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An interview with Anna Meares, June 7, 2007
A league of her own
Anna Meares arrived at the party in Adelaide, thinking that it was just another team event. The unsuspecting star of Australian track cycling was instead surprised to discover that the function was in her honour, and was brought to tears when her parents and former coach Kenrick (Reggie) Tucker arrived unannounced, direct from Rockhampton.
The younger of a pair of track star sisters, Anna, the sister of Kerrie, is currently riding high on her outstanding achievements and plotting out the next chapter of her life. At just 23 years of age, the Beijing and London Olympic Games are still in her sights for the Sprint event, but Meares is also hopeful that her favourite event, the 500m time trial, will be brought back onto the Olympic program by 2012.
Smashing her own World Record in the 500 to 33.588 at the World Championships in Majorca in March this year, Meares has seemed to achieve all the big goals she has set out to do since she started track cycling at the age of fourteen. Or has she?
Meares started her cycling career in BMX. On moving to Rockie as a teenager, she flirted with the idea of triathlon as she was also a good swimmer, but was persuaded by Tucker to stick to cycling under his guidance, and she put all her energy into one discipline. "Triathlon is for people who have 'tried' all three sports and are not good at any of them!" she remembered of Tucker's advice.
"I had quit the sport, but Kerrie was still cycling and every week Reggie was in my ear," she told Cyclingnews. Tucker succeeded, and he was instrumental in laying the foundation for Meares' success during her teenage years. "He laid down a lot of the laws and morals that still effect my cycling today."
Her record speaks for itself. First in the Nationals for the time trial at the U15 and U17 levels, and first in the sprint at U17. Then first in U19 in both the sprint and flying 200m in 2000.
In 2001 she claimed top spot in the nation for both the time trial and flying 200m, and represented Australia at the Junior World Championships in the United States where she claimed gold in the 500m time trial.
Stepping up in 2002 to the elite level, she represented Australia in Denmark at the World Championships but placed only 10th in the 500 behind sister Kerries' third place. In 2003 she placed 9th, two spots ahead of Kerrie in the 500, and 10th in the sprint to Kerries' 20th at the Worlds in Germany. It was not the best year for either sister.
However, 2004 was a much better year for Anna as she claimed bronze in the sprint in the Athens Olympics, but more importantly put her name to top spot on the podium with a gold in the 500 and set the new world record for the first woman ever to clock under 34 seconds. That year she also took gold in the 500 at the World Championships in her home country of Australia and silver in the sprint.
Following those early successes, her 2005 was a year dogged with back injury and then recovery, but she was still able to claim National top honours in the 500, sprint, team sprint and Keirin in Adelaide. However, her campaign for another World Championship was unsuccessful, and she managed only second in the 500 and third in the sprint in Los Angeles.
By 2006, her comeback from the injury was complete, and Meares had new-found inspiration in her racing - she married her sweetheart, Mark Chadwick, and then had another boost - racing to a gold in the 500 and silver in the sprint in front of her parents at Commonwealth Games. Oddly enough, it was the first time she had raced in front of her parents at that level. "After the Olympic Gold I did have a bit of a slump of 'where to now'? but that, [Mum and Dad being there in the stands] gave me the incentive to train hard for another solid year."
The training paid off, and at the Sydney World Cup, she once again broke her own record in the 500, albeit under somewhat strange circumstances. Coach Martin Barras explained, "We had worked with gearing that we thought was safe. We had done a lot of analysis of gearing data and were determined that this particular gearing was the one to work with. We had a chain ring that was wrongly stamped (45 when they thought it was a 44) and she went on the track with a much bigger gear and smashed the World Record with it."
It wasn't until they packed it away they realised something was not as it should be. "I had a feeling it was different coming off the start," said Meares. It wasn't until they checked the video footage that they confirmed it was the wrong size ring, after counting the number of revolutions for the lap.
After this experience, expectations and limitations became a thing of the past. In Majorca, Meares let go for the first time of what other people said can and cannot be done. "It was the first time I really let go of pretences. The first time I saw an empty field in front of me that hadn't been walked on and I wanted to be the first to walk on it, so I really went out there with nothing holding me back."
Anna Meares is a young woman who has come a long way at 23. The emotional highs and lows of an elite athlete need high thresholds of mental and emotional strength to cope with the pressure and to keep the passion alive. After Athens, Meares found herself in the position where she wasn't so hungry for cycling.
"My drama after Athens was that I had no goals or direction. I had achieved my goals, greater than I ever thought I could, which was the Olympic Gold. It became a matter for me to give myself a new challenge. That was to shift my focus from the 500 to the sprint, it was really important, but then there was my back injury, then the home Commonwealth Games.
"But little things kept me going. The fact that it was in Melbourne, and that Mum and Dad were coming... you would be surprised that that little thing could drive you to work hard for another year and get out of bed every morning. And this season for me has been inspiring - it's been uninterrupted and without injury. No mental stress and I just think I'm getting better and better. Now it's become a challenge to me to see what I'm capable of, because I believe I'm capable of great things."
Her coach confirmed that Meares approaches the sport differently from most, and is going into Beijing without a firm medal count. Barras explained, "Everything is about a process. It is true about her [Meares], and for all the riders and staff. It is not about a result but what they put out on the track. If we do that right we don't have to fear about the result."
Meares has many great qualities as an athlete and a young woman. She is positive and passionate and enjoys her life as a cyclist. She comes from a family that is supportive and sacrificing for each other. "She is direct, determined and honest with others and herself," according to Barras "One of Anna's best qualities is her devotion."
"The character that gives her an edge over many other sometimes better cyclists is that she is totally organised," says Tucker. "Often the underdog, she has had to work hard and struggle to overcome the odds."
Can she ride faster? "Yes I can," says Meares emphatically.
A sub-19 second first lap is part of the grand Beijing plan. Coach Barras says that Meares is in 'a league of her own'. "A sub-19 would put her in with the men." While training with the men and getting her more familiar with the sprint along with planting the seeds of doubt in her competitors minds are all part of Barras' plan in preparation for Beijing, his secret ingredient, and don't tell the Chinese, is... Nutella.