Peloton Watch
  Kaarle McCulloch reveals a difficult two years and return to racing  
  November 14th 2014  
  The name Kaarle McCulloch is one all track fans know. McCulloch won a hat trick of team sprint World Championship titles between 2009 and 2011 with Anna Meares. Commonwealth gold and Olympic bronze in the team sprint also form part of a long palmares along with multiple Australian and Oceania titles across the sprint events.

McCulloch has battled with a knee injury for much of her career, but was something she was able to manage. "In the lead in to the Olympics it just was something I learnt to deal with. It was a part of my everyday routine, either experiencing the pain or having to manage it. I was so intently focused on achieving my goal to get to the Olympics that nothing really got in my way," said McCulloch. "But post the Games I really struggled with it. I didnít want to spend the hours maintaining my body to just be pain free enough to train the next day and I also saw that it was a major reason why I had not improved for three years."

With her Olympic goal passed, McCulloch's knee injury had more of an impact on training. "My training was becoming more and more effected by it, so for the majority of 2013 I didnít train at full capacity," explained McCulloch. "If I had pain I just simply stopped, I didnít push through anymore - and my performance suffered as a result."

2013 saw McCulloch faced with a number of decisions, both personally and professionally. An injury causing increased pain and her motivation to fall was not the only thing on McCulloch's mind. In a serious relationship for the first time and having spent so much of her life on the bike, McCulloch found herself wanting a family.

With things not clicking McCulloch made the difficult decision to leave Cycling Australia's High Performance Unit (HPU) in Adelaide. The move back to the New South Wales Institute of Sport now sees 2002 Sprint World Champion Sean Eadie coaching her.

Her return to competing at the top of the sport with a fresh outlook has already delivered results, gold in the team sprint at the Oceania Champions and the first World Cup in Guadalajara. McCullochís renewed focus has seen her set new goals for the 2014/15 season, "I would like to make the World Championships team for team sprint starter."

Below McCulloch talks leaving the HPU, working with Sean Eadie, considering retirement, depression, finding enjoyment on the bike, her come back, recent results and what the future holds

PelotonWatch: You made the decision to leave the AIS program in Adelaide to go back and train at the NSWIS. Was it a hard decision to make?

Kaarle McCulloch: Yes. I am a big supporter of the AIS and the program, I do believe it is one of the best systems in the world and I knew it was a big risk to take to leave what I had always known as the best our country has to offer its athletes. In the end though I feel it was the best decision I have made in my career to date. I am now involved with a coach (Sean Eadie) and a system (NSWIS) that whilst may not boast the funding nor the technology that the AIS has, it has provided me with what I have needed to perform at a high level. The facilities at the NSWIS are world class and my coach Sean Eadie is one of the best I have ever worked with. It has been hard more on the political side of things for me, as I am on the 'outer' now.

PW: You said recently you considered retiring. What brought that thinking on and how seriously were you considering it?

KM: The biggest reason was because of my injury. I had been suffering from the pain for more than five years and I didnít want to endure it anymore, and it was not like I hadnít spent hours rehabilitating it and with my doctor and physio at the AIS. I really didnít know if it would be possible to be pain free anymore and I said to my current physio who has ended up helping me to become pain free that I didnít believe he could help me in the beginning. I think he took that as a challenge and I am very grateful for his help in getting me back to full fitness again.

I also had a bit of a life crisis after the Olympics. I was involved in a serious relationship and for the first time in my life I realised that I wanted a family as much as I wanted to be a successful bike rider. In the end that relationship didnít end up working out and I found myself, injured, not on scholarship, alone and really not in a great place in my life. I didnít know if cycling was what I wanted to do anymore, as it certainly hadnít brought me much joy for quite some time.

In the end it took some time but I started to find the love and passion again for my cycling. When I came back after my injury I wasnít sure how much I wanted it nor whether I could be good again so as I started to improve on my bike and in my training and I was pain free I started to love it again and its been getting better and better ever since. It became more about finding the passion again rather than the constant pressures of being the best. I still have really difficult moments in my life. Things are still not great off the bike but I feel slowly like I am making progress towards being happier and more content about who I am and what I want with my life. I have learnt a lot this year about myself and if anything I think thatís more important to me than winning a bike race. I could be the most successful bike rider in the world but if I am not happy off my bike then winning means not much.

PW: Ultimately you decided to continue and make a comeback. What motivated you to stay in the sport?

KM: My main motivation came from my family. I hated it at the time but they continued to encourage me to keep riding. My family are my biggest supporters and have in the past believed in me more than I have believed in myself. They helped me to get out of bed on the days when I didnít want to and slowly going to training became my escape my from life for a while there. Soon though as I started to improve on my bike I wasnít escaping from my life but rather creating my life again, and when that started happening my life outside of cycling started to improve.

I moved out of home to a share house with some other athletes who are amazing and have given me a new lease on life, and I found some new interests outside of cycling. I am really into and following the MotoGP at the moment as well as taking an interest again in my studies and in general my life outside of cycling. Sean Eadie has played a big role in this also. Sean talks about 'the chase' - the pursuit of your dreams and aspirations. Sean knows what I want to achieve and he has a great deal of empathy and respect for that. He helped me to understand my training (his philosophy) and that for me has been such a pleasure to learn, I go to training and I learn something new every day. Its not just about going through the motions anymore, I understand my training, I see improvements and I enjoy my training environment.

PW: Your first competition back was ITS Adelaide were you happy with your performances in your first races back?

