With partners such as Sony, Harley Davidson and Subaru, which extend well outside the cycling industry, Caroline Buchanan’s fans and supporters admire her crafty social media presence as much as her abilities on the bike. For the 25-year-old Canberran, the global reach she now has as an athlete enables her to create pathways for others.
“It’s doing what I love and what I believe in,” said the five-time BMX and 4X world champion, who hosted a come and try day for young female BMXers in her hometown of Canberra ealier this month.
“It doesn’t feel like work, much of it actually generates that energy and drive and is self-perpetuating.”
Last year the DK Bicycles rider launched her signature balance bike. With no training wheels, and no pedals, the ‘Nano’ encourages kids from two to five to feel the euphoria that has taken Buchanan to the top of steep start ramps all over the world.
In 2014 she launched the Buchanan Next Gen race team. She raised over $10,000 by selling her own race memorabilia to enable two young girls, Mikayla Rose and Paige Harding, to have the opportunity to race the BMX world championships.
The initiative will take a different form this year. The Buchanan Next Gen Jayco scholarship will offer mentoring and $3000 each to the 14 and 15-year-old female winners of the BMX national titles in Australia. This will enable them, too, to participate in the world championships and gain international experience on the bike, something that was invaluable to Buchanan's own development.
In fact, the 2014 Young Australian of the Year finalist cites getting enough competition to remain competitive as the biggest challenge she faced in breaking into the top of the world rankings. “And having enough backing to be able to do the travelling required to go and get that competition,” she told Zela.
“I wanted to make things easier financially for talented young females, to be able to share some of the knowledge that it’s taken a lifetime for me to get,” and just to be there, as a someone they can talk to and learn from along the way.
Buchanan’s innovative approach to cementing her own professional pathway in sport, alongside opportunities for others, shows the maturity of someone ten or fifteen years her senior. Her professional demeanor and long list of accolades makes it easy to forget about what it takes to sustain the blaze that lies beneath.
The quest for success
For many exceptional athletes it’s a matter of if they get to the Olympics. For Buchanan it’s when; a fact that has fuelled her motivation for the last four years, and the four before that.
But four years is a long time, and in order to keep the fire burning bright, the 2013 AIS Athlete of the Year has built an arsenal of racing, training and life experiences that continue to break outside the boundaries of her chosen sports. Her efforts to develop the BMX for the younger generation are only one small part of her refusal to quietly accept the status quo.
BMX was first introduced into the Olympics in 2008. Despite being one of Australia’s best BMX racers at the time, the then 17-year-old was too young to qualify. Not to be deterred, she focused her ambition on the world 4X circuit while building toward London 2012.
With its big jumps, relatively short track and heat-based race format, the crossover between 4X and BMX is not uncommon. The former is characterized by a bigger bike, a more varied track surface and charging down the start ramp against (only) three of your fiercest, gutsiest rivals at a time.
Buchanan won her first 4X world title at the 2009 World Mountain Bike and Trials Championships at Canberra’s Stromlo Forest Park, not far from her family home. She did it again in Canada, a year later.
By the time she reached the London Olympics, back on the small wheels of her custom painted BMX, she was the favourite going into the final. The 2012 BMX world time trial champion backed up a year of wins on the international circuit with a seemingly flawless run up to the Olympic finals.
Then, to the shock of fans as much as herself, a split second delay coming out of the gate in the final cost her the race. She pushed as hard as she could from behind and crossed the line in a devastated fifth.
The heartbreak was immense. As she fought through tears in front of a hungry media, she somehow milked a last piece of energy as they begged to know what on earth went wrong.
To feel loss that deeply in relation to a goal, you need to care for something with an intensity which very few people ever do. Suddenly the girl who appeared to take it all in her stride revealed just how much her results, her ambition and her drive really meant. And how quickly that all important composure could slip away.
“I had one moment of self doubt and chose the wrong lane in the final,” she said this week looking back. “I was the fastest qualifier going into the finals and should have chosen lane one, instead I was second guessing and third guessing instead of backing myself.”
While the clock ticks down to Rio, you can be sure she is leaving no stone unturned as she makes sure something like that will never happen again. But throw a challenge to Buchanan and she’ll be sure to set the bar even higher still.
Fuelled by some hard lessons learned in London, Buchanan brought 4X and downhill racing back into her schedule in set about claiming four world titles on three different bikes.
“I managed to get a third and a fifth and then two world championships in the one year,” she said of her 2013 race campaign, where the big ticket events took place over less than two months. “It shows how driven I was.”
A third 4X title was certainly satisfying, but beating the BMX Olympic Gold Medalist, Colombian Mariana Pajon, to claim the BMX world title felt particularly good.
Rearing for Rio
On top of the pressures and excitement provided by the shear scale of the Olympics, the BMX event format has fewer races than a world cup, spread out over a number of days rather than hours. “It will be a little different to the last Olympics,” explained Buchanan.
“There will be a time trial run to seed all male athletes on one day, women’s seeding and men’s quarterfinals the next day, and then all semifinals and finals on the third day.
“Both the quarters and semis will be three races and then those riders with the best overall points score progress to the next level. Finals will just be one race: all in, going for it, no guts no glory!”
Winning the gold medal means a race strategy that is built around a very different physical rhythm, as well as different mental one.
Given the intense pressures of the Games, the Australian Olympic team have been advised to stay off social media during the Olympics due to the potential for negative distractions that come with the good.
For an athlete like Buchanan, her innovative use of social media is as central to her success as her ability to style her tiny bike over 13 metre jumps. So much so, that she has said she will employ someone to manage her various accounts during the Olympics so fans and sponsors can stay up to date.
A social sensation
Buchanan’s story shows that it is not enough to be the fastest or most talented athlete on the track. In her quest to rise to the top of the world in a non-mainstream sport she has consistently found creative ways to turn her ambition into a career.
When other athletes were writing rambling blogs, or moaning about how difficult it was to get funding, she was using Facebook to share race reports via a series of artistic, digital postcards. When Twitter and Instagram became things, @cbuchanan68 was already ahead of the game. In response to the reach of video, she started her own YouTube channel: Buchanan On Air.
A brand as much as an athlete, the energy and drive she takes to each start gate is what pushes Buchanan to be ahead of the social media game. Doing so has provided a sense of financial security in a sport that is known more for its debilitating crashes than lucrative contracts, especially for women. It has opened pathways that, once again, extend beyond the boundaries of a race track, her predecessors, and convention.
“Being at the forefront of the influx of social media into the sporting arena has been such a huge bonus to learn the ropes,” said Buchanan. Rather than wait for the world to catch up, she’s forged her own way as a leader, a storyteller and an ambassador. “Being so easily accessible to fans and my following is so powerful.”
Buchanan’s nine-tile interwoven Instagram mosaic at the end of 2015, shared as a single tile on Twitter (above), is particularly worth a look. Inspired by @caseymcperry, its impact comes from Buchanan’s creative edge and the joy that comes through in the way she engages with the quickly evolving medium.
“I have self-taught many skills sets for building a brand and profile,” she said, “maximizing my exposure across all channels, cross promotion with other sports, running competitions, giveaways and more. I love the new age savvy world we live in as it makes my job to be a full-time athlete possible.”
The girl who lives by the motto, “Be yourself because everyone else is taken,” has developed a public profile and career pathway that celebrates her chosen sport and transcends it at the same time. In doing so, she is certain to inspire not just over the two weeks of the Olympics, but in the lead up and beyond.
Perhaps most impressive of all is, despite the fact she has already achieved more than most hope to in a lifetime, the ambitious Buchanan is young enough that she is already planning for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. Just like some of the girls she mentors.