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.
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.
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.
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.
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.