Australian cycling champion Anna Mears accumulated six Olympic medals in her illustrious career, and while it rewarded her with much celebrity and many achievement highs, her 22-year sports career came with much pain, heartache and moments of, at times, debilitating self-doubt.
That she survived all that was thrown at her both in her sport and personally is testament to her incredible fighting spirit.
This was highlighted when she defied the odds to win an Olympic silver medal just seven months after breaking her neck in a horror accident.
Her candid autobiography Now, to be released on Friday (May 1), reveals many of the personal challenges she’s faced.
Meares hopes her story of triumph through adversity will inspire others to persevere, despite the challenging times, admitting her ego took a huge hit when she temporarily quit cycling after the crash.
“The hardest part for me was that the sport didn’t even glitch, at all, when I left,” she said.
“I dedicated 22 years to cycling for Australia, and I just felt like it didn’t even miss me. When I stepped away from sport, I had to work out who Anna was.”
It was January, 2008, in Los Angeles that Meares’ world at the top came crashing down ….literally.
Just seven months before the Beijing Olympics she broke her neck in a horrific track accident at the World Cup.
The crash, at 65kmh, broke a vertebra, dislocated her right shoulder, tore ligaments and tendons and scraped off skin from all parts of her body.
The injuries would have ended most careers, let alone a shot at Olympic glory.
Not Anna. She ditched the neck brace and wheelchair to be back in the saddle 10 days later to start training for Beijing.
Six months later, Anna fronted up to Beijing to ride for gold.
Somehow, she claimed a silver medal in the sprint event, but the fact she even made it that far solidified her legendary status amongst Australians.
Her neck fracture was just 2 millimetres short of a clean break.
“I was scared of that 2mm because, really, I could’ve died,” she told the ABC.
“What I learnt was to look at the situational response of that in the ‘what if’ and ‘what is’ of the situation.
“The ‘what is’ of the situation was simply that the two millimetres saved my life and it’s a very different way that you can look at the one situation.
“Once I realised how valuable and special that 2mm was, my whole outlook on life and competition after that accident significantly changed.”
Meares was unsure about releasing her new book, titled Now, during the coronavirus pandemic but realised its themes may help people during this time.
“We are all facing significant adversity, significant change, and we need to show significant resilience as a result,” she said.
“For me; I ended a 22-year career, I was physically injured, I had to finalise and get my head around being divorced.
“And then my coach, who was such a pertinent element of my life and my career, was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease (MND) and died a year after the Rio Olympic Games.”
Meares said it was a struggle to process so many significant life changes in such a short period of time.
“With that comes so much loss and grief,” she said.
“I didn’t realise I was dealing with severe grief and anxiety as a result of all that change all at once.
“I needed both the time, to allow myself to process it and deal with it, but also the support in order to make that happen — and that’s been detailed in this book.”
Meares said her open and honest account of her career and challenges would shock most people.
“I’m emotional, I’m always emotional, but what people don’t see is behind the scenes