28 Apr 2020

Sometimes the end of the race is only the beginning | Anna Meares OAM

A quote by Anna Meares

Anna Meares is the only Australian to win a medal in an individual event at four Olympic Games. She was Australia’s flag bearer at the Rio Olympics. But Anna’s life since Rio has not been easy, as she struggled to come to terms with retirement, a divorce, the death of her much loved coach Gary West, and the realisation that, for all her greatness, the world of elite cycling was carrying on without her. In her new book, Anna Meares: Now, Anna describes the impact all this loss had on her, as she found herself feeling despondent and alone, and questioning if all she’d achieved was truly worth it.

‘There were times when going to sleep was the hardest part of my entire day,’ she writes. ‘I just wanted to stay asleep, if I ever got there.’

Happily, Anna was able to turn her life around. She is in a new relationship and recently gave birth to a daughter, Evelyn. In this exclusive extract, she recalls the depths of her despair after she retired and when things started to improve …

PEOPLE IN MY INNER CIRCLE liked that I wanted to stop and smell the roses, but whenever I stepped out of that circle I couldn’t handle the curiosity of others about where my life was heading, because I couldn’t give them an answer. I struggled engaging publicly with people I didn’t know well, even though that’s where my work choices were taking me. Once I joined the public-speaking circuit, I would leave home, get on a plane, fly to another city, check into a hotel and look at the clock until it was time to go to my speaking engagement. Then I’d go back to the hotel. I hated it. People wanted to hear me speak, but I was constantly resisting work. I hated that I was back travelling, living out of a suitcase. Isolation was the hardest thing, but it was also something I craved, and I found myself becoming more confused. I had no idea what I wanted or where I wanted to be. I learned that you can be around a lot of people and still feel alone, and that being around a lot of people can make you want to be alone. I noticed during this time that I couldn’t look people in the eye; instead, I would instead look at their lips. I struggled to be truly present in conversations; I was listening to what was being said, but none of it was sinking in.

At the worst of times, I became awfully low, but eventually I came to comprehend and accept what was happening. Now, I can absolutely see why elite athletes struggle with their transitions away from sport, and can understand that the same might easily be true for anyone going through a significant life change. When you’re in top-level sport you are part of a big world that runs like clockwork, where there are lots of people who provide loads of support, adulation and attention and the highs are incredibly high. Like really high. But when you step out of that, you enter the world of life, which is far bigger than the sporting world but it contains far fewer people who will manage and support you in the manner you have become used to, because you no longer have a direct impact on outcomes or results or the budget bottom line. This is not a criticism of anyone, just the reality. At a time when I was trying to recalibrate what the hell was normal, what my relevance and identity were in a life without sport, without cycling, the kicker for me was having to watch my sport, my former world, carry on without me without even blinking. I felt as if I’d dedicated 24 years of my life to the bike and this team, and was unsure if I even mattered, because it didn’t even blip when I left.

That cycling was going on without me was punishing for my ego, and I found myself ever more clinging to my close friends and family. Whomever I called, whenever I called, someone Anna Meares always picked up. I rang Dad a lot and often in tears. If Mum answered, and she heard my sobs, she would start to tear up instantly and say, ‘Hang on Bubs, I’ll get father for you.’ Doesn’t matter how old I get, I’m still Bubs to them.
There were a few times when Dad would say, ‘Okay Bubs, calm down, I can’t understand anything you’re saying if you’re crying.’

I had to spend so much time on my physical, mental and emotional health that I felt like I was drowning. I know now there are five things that can tip people and in the space of two years I experienced four of them. I was so overwhelmed, I could barely cope and I became ever more emotional, until I reached that point where I just couldn’t sleep. And when you don’t sleep, you don’t process things emotionally, you don’t recover. I could keep busy and distracted most of the day, but come night-time I was alone and it was so quiet. So very quiet. My mind would begin to tick and tick until I couldn’t get it to stop ticking, and there were a lot of nights when my family and friends would leave their phones on loud so I could call and talk to them or just cry until I fell asleep. Peace was so hard to find.