KM: I was SO happy with how I went at the ITS even though I didnít win anything. I had only been on the bike for eight weeks and to come out and ride 11.3 in winter on the last day of competition, it was the first moment that I realised that I could do this. But I also had a lot of fun, and I hadnít had fun at an event for a very long time. I was a different person and a different athlete and it scared me and excited me both at the same time. Learning to let go of old Kaarle has been an ongoing process, but when new Kaarle comes out I feel like I can take on the world.

PW: Your return to international competition came at the Oceania Championships in October claiming gold in the team sprint and bronze in the sprint. How much of a confidence boost were these results?

KM: I think I was more relieved than anything. Even though I knew I was in good shape and training super well I still had reservations on what was going to happen. I hadnít had a good result in nearly two years so I was very nervous. I just wanted to see good times and confirm to myself that all the sacrifices and pain I had gone through this year was worth it.

In the end I think I expended a fair amount of mental energy in the weeks leading up to the event and so when I finished on top of the scoreboard on day one with Team Sprint it was like this huge wave of relief flooded me. What it gave me was confidence during Mexico. I just knew I would ride well there and so it showed. I was not even nervous for the team sprint, I was all confidence - that was a totally foreign feeling for me, and one in which I look forward to experiencing in the future.

PW: You claimed gold with Stephanie Morton in the team sprint at the World Cup in Guadalajara. Happy with your ride?

KM: Individually yes. I rode a PB of 18.8. But I am really happy with my approach and the way in which I conducted myself. It was actually a pleasure to race at that level again and I was not nervous at all. I felt right at home. As I said, I was all confidence.

PW: Must be satisfying to return to the top level of international competition and claim gold?

KM: It was satisfying to an extent yes. Its never a nice way to win when someone or a team has to withdraw. I still believe that the Germans are the team to watch and beat as we head into Rio and it would be foolish of me to be overly ecstatic with the win. However after all I have been through, it was a proud moment for me to stand on that podium and see the Australian flag rise above my head and sing the national anthem. That is the best feeling in the world and an experience that I hope to achieve again in the future.

PW: There is such depth in women's sprinting in Australia with Anna Meares, Steph Morton, Caitlin Ward and yourself plus a number of young riders who will be coming up over the next few years. Tougher competition for selection, how much of a motivator is this to get back to your best?

KM: Competition is always a good thing at any level anywhere in sport or anything in life. At the end of the day I donít really care about anyone else though and this is a big thing for me as in the past I often spent too much time comparing myself to others, or feeling pressure to be the best.

I have learnt this lesson from Sean who essentially takes the pressure off me by saying whatever the result is he is equally as responsible for the outcome - in my belief I think this is brave of Sean but its also very true. As an athlete I put my dreams and aspirations into his hands and I trust him to coach me to have the ability to perform at my best when I need to because I in return give my best all the time every day in training. I like this approach and I donít feel so alone or so afraid of what my performances may be.

For me now its about being the best I can be and if I ride to the best of my ability on the day and someone is better than me then thatís sport and life really! I donít really look at the upcoming riders nor the current ones because itís about what everyone does on the same day at the same time.

So as a motivator no, this is not my motivation to get back to my best. I am not silly I know who my competition is and I watch them, but I donít care about them. Me getting back to my best is for myself only. I have nothing to prove to anyone and itís all about me and I think this is really seen in my approach to racing these days. I actually enjoy racing again and I donít care who I race, where I race or when I race - because itís about me. This is also the way in which I am learning to conduct my life in general. I have been the type of person who tries to please everyone, particularly the people I love and its led to me getting really burnt - particularly this year. My life now is about doing what I want and finding the people that want to spend time with me and be a part of my life rather than me trying so hard to please everyone. In some way this has been really liberating. I do things for myself now and I donít care about what others think about me so much anymore.

PW: Looking back your decision to leave the AIS program and go back to training at home has proven to be the right one?

KM: Yes it was the right decision. First and foremost being around my family, particularly during this year, itís been the best thing for me. I have suffered from depression this year and I needed my family around me to help me keep myself together.

But from a professional perspective itís been such a pleasure working with Sean Eadie. I have learnt so much from him and I love going to training these days. Sean cares about his athletes first as people and second as athletes and I had some instances at the beginning of the year when I simply couldnít get out of bed to face my world and he would give me all the time I needed and was there to talk to me as my friend first and as my coach second.

Sean is a big believer in a happy Kaarle = a happy athlete. This couldnít be more true. I am finding things in my life more enjoyable again and I donít think if I had of stayed at the AIS that I would have grown or changed the way I have. I think whether I go to Rio or not is irrelevant for me right now as it has been worthwhile going through my struggles this year as I think I am closer to being the best version of myself as a person first and also as an athlete. I also now see that when I am happy off my bike my performances are good anyway.

PW: Is returning to the high performance program something you are looking to do?

KM: In some capacity yes. I canít feasibly do what I do at the level I do it at without the HPU help. I donít believe that I will return to Adelaide to live, as I donít think the environment is great for me as an individual. I find it to be too high pressure day in and day out and I have enjoyed the freedom and flexibility of my life away from Adelaide.

I also think that Seanís training philosophy and Garyís are quite different and can at times conflict with each other. This is actually a good thing I think, because in order for cycling to develop I think its important to have different ideas and training floating around - it leads to everyone learning new things and I still work with Gary and the HPU quite closely for advice with my training and racing so when I do come back into the group we are all able to work really well with each other and thatís a credit to the HPU and Sean and NSWIS.

I think I have done really well this year balancing the demands of the HPU whilst living away from the system and I hope that perhaps I can pave a new pathway for other athletes in the future. I think itís important to recognise that not everyone can or will thrive in one environment the same as everyone else. I for sure believe its the best place to be for final prep into a big event but for me as an individual I enjoy being at home and at MY training base for the majority of my year and doing my training my way. After all this is MY career and itís MY life.
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