Olympic team.
CN: You’re coming into the competition off the back of a solid season, what are your thoughts on how this year went for you?
KM: I’m really happy. I’ve been given plenty of opportunities, which I’m grateful for because when I was injured in 2013 I was taken off scholarship and I think that the selectors have shown they have confidence in me, and that gives me confidence in myself. I’ve certainly stepped up to the challenges they’ve set me.
CN: You mentioned your knee injury, how challenging was that time for you?
KM: By 2013, my motivation for training had hit rock bottom. Every session I was going into, I was in a lot of pain, and 80 per cent of my training sessions were modified. I wasn’t training at full capacity, and that was reflected in my results. I was suffering from depression, I was having some issues in my personal life, and things just weren’t going very well for me in 2013. That whole experience for me, really tested me and pushed me to my limits, and I’m a better athlete, and more importantly, I’m a better person. I know what I can do and how far I can push myself. I know now that I’m a strong person, which is an important trait to have as an athlete.
CN: What was it that brought you back from that point, where did you see yourself begin to return to your best?
KM: I think it was the ultimate decision to relocate back to Sydney and to work with my coach Sean Eadie. When I had the opportunity to get to know him, I was still injured, and he told me that I needed to get away from the bike, and we needed to get my injury sorted.
I had something like four months away from the bike, which at that date had been the longest I’d been away from the bike. I did an intense amount of rehab that was extremely tedious. I went into it not knowing if I was going to come out of it pain-free. As I started to reintroduce training, and I wasn’t in pain, and I was enjoying work, and I still enjoy working with Sean, that I regained my love and my passion for the sport which I had lost.
CN: After all that, you took a bronze medal at the World Championships last year. How important was that for you?
KM: I’ve been a three-time world champion, an Olympic medallist, I’ve held World Records, but I think for me that achievement was particularly special, because of everything that I had been through.
In Paris, I wasn’t thinking about Rio, I was only thinking about how I could get the best out of myself. I left everything else, I left the pressure and the expectation behind, and I think that was a big lesson for me. In the past, I think that the expectations I’ve put on myself have stopped me from reaching my potential. Every race I go into now, I just think about getting the best out of myself, and I think that is also reflected in my results over the last few months.
Now, it’s about Kaarle McCulloch and how far I can take myself and what can I do, how good can I be, it doesn’t matter about anybody else anymore it only matters about me.
CN: Do you know exactly which events you’re going to be doing at next year’s World Championships?
KM: I know that I’m riding the individual sprint and the Keirin, which I’m happy about because I’m the Oceania champion in the sprint. I was also happy to get the opportunity to ride the Keirin because I haven’t ridden the Keirin much since 2013 when I was injured. I have no expectations in that event.
In the team sprint, things are a little unsure as to who the team is going to be and how it’s going to work. I think it is a positive thing because we’ve got three girls who are contenders to win medals and I think that is allowing for us to be the best possible team.
CN: With the Olympics so close, how important is it to stamp some authority on each event?
KM: I think that the World Championships are important regardless of whether it is an Olympic year or not. The rainbow jersey extremely prestigious and something that not many people get to earn in their careers. At the Olympics, it is not often that you see someone random turning up in the Olympics and being successful if they haven’t had some success in the World Championships that year. I think the World Championships in an Olympic year is crucial in terms of the mindset and attitude you take into the Olympics.
I do feel a bit of pressure, and I have high expectations of myself in trying to make the Olympic team. I want to give the selectors every reason to select me and to just have a crack. If I can do every possible and leave it all out on the track, then I’ll be happy.
CN: Anna Meares obviously comes into this Olympic year with a prolific record behind her, and it is hard to see her missing out. Do you feel that you are fighting for one spot in Rio, or is selection still anyone’s game?
KM: Anna is just a wonderful person, and she is a great champion. I always go into any race with her thinking you can never underestimate Anna Meares; she’s just a phenomenal athlete. For me personally, I know chasing one spot, and I know that it is against somebody who is fantastic, and she’s got a great track record. What I have also realised is that I’m Kaarle McCulloch, and I’m also a three-time world champion and I’m also an Olympic medallist. I think the way I’m approaching it is in the way that I know I’m already a champion and if I can have that self-belief and confidence anything is possible.
The Olympics was the best two to three weeks of my life, and I want to experience that again, and I want to make my Olympic dream come true, which is to become an Olympic champion.