It was my sister Kerrie who encouraged me to seek medical advice. Kerrie offered so much help to me during my transition; she made me realise that it’s okay to ask for help, even if it was just to get some rest and routine back in my life. My doctor decided to put me on an anti-depressant medication that is also used to aid sleep when medical intervention is required. I started in very low doses and increased weekly, always guided by my doctor, for I was wary — I only ever took enough to help me sleep consistently and it helped profoundly. I had been falling asleep at 2am or 3am and then waking three or four hours later, but now I was getting 10 to 12 hours a night. I stayed on that medication for six months, until I felt ready to reduce the dose and eventually come off it completely because I was able to fall asleep on my own. The biggest change once I came off the medication was that I began to dream again. I woke one morning so surprised that I had been dreaming that I couldn’t remember the last time that had happened. It had been years.

A BIG TURNING POINT for me was Gary’s death. The finality of a person’s life can rattle one’s perspective and losing Gary at the age of 57 in August 2017, after such a short fight with MND, certainly did that to me. It really hit home how short life can be and how quickly things can change, for better or worse. I was in contact with Gary daily via text message after Rio, because he could no longer speak, and even though he was ill, in some ways I think he liked helping me because it distracted him from his challenges. But when two days went by and I hadn’t heard anything, I began to worry. His wife Debbie told me he was in hospice after taking a turn for the worst, and although I never got another message from him, I got to say goodbye.

Speaking at Gary’s funeral was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, but it was also the moment that reconnected me with my sport and the people within the Australian track cycling team.

After that, I became more social and eventually connected with my partner Nick Flyger, a sports scientist with the team for the last 10 years. Nick and I had worked together during my career, but we had never been more than work colleagues. I didn’t even know he was from Nelson in New Zealand, the same hometown as my father, such was how little I knew of him personally. Now I had someone to go out and do things with.

Nick brought kindness, care and compassion to my life when I needed it most and he didn’t judge me. These qualities have always been there in my friends and family, but sometimes it takes someone new in your life to offer them in a different way for you to truly see their importance. Nick brought stability and empathy to my life, which I had lost the ability to give to myself.

It was only after Gary’s death that I began to fully realise that so many people had been there for me through my struggles. Francine’s friendship was huge. There wasn’t a day when she wasn’t checking in either with a phone call, an email or text message. She was paramount. She was at the London Olympics with me in 2012, there when Mark left, there in Rio, there when I retired, there when Gary died, there when I needed a hug or even a home-cooked meal. She was there through it all.

I spent time with family anywhere I could, time in Japan with my close friends there, and time with other friends in Adelaide. Rita Princi‑Hubbard, my psychologist since May 2015, played a very significant role for me. I learnt so much from working with her. The biggest light-bulb moment came one day in her office in Unley, just outside of the Adelaide CBD, when she was sitting in her chair at her desk and I was on a couch, and she asked me a difficult but very pointed question:
Anna, if you could get dressed in your favourite outfit, do your hair and make-up, get yourself feeling confident and strong, and you could go back to your childhood home in Middlemount, in Central Queensland, knock on the door and the 11-year-old version of you answered the door, what would you say to her?

I didn’t know how to answer. As I contemplated a response, I became so overcome with my emotions that I could feel tears welling up in my eyes. In that moment, I realised how judgmental and critical I had been of myself not just for two years but for two decades. When Rita got me to travel back in time to meet my 11-year-old self, all I could picture was me getting down on my knees and hugging that little girl at the door and saying, ‘Thank you.’ I knew what little Anna was about to go through, and that because she would go through all of it and she would never give up, she would become me, the woman I am today. I hadn’t been able to say that or see that in myself for my entire adult life.

Nowadays, I carry an image of that 11-year-old girl with me wherever I go. When I am harsh, when I am critical, when I question myself, I remember that front-door meeting and it provides a lot of perspective. I am now kinder to myself. In November 2018, I was inducted into the South Australian Sport Hall of Fame and the last question the master of ceremonies asked me was: ‘I’m sure there are people you want to thank.’

After acknowledging my coaches and teammates, my family and friends, I thanked my 11-year-old self and explained why. The audience probably thought nothing of it, but to me that was a major turning point in my road back to happiness.

