The picture on the top left hand side literally stopped me in my tracks when it popped up as my Facebook ‘memory’ from 7 years ago.
I have shown friends and family this picture to simply show them how small my biceps were, and how little ass I had before I started specific weight training.
Apart from the superficial stuff, this photo left me breathless for a far greater number of deeper reasons.
In this photo I was 18 years old and was up on the Gold Coast with my sister for schoolies (yes, I did go to schoolies). On paper I had finished up what was a pretty great year for a first year senior rider – having been selected in the Australian National team to race in New Zealand (photo bottom left) and then later that year to represent Australia in the biggest women’s race at the time on the calendar: The Giro Donne, a 9 day stage race in Italy.
I finished the year off with a promising career as a cyclist and went on to travel the world and race for another 4 more years before finally deciding to throw in the towel after my first year on a professional contract in 2012.
To many people I threw in the towel because of injury, because I didn’t want it badly enough, because I wasn’t good enough, because I didn’t agree with the culture of my team at the time and because I wanted to take a year off…
And while all of those reasons are true, there is another fundamental reason I hung up the bike – I hung up my bike because I rode my bike because it made me skinny. Cycling made me fit in to size 6 clothing comfortably just like the models in the magazines, and that made me feel good about myself.
Back in the day I was a keen soccer player and I got in to cycling originally because I apparently needed to lose weight to perform better on the soccer field. I started adding regular rides in to my training schedule and to cut a long story short, ended up in a local cycling race. I came 3rd (I think!) in my first junior criterium race against the boys. My cycling snowballed from there and it got to the stage where I had to choose between cycling and soccer – and much do my father’s delight, cycling won.
I wasn’t a natural cyclist by any stretch of the imagination – I was successful because I worked my ass off and was prepared to put the time and effort in to working on my weaknesses and improving my skills with the help of my fantastic coaches.
After being rejected a number of times by ACTAS for a spot in the ACT team, it was a performance as my last year as a junior rider at the Australian National Junior Titles in Queensland that put my name on the map and landed me a trip as part of an Australian team to race in the USA.
From there I got selected as part of a 6 week training camp at the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) which I believe is ultimately where my addiction to becoming skinny began.
Every day as part of the study we had to weigh ourselves. Every morning we would roll out of bed in the altitude house and head down to the lab where we would jump on a set of scales before getting a variety of blood tests done then getting started with our day.
I distinctively remember a particular coach telling me prior to this camp that what my strength was as a rider was my power to weight ratio (ie. I could put out a lot of power given how little I weighed) and so every morning as I jumped on those scales I would say to myself – if you get that number lower, you will be a better cyclist.
If I could get that number lower, I would be a success.
Every day that that number didn’t go lower, I felt like I had failed. I would let it dictate my mood, and what I would ‘allow’ myself to eat that day. This continued for 6 weeks , over which I lost approx. 5 kilos and weighed around 45-46kg.
Following the camp, I found my addiction continued.
It got to a point where it affected my selection in to the ACT Academy of Sport at the end of the year because they were concerned for my health.
With the support of the Academy and my loving coach, I eventually got assistance from a dietician who helped me to essentially put on weight, and fuel my body for performance.
Cycling was killing me slowly… But it was also the thing that would help me recover. Even though I wanted to be a successful cyclist only slightly more than I wanted to be skinny, that ‘slightly more’ was what actually enabled me to slowly work my way back to health. If I hadn’t wanted to be a successful cyclist and therefore willing to receive the help that I did back then, I would be sharing with you a very different story.
Over the next year, I took myself to Holland and Belgium where I raced as part of a club team. The racing scene over there was rough and after haven been given what seemed like a baptism of fire to the hard, fast scene of the Classics and kermesse racing styles. Multiple crashes, illnesses (turns out I’m pretty much allergic to Holland) and bad luck – I ended up finding comfort in food, and ended up putting on 10kgs by the time I finished the season.
I distinctively remember coming home to my family saying ‘what happened to you’. The looks from my friends and cycling competitors said everything. I was no longer an athlete – just some fat wannabe cyclist.
It was at that moment where the battle began again. I now knew that if I wanted to get back to being anywhere near as competitive as I was, I had to lose weight again.
It took nearly 6 months, but I did it and I was stronger than ever. My increased strength went on to earn me my first professional contract at the end of 2011 for the 2012 season with an Italian team. I based myself in my parents apartment on Lake Como for the season and all I had to do was train, eat, sleep and recover so that I could be in as best condition as I could to race. Life was pretty sweet.
I spent most of my time on the road and raced across the country, and the World, essentially monthly. I remember being in a race in America early on in the season and someone on my team telling me that if I wanted to be selected in the Giro Donne mid-year, I would need to lose weight. I could do this quickly by drinking a litre of water every morning before eating any food. I would also only need to eat 3 meals a day.
And so I did it. I lost more weight, and I was off to the Giro Donne for the 2nd time in my career. These two may not have been directly correlated, but in my head they definitely were. Before I knew it, being ‘skinny’ became my top priority and my only focus once again.
I honestly believe it was during the Giro that I came to realise that while I loved the sport, I didn’t love it enough to endure the pain that I would have to go through to be competitive at the pointy end of a race.
I started thinking about what would happened if I crashed, I battled a number of chronic injuries and all I could think about when I was off the bike was food. I distinctively remember watching a girl go down hard in a crash as we were descending and thinking ‘if that were me, and I was seriously injured, would I be ok with that?’
And the answer was no.
I wasn’t competing in the sport because I loved it enough to risk my life for.
Don’t get me wrong – I love the sport of cycling. I love the people I have met through it, I am grateful for all of the opportunities it has given me and I will be forever thankful for it making me the person I am today. I am only 25 however I feel that despite my age, I have already accomplished and experienced so much.
I haven’t touched the bike more than 3 times in the last 2 years and that isn’t because I haven’t wanted to. I look at my bike sitting on my balcony each morning and say ‘I want to ride again’. The one thing that is stopping me is the fear that all of the pain I experienced will come flooding back. The biggest fear is that I won’t feel fit and strong, and that I won’t be able to fit in to my cycling clothes again. It sounds silly, I know.
One day I will be able to find joy in riding my bike again – I will be able to put aside my fear and remember all of the wonderful things I loved about getting around on two wheels. Maybe not tomorrow, but some day.
While this photo provided me with a very confronting trip down memory lane, it also provided me with a very valuable reflection.
It feels good to realise that I no longer exercise with the specific purpose of being ‘skinny’ – I have grown to accept that if I am doing the training I enjoy, and that I am feeding myself foods that will nourish my body and soul, then I need to learn to be happy with what my body looks like. Whatever that is.
I am embracing my biceps which have only come in to existence over the past 2 years, and the strength that they bring along with them. I love the community that I train in, and I love having more important things to think about than how many calories are in an apple.
In life you will choose to do things for a multitude of reasons – as 2016 draws near, I invite you to look back on your motivations for doing what you’re doing today… And to see if perhaps there are behaviours or things you do in your life which you would do best by giving up in 2016 in exchange for positive ones which will bring you a greater sense of happiness and fulfilment for 2016.
I can’t tell you it will be easy, but I can tell you that it will be worth it.