London Calling Meares’ name

Cycling, Sport — By on June 7, 2012 9:00 AM

 By MATTHEW DORAN

Photo: The Age

Instead of worrying about the next lap around the velodrome Anna Meares, Australia’s Queen of the track, prepares for the biggest event of her career by taking the time to pamper herself and forget about the world.

“Before a race, I paint my nails! It takes the time to help me focus and stop thinking about the race ahead,” Anna said.

“At the track, I listen to music with powerful attitude and meaning in their lyrics, I don’t need amping up before a race at the Olympics.”

With artists such as the Foo Fighters, Pink and Garth Brooks on her playlist, Anna looks for music to get her in the zone.

“My heart beat is racing, my nerves are there but under control, so I opt for music that’s going to get my mind into a place of fierce attitude and preparedness for confrontation,” Anna said.

“In our sport, that’s what it feels like when you roll out on to the velodrome to go head-to- head against one other opponent in front of over 6000 people.

“I need to be in the mind set of, ‘Mate, this is my track, what do you think you are doing here?’”

This sense of ownership over the track has lead Anna to numerous world titles, world records and Olympic medals.

Even though Anna’s trophy cabinet is full, it was her efforts at the 2008 Beijing Olympics that cemented her place in the hearts and minds of Australians.

Anna came off her bike during a World Cup meet, just seven months out from the Olympics.

The accident not only threatened her career, but also her ability to walk, it remains the moment that most people remember her for.

“I still get the comment, ‘ah you’re the girl who broke her neck.’ I have won countless titles and awards but that one sticks in people’s minds the most,” Anna said.

“I felt the country get behind me, I certainly felt my family, team mates, coaching staff and sponsors get behind me.

“My house was like a florist I had so many flowers delivered on a daily basis with letters and notes of encouragement.”

Anna was back on her bike just two weeks after the accident in Los Angeles, where she broke her neck and came close to becoming a quadriplegic.

It was her determination that pushed her to gain a spot on the cycling team for Beijing and go on to win a silver medal.

“It’s a simple desire to want it, you don’t realise what you have until it’s taken from you,” Anna said.

The realisation that her efforts at the 2008 Olympics had made front-page news at home came as a surprise – such is the secluded life of a top athlete at the Olympics..

“I didn’t realise how much my story would hit the hearts of Australians until I returned from the games,” Anna said.

“At the games, you don’t know, feel or realise what the response is to your performance until you get home.

“You begin to understand the extent of the media coverage and that newspaper stories about you have gone to every house and how, on a broken down level, your experience was relatable to so many Aussies.

“I seriously thought that my silver medal wouldn’t get much air time in such a successful Olympic team.”

The competitive streak that got her to Beijing was fostered as an 11-year-old, when she followed older sister Kerrie into cycling after watching Kathy Watt compete for Australia at the 1994 Commonwealth Games.

Whilst she enjoyed cycling straight away, Anna says it wasn’t until she was in her mid-teens that her skills started to shine through.

Having her older sister on the track added the element of sibling rivalry, and created the athlete she is today.

“We were always competitive at everything, but to start with she [Kerrie] had all bases covered in cycling,” Anna said.

“She became a shield or umbrella for me from expectation and media and interest.

“I could happily plod along well under the radar and enjoy my sport, where Kerrie had all the hype and expectation from the get go.”

For Anna, the London Olympics present a new challenge in terms of physical preparation. This time around she has three events to prepare for – the team sprint, individual sprint and keirin.

Anna competed in only one event in Beijing and two in Athens.

“Physical preparations are different because in our sport, time and age play a crucial role in development of strength and power – components that cannot be rushed,” Anna said.

“The level I train at is higher, what I am required to lift in the gym is heavier and the gears I ride on my bike are bigger to complement this progression.”

At the 2004 Athens Olympics, Anna won the gold medal and broke the world record in the women’s 500 metre time trial.

It was this win on the world’s largest stage that forced the cycling community to sit up and take notice of the girl from central Queensland.

“In Athens, I was 20 years old and relatively unheard of,” Anna said.

 Even though I was the world champion that year, many of the experts felt the favourites had saved themselves for the Games, I was not a favourite.

“This [Olympics] being older, more experienced and more successful, I’m going into my third games as a favourite.

“It is still as exciting, but I am prepared for what’s to come; the hype, the excitement, the pressure.”

In the lead up to these Olympics, mental preparation is more important than ever.

Anna has also won five world titles in the last two years, and is the world record holder over the 200m, standing 250m and 500m.

“It is a different ball game to mentally prepare for,” Anna said.

“There are so many facets which make up preparation for an Olympics that you can’t afford to leave any stone unturned, because at this level you can bet your bottom dollar that if you don’t, someone else will and it could be that one per cent that wins or loses a race for you.”

Whilst getting to the Olympics is an achievement in itself, rest assured that star athletes like Anna don’t do it alone.

As well as her coach Gary West, her husband Mark and her family, a small army makes up ‘Team Meares’, responsible for getting Anna on the road to gold.

They include assistant coaches, strength and conditioning coaches, sports psychologists, nutritionists, doctors, sports scientists, massage therapists, equipment providers and sponsors.

Anna said that while the environment at the Olympics can be overwhelming, the trick is to remember that the race itself is something which she has done time and time again.

“The Olympics is like no other race or competition in the world in terms of hype, pressure, the aura, it is the grandest stage of them all. Yet the race you ride is no different from that you race every time you get on the bike,” Anna said.

“So if you can acknowledge the Olympics and respect them for what they are, but not allow it to overwhelm you, then you will do well. It’s a stage that, on so many occasions, has seen athletes break and not perform to the usual standard – but it has also seen athletes perform out of their skin.

“In my view there is no ‘in-between’ at the games.”

The fight for ownership of the track will come to a head when the Australian cycling team comes up against the home team at the Olympic Games.

Much has been made of the amount of money and resources that the British have invested into their cycling program in recent years, but Anna doesn’t see this as extra incentive to assert Australia’s dominance.

“It’s not personal between Australia and Great Britain, but the history of rivalry between the two nations makes it hard to get away from this point of view,” Anna said.

“Yes, the British have invested a lot of money into their cycling programs, but I don’t know any different from what I experience.

“The funding we are receiving is at its highest, and I feel I have a wonderful team of staff who are dedicated and proactive in seeing a positive outcome in London.

“I wouldn’t know what it is like to have the level of funding British Cycling has, so I don’t think it has an influence on me.”

The rivalry between the two nations is personified in the highly anticipated women’s sprint, where Anna will face off against Victoria Pendleton of Great Britain.

However with all the talk about their rivalry, Anna said the reality doesn’t make for much of a headline.

“We pretty much keep to ourselves and to be honest, our paths don’t cross much at all when we are not at the track,” Anna said.

While Anna may not see much of her fiercest opponent, she does enjoy the sense of community that is fostered in the Athlete’s Village.

“It’s an environment you can feel star struck when you run into really famous athletes, but once everyone is settled in and gets comfortable with the surroundings and gets into the business of competition, things get back to a level of being normal,” Anna said.

As Anna rolls out on to the track in London with her freshly painted nails, the music in her mind will be building to a crescendo timed for the finishing line and Olympic glory.

 

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