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News feature, January 29, 2008

Anna Meares: I'm lucky, but disappointed

Australian track super star Anna Meares' met with press in Adelaide, Australia, today to discuss the accident at January's Los Angeles Track World Cup that nearly cost the Queenslander her life. Cyclingnews' Greg Johnson reports.

Meares in Sydney earlier this year, before the crash that has put here Olympic participation in doubt.
Photo ©: John Veage
(Click for larger image)

Three and a half years after her 500-metre time trial Gold medal at the Athens Olympic Games, a wheelchair-bound Anna Meares addressed the media at Adelaide's Hilton Hotel as her next Olympic assault hangs in jeopardy. Yet the 24 year-old cyclist is lucky to be alive after a heavy fall at this month's Track World Cup round in Los Angeles, threatened to take more than her Olympic dreams away.

In addition to the heavy skin grazing, torn tendons and muscle tissue sustained from the accident, Meares dislocated the AC joint in her right shoulder and sustained a hairline fracture to her C2 vertebra. Talking to the media at the press conference, Meares recalled the night of the accident.

"I don't recall a lot after the crash, but I was in the keirin and American Jennie Reed came under me with about two laps to go, which forced me to be at the back of the keirin," she started. "I had discussed this with Martin [Barras] earlier – if I had found myself at the back and what I should do – all of the races had looked as though a lot of the girls were getting stuck in each other's way and was quiet close contact.

"I realise I'm lucky, but disappointed"

- An emotional Meares said on the LA incident.

"The advice that I was given, if that was the case, was just to lay off and give myself some room so I didn't get caught up in any of that and make one fast charge as late as possible to get around as quickly as possible, which is what I did," explained Meares. "I remember accelerating into the bell and making my move in the turns of one, two, and then I don't recall exactly how I fell. I remember hitting my head and being in a lot of pain straight away and then the next thing I remember is being on the bottom of the track and being attended to.

"From what I've been told, as predicted, there was a lot of close contact between the girls," added Meares. "One rider leaned on another rider who turned and moved up into another rider, and as I moved up to come around that rider was already on her way back down, and took out my front wheel."

The Team Toshiba rider, who resides in Adelaide, South Australia, was cleared by doctors in the United States to travel back to Australia last week. The track star was flown home first class by Cycling Australia in order to accommodate for the injuries the rider sustained.

The Los Angeles accident was the first serious crash Meares has been involved in since 1999, while her last track crash of any form was during her first year as a senior in 2002, the rider recalled.

"I realise that I'm pretty lucky with the injuries I've come away with," admitted Meares. "The C2 vertebra, so I've been told, is the one that controls your breathing and if that goes so too does you life.

"I realise I'm lucky, but disappointed," said an emotional Meares.

Beijing Olympic Games

Anna Meares is first committed to a successful recovery.
Photo ©: Todd Leister
(Click for larger image)

The accident in Los Angeles has a very real impact on Meares' Beijing Olympic Games bid. While Meares is currently ranked fourth in the qualification standings for August's games, the four to six weeks she's expected to spend off the bike will force her to miss the final two qualification events – the Copenhagen Track World Cup round and the Manchester World Track Championships.

With just 12 spots open for the Olympic Games – three of which places go to the reigning World Cup, World Champion and B World Champions – Meares' Olympic hopes lay completely in the hands of others. While she believes she will be ready for August's event, Meares is relying on either not being knocked out of the top nine riders following the upcoming qualification rounds or being awarded a wildcard.

The International Cycling Union (UCI) can award wildcards of sorts to riders, but only if a pre-qualified cyclist withdraws from the Olympics.

"At the moment four to six weeks is what has been given, give or take, and that's just based on how fast I heal," said Meares of the recovery period. "The arm may take longer to heal than the neck because it's tendon and ligament related, and the trouble with the neck is getting the muscles to use and having the bone heal so I can actually lean over and support myself. At the moment, I'm either laying flat or slightly risen."

Whether Meares will qualify for the Beijing Olympic Games with the points she's already accumulated or by being offered a position by the UCI in the event of a withdrawal is a complete unknown. The situation means Meares will have to focus on her recovery and then preparation, with the UCI granting the wildcards up to a fortnight out from the Games.

"We don't know for sure, we can speculate one way or the other, I think it's going to be a very close call, we will just have to wait until the World Championships is finished," said Australian track coach Martin Barras of the situation. "You have to understand from our perspective, considering the severity of the injuries, we don't want to mingle the recovery with any sort of pressure with regards to qualifying or getting back into racing before she's fully ready. The severity of the neck injury in particular dictates that without any arguments."

Barras added that he's extremely confident in Meares' determination to be ready for the Olympic result, saying that from the day after the accident it was evident the rider had already began preparing for the road ahead.

"That aspect of the injury management I'm not extraordinarily worried about, you know, qualification is obviously a different story but again it's outside of our control at this point in time," he said.

Meares, the younger sister of fellow track star Kerrie, said she was never worried about the future of her career. Anna, who was brought to tears during the press conference, added that Kerrie's presence was a huge boost to her spirits following the crash.

"Right from when I was conscious after the accident I could feel both of my legs and I had no trouble with that," she explained. "The time that I really started to worry was when the doctors came in and said there was a hairline fracture and that they needed to go back and look through the x-rays, I was pretty heavily sedated by that stage so it didn't really sink in until a few days later.

"I was more worried about and laughing with Kerrie about the stupid hairstyle she had put my hair in because I couldn't get it out, and smiling at the camera for her. So she definitely kept my spirit very high," she added.

When asked how the accident has affected her emotionally with regards to returning to the bike Meares was cautiously enthusiastic with her response.

"That will be something," she said. "I don't really think at this stage I'm too scared of getting back on the bike, I'm quiet eager to get back on the bike. I guess the main thing there will be when I get back on the velodrome and see how that goes."

Barras reaffirmed that the commitment for the time being is dedicated to the recovery process. He outlined that there would be no shortcuts taken to get the reigning 500-metre time trial World Champion back to form. "Again, first and foremost it's about managing the injury so we'll just deal with that as it comes," he outlined. "Again I can't reinforce how important that is considering the severity of the injury.

"There's a little Grand Prix in Germany that we have been going to for the last four years," he continued. "We went there in August last year with the intent that Anna was going to have a go at the track record, she injured her back which forced us to pull her out of the event and we made a pact saying that we'd come back in June this year and have a go at it again. So here's the ambitious coach telling you that that's my plan."


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Images by Todd Leister/leister.smugmug.com

Images by John Veage

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