lifestyle

Proof that it takes 20 years to make an 'overnight success.'

Rebecca Wiasak is one of Australia’s best road cyclists. She’s the current world champion in track cycling. Many people have called Wiasak an ‘overnight’ success after she seemingly came out of nowhere. But in this column she explains why that’s very much not the case.

It’s been suggested that I’m an overnight sensation. I won a World Championship, on debut, at age 30. I can see how some people could be mistaken for thinking that I came out of nowhere. I have never even won an Australian Championship.

I’ve had an unconventional path to becoming a World Champion. I lived my life in reverse – getting an education, starting my career, and then becoming an elite athlete. I was never a teen prodigy. I have always dreamed of going to the Olympic Games and had some success as a young runner, but I had to be sensible – and realistic.

On the podium for the AIS. Photo Credit: Cycling Australia / Andy Jones cycling.org.

When I moved to Canberra in 2003 to study a double degree in Sports Media and Law, I walked into the office of renowned middle distance coach Dick Telford at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in Bruce and asked to join his squad. Most of the runners were development athletes on full scholarships who had competed at the World Junior Championships and some were already Olympians. I had grown up in Geelong and began Little Athletics in under-12s. I won my first and only state title in athletics in the under-20 800m. I had also made the final at the 2000 Pacific School Games in Sydney in the 800m. I didn’t belong, or deserve, to train with the AIS squad. But I was welcomed and treated like any of the athletes.

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Telford has since told me that he had said cycling was likely to be my best sport. I often wonder if my progression would have been accelerated if I had begun cycling sooner. I rode my bike to school or with my brother to athletics training – 3km and 4km respectively. But that was just commuting, and I loved to run. I ran everywhere, including between classrooms because it was faster than walking.

David Telford. Image supplied.

Part-way through the final year of my Sports Media degree, I did an internship at The Canberra Times newspaper and was offered a cadetship. I was studying a double degree and working full-time. By the time I graduated with my first degree I realised that I wouldn’t need a second, and ditched the Law degree. This didn’t free up enough time to be an athlete and I was struggling to meet deadlines and would often be late to training, or miss training sessions entirely. Working as a sports journalist I had to work weekends and could no longer compete. I lost fitness and put on weight. I was writing about athletes achieving their dreams, when I desperately longed for that to be me. I got a thrill out of seeing my byline in print, or getting the back page lead. But secretly I wanted to be making the headlines myself.

A suit and sports gear together. Photo Credit: Cycling Australia / Andy Jones cycling.org.

It was when I was reporting on the ACT Academy of Sport (ACTAS) members ahead of the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne that I reignited my desire to be an elite athlete. My best friend Lisa Corrigan had been selected in the Australian team. I was so proud and happy for her, but that had been my dream too. I had achieved my career goal, but it was difficult to watch other people live out my own dreams.

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The Melbourne Cricket Ground was prepared for the Commonwealth Games track and field event and there was an opportunity to run on it in a test event. I had done a little bit of training and joined my old athletics club to compete in the 800m at the Victorian Championships. I was still overweight and very slow.

Later that year I moved into public relations for a short period, before ditching my demanding office job to become the Store Manager at The Runners Shop in Phillip. I had competed in a few novice triathlons which I loved and convinced Olympic triathlon coach Ben Gathercole to let me train with his squad.

In February 2008, I started with some bike sessions as he believed it would be an area he could help me with quickly. We had three structured bike sessions a week and I saw improvement. Within a year it had become my strongest leg of the triathlon.

Deep concentration. Photo Credit: Cycling Australia / Andy Jones cycling.org.

I have always believed that I had the ability to be an elite athlete, but have lacked the confidence. Or perhaps I had the confidence, but didn’t always believe it. Either way, my triathlon coach Ben Gathercole reluctantly let me transition to cycling in May 2010. I met with the National Talent Identification and Development (NTID) coach from ACTAS, John Forrest. He banned me from running. He had seen other talented runners switch to cycling, but refuse to stop running. He thought I would be the same. I was put on a ‘trial’ before I was offered a three-month ‘probation’ in the NTID program. That became a full ACTAS scholarship the following year and they have supported me since.

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I have had a rapid rise since switching sports. I feel like a cliché. I have shown what is possible with hard-work, dedication, hunger and passion. I won a World Championship, on debut, at age 30. I was the oldest debutant, had been a cyclist for less than five years and was on the track for only three. My first race was the Individual Pursuit at the New South Wales Championships. It reminded me a lot of track running. It was a timed event, doing laps of a track, and it lasted three minutes 42.807 seconds, which falls between my best times for the 800m and 1500m running events.

So speedy. Photo Credit: Cycling Australia / Andy Jones cycling.org.

In November 2012 I was invited to my first training camp with the Australian Track Endurance Squad in Adelaide. Two months later I represented Australia for the first time at a Track World Cup in Aguascalientes in Mexico. I won a bronze medal in the Individual Pursuit and set a new personal best time. In the 2013/14 season I was the overall World Cup series winner in the Individual Pursuit after winning silver in Round I in Manchester, and then gold in Round II in Aguascalientes, improving my best time. I had made incremental improvements and at the bottom of a note I’d been tracking with were the Australian and World Records. The Australian Record was 3 minutes 27.650 seconds set by Katie Mactier at the 2004 Olympic Games.

At the UCI Track Cycling World Championships in France on 20 February 2015 I set a new Australian Record – 3 minutes 27.018 seconds. Now there is only one time in that note on my phone that I still need to erase.

This post has been simultaneously published on www.yabba.guru, a new Australian sports website which gives equal weight to coverage of men’s and women’s sport. For more coverage across netball, cricket, soccer, hockey, softball, athletics and more check out Yabba.Guru.

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