Mention of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics brings back painful memories for both Annette Edmondson and Rebecca Wiasak, although in very different ways.
For Edmondson, the trip to Brazil with her women’s team pursuit colleagues was supposed to be the pinnacle of a remarkable four years. Since securing bronze at the 2012 Olympics as a 20-year-old, Edmondson had become a star of the Australian track cycling program with success at the Commonwealth Games, world championships and also on the road. Rio was to be her crowning glory.
Just prior to the Olympics, Wiasak’s ambitions of triumph alongside Edmondson were crushed. The two-time individual pursuit world champion was the final rider cut from the team, and – unlike every other unit within the overall squad – coach Gary Sutton elected not to take a travelling reserve.
As the Wiasak-less quintet trained on the Velódromo Municipal do Rio days before qualifying began, disaster struck. A touch of wheels saw Melissa Hoskins, Ashlee Ankudinoff, Amy Cure and Georgia Baker fall badly, with Hoskins taken to hospital. Only Edmondson escaped unharmed.
“I woke up to messages from journalists asking me if I was going to be flown to Rio,” Wiasak tells Cycling Central at a hipster coffee shop in Adelaide, where the national team is based.
“My first concern was for my team-mates – I had been with them every second of every day for so many months prior to the Games, and then nothing. I did not know whether they were okay. And then obviously I wanted to be in Rio to assist the girls on the track.”
While there were no significant injuries and the team put on a collective brave face, their performance during competition made it clear that the crash was having an impact. Despite qualifying third, the team ultimately placed fifth – well short of expectations.
“It was pretty hard to deal with,” recalls Edmondson. “Going in as world record holders, we really thought we were a chance for gold. Then we had the crash and that threw a spanner in the works. We tried to move on but it impacted the team more than expected.”
While Wiasak acknowledges that her travelling as a reserve (as Kaarle McCulloch, Jacob Schmid, Miles Scotson did for the other sub-teams) might not have made any difference – ‘I could have come down in that same training incident” – the situation compounded the psychological blow of non-selection.
“It was pretty devastating,” she admits. “Our squad had the ability to take a reserve, but we didn’t. That was what I struggled with the most.
“My dad had a great analogy: ‘If you are driving from Melbourne Sydney you might just take one spare tyre. But if you are driving to Perth, you take as many bloody tyres as you can fit in the car just in case.”
Both Edmondson and Wiasak found the post-Rio months immensely difficult.
“It was hard to handle coming home, because we went off with such high ambitions,” says Edmondson. “You don’t plan for failure – you are not prepared.”
While Wiasak also experienced considerable mental turmoil, she is adamant that “quitting was never a consideration.” She says: “For me it is important to try to move on, to put that behind me and use it as the fire that fuels me to continue training towards Tokyo.”
The first goal on the road to the 2020 Olympics is the forthcoming Commonwealth Games, which begin on 4 April on the Gold Coast (“Brisbane – we’re not even on the Gold Coast,” laughs Wiasak – the new Anna Meares Velodrome is 80 kilometres from the host city).
“We are targeting the Gold Coast because it is our home Games,” says Edmondson. Such is the emphasis on the competition that Cycling Australia sent just four riders to the recent track world championships, a move that was criticised in some quarters.
“We’re trying a different type of training, with different efforts, different set-ups, different lead-ins,” Edmondson continues. “We are 100 percent invested in this and I think we are in a good place physical and mentally.”
This new approach has coincided with wholesale reform of the High Performance Unit (recently rebranded the “Australian Cycling Team”), led by new boss Simon Jones. “It has been the biggest shake-up I have seen since coming into the team in 2012,” says Edmondson.
Among the raft of changes have been the departure of long-serving women’s endurance team coach Sutton, replaced by sports scientist Jason Bartram.
“It was very emotional,” says Wiasak of Sutton’s exit, “knowing how much time and energy he had put into the team. But it is the harsh reality of elite sport – it is based on performance, and we did not perform.”
After that failure to perform in Rio, and previously London (where the team finished fourth), the Commonwealth Games is an important milestone. Wiasak admits that the competition offers a chance for redemption and says “we have ambitious goals – we want to break the Australian record.” Edmondson, for her part, has a slightly different perspective.
“I don’t think it is possible to redeem something from the Olympics, but this is something new,” the South Australian says. “We need to learn from the past and move forward. To go well at the Commonwealth Games would be a step in the right direction, with the ultimate goal being Tokyo. This is a major stepping stone on the way there.”
After both experiencing heart-break at the 2016 Olympics, of different kinds, Edmondson and Wiasak each have their eye on 2020.
“I’ve never been to Japan!” exclaims Wiasak. “That’s all part of the redemption.”