With a 15 year career spanning four consecutive Olympics over which she collected 18 gold medals, 16 silver and 10 bronze at World, Commonwealth and Olympic levels, it is little wonder Anna Meares OAM is considered one of the sporting worlds’ greatest competitors. That she began her journey to greatness in Queensland’s mining town of Middlemount (population 1,194) is proof that no dream is too big and no town too small as a starting point for success.
Anna’s dream began with a little white bike, “I was 4 or 5 years of age. I remember it very clearly…..with training wheels, a flower basket off the front handle bars, spokey dokes, streamers out the handle bars and an orange flag out the back.” Anna later swapped that bike for a BMX racing pit bike, “I was so happy,” she recalls.
A key turning point, however was the 1994 Commonwealth Games. She was eleven years old alongside her sister Kerrie watching Australian cyclists win sweeping victories, including Kathy Watt and her idol Shane Kelly. Reflecting back on that time, Anna admits she probably didn’t appreciate how big a task even attaining Shane’s level of success would be, “Did I completely understand what I was committing to at eleven years of age? NO. But I knew I committed to my parents because they gave a lot for us to participate and we committed to each other…Having grown up in the country and having a start in BMX with my sibling, cycling was a natural fit and interest for my sister Kerrie and I who started by just riding laps around town…I also remember this was an age where I started to understand and identify as an Australian, and the passion that sport could instil.”
By the time Anna was 13, her parents, who had been shuttling her and sister Kerrie 300kms from Middlemount to the nearest cycling track in Mackay went “all in” moving to Rockhampton to be closer to the track and where they would accelerate their training program. For Anna, making this level of commitment seemed natural to her, “My parents always taught us to work hard and you get rewarded. They never pressured us and only ever asked our best in training and racing as they did for school etc. What they saw was that we each had talent in this sport and their goal was to give their kids opportunity...”
By the time the 2004 Athens Olympics came around, Anna was ready to make history becoming the youngest Australian track cyclist to win gold and the first Australian female track cyclist to do so. She set a new Olympic and World Record in the Women’s 500 metre time trial of 33.952 seconds before winning a bronze medal in the Women’s Sprint.
With the tailwinds of success behind her, Anna began to turn her sites to the 2008 Olympics when disaster struck. Competing at the Los Angeles World Cup, Anna was thrown from her bike in a collision with other riders and sustained a hairline fracture to her C2 vertebrae, among other similarly serious injuries. With the Beijing Olympics only months away, the setback was significant with the possibility that she would never ride again.
Ten days later, however, Anna was back on the bike. Speaking about what helped her recover, Anna explained, “My training leading into my fall meant I was strong. That was the characteristic of being a track sprinter. Having muscle and strength helped me immensely in the fall and the recovery. Mentally getting back on the bike 10 days later was no challenge at all because I simply wanted to do it. It came 10 days too late for me. The hard part mentally was learning what I was now incapable of and slowing my standard down to where I was at and dealing with reality of the situation. I learnt a great deal in this time.”
At the Beijing Olympics, Anna was the only Australian cyclist to take home a medal, winning silver in the Women’s Individual Sprint. Aged 23, Anna turned her focus to the London Olympics. With a three year plan and now aged 27, Anna was able to turn years of training and experience competing at an elite level to outmanoeuvre the competition and win gold in the individual sprint as well as bronze in the team sprint.
In the lead up to the Rio Olympics there was a surreal moment for Anna as she was interviewed by childhood idol Shane Kelly, “I always see Shane Kelly as my idol. I remember getting his autograph when I joined the team, I still have it. He signed 4 x world champion and I walked away in awe, hoping that I could just win one. I am thankful for people like Shane because without them, what would we strive for or believe in.”
In Mexico in 2013, Anna broke further the 500m World Record, becoming the first woman to ride sub 33 seconds for the distance after 10 years earlier at her first Olympics becoming the first woman in the world to ride sub 34 seconds for the event. In 2015 she won another world title taking her career total to 11 World Championship crowns making her the most successful and decorated female track cyclist in history.
Looking back on Anna’s successes post Beijing, you might think Anna has had a dream run, but as she points out in elite sports, setbacks come with the territory, “There are always setbacks. I have lost more races than I have won, yet I have won more than anyone else in the world. I and everyone else will spend more time failing or facing adversity then you will succeeding and often no one sees the challenges, they just see the success which is why they can be lulled into thinking it looks easy or happens easy. It does not.”
Speaking about how she sustained success into maturity, Anna points out that age has its challenges and benefits, “Age brings a few challenges, particularly in an industry where your body is your tool, is the injuries and niggles. It gets harder to gain improvements and aches and pains increase, so you have to pay much more attention to the finer details. However with age comes experience, and it was with age that I got to have the most fun with my racing.”
Indeed, as she points out, age can be a real advantage, “Lori-Ann Munzeur won gold in Athens on the velodrome in the individual sprint, she was 38 years old. Like anything knowledge helps you to make smart choices. When used the right way this should definitely help.”
Reflecting on her success, and the many people who helped her on her journey, Anna reminds us the importance of inner strength, “….from family to coaches, to team mates, my manager, sponsors… but the main person, in hindsight, is me. It’s easy to overlook yourself.”
Now retired from cycling, Anna faces a new challenge which is transitioning to a new career, “To be honest, I am still in the transition. It is very difficult and takes time. Time frame that has no end point.”
Anna Meares is speaking at our annual Christmas Lunch in Sydney on Friday 30 November. To secure your ticket, click here.