In retirement, there have been highly significant days such as ‘R U OK Day’ that would come up, and a lot of people would check in with me because they knew I had been struggling, particularly after the tragic deaths of fellow cyclists Stephen Wooldridge in 2017 and Jonathan Cantwell a year later. The problem I found with people reaching out in this way was that many wanted to offer genuine support but felt uncomfortable talking deeply about the subject of mental health. Why didn’t I talk to them about my struggles? Why didn’t I use my public profile to draw attention to such issues? Simply because until now I wasn’t able to bring more people into that conversation.
I wonder if that’s how others feel when they are struggling? What I have learnt through my experience is that, when you are down, you just don’t realise how many people out there really care.

I READ A QUOTE from German cyclist Kristina Vogel, who shares the record with me for most world track titles won by a female. Kristina won gold in the team sprint in London and the individual sprint in Rio, but then became a paraplegic in a training accident in 2018, after which she said, ‘Isn’t it a shame that it takes something like this for you to realise or hear just how many people care.’

I realise now that there is a lot of support for athletes when they retire, but they have to want the help as well. Foolishly, perhaps, I decided I didn’t in the days and months after my last race. There were several programs offering support from the Australian Institute of Sport, the Australian Olympic Committee, Cycling Australia and others, but I politely declined. I should have at least seen what these programs are about. But such was my mindset, I didn’t want to be part of any program anymore; I wanted to find my own way, make my own decisions. But you can still do all of that while accepting the help that is out there. Accepting support can help a retiring athlete form a bigger picture of where he or she is at and what options are available.

Funnily enough, for me it was the public speaking, which I started out hating, that helped me find my way. It was therapeutic to force myself to try to understand what I had been through and why I’d gone through it, and liberating to discover that while I don’t have all the answers there is still much to be gained by trying to articulate that to others. Had I not stuck with public speaking, as hard as it was early on, I don’t think I would be in the place I am now. At the very least, it would have taken me a lot longer to get here.

I didn’t go to the velodrome much, if at all, for many months after retiring. I’d been there nearly every day for a decade and that was enough. But I did venture there during the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, which was helpful and extremely difficult at the same time. It was the anticipation of being in that environment — of being around the cycling team but not part of it, of being in the stands and not on the track for the first time in 20 years — that I found uncomfortable. But once I got there and filled a commentary role for the host broadcaster, Channel 7, it reaffirmed in my mind that I was done with the sport and had made the right decision to retire. Every night, at the velodrome that had my name on it, I sat with Kerrie in the stands and it was incredible. Kerrie, of course, had been a top-class cyclist herself, a gold medallist in the sprint and the 500-metres time trial at the 2002 Commonwealth Games. We reminisced and laughed at some of the stuff we did or survived being put through, and for the first time there was no stress or pressure in that environment. I could have a glass of wine, I could heckle the Poms, and I got a big energy lift out of the experience.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t difficult moments. I could see my teammates facing significant challenges, such as when Matt Glaetzer was ousted in the first round of the men’s sprint. I felt Matty’s pain in so many ways and wanted to help, but I knew I wasn’t ready and that those in the team now had to work out their own rhythm without me. But there was one moment when I just couldn’t help myself. It involved a 19-year-old Canadian rider named Lauriane Genest, who finished fourth in the women’s sprint. After the event, Kerrie and I noticed Lauriane was crying in the pits. I remembered I was 18 when I finished fourth in the time trial at my first Commonwealth Games in Manchester in 2002. I felt I knew exactly what she was feeling.

I went to her coach Franck Durivaux and asked, ‘Do you mind if I go and talk to Lauriane?’ ‘Yes, please do,’ he said. I walked over, tapped her on the shoulder and said, ‘Hi, I’m Anna.’ She was red faced and still had teary eyes, and she said, ‘I know who you are.’ And I just said to her, ‘I see myself so much in you in this moment. Please don’t cry, you have so much good ahead of you.’ Slowly, I got Lauriane to talk with me and laugh a little bit and we’ve kept in touch ever since. She sends me video files of her races, I study them and give her my feedback, and identify what mistakes she’s made or what she’s doing really well. She asks me questions about everything from tactical execution to teammates to challenges with being a woman in sport. It didn’t take me long to see that if she gets the right support behind her, she could do anything. I could also see a bit of mongrel and fight in her, and how hard she was on herself, which can be both a driving force and a burden. That was me, 16 years earlier.

Anna Meares: Now is published by Stoke Hill Press and is available at https://www.stokehillpress.com/, online and instore, wherever good books are sold.

Find out more about Anna here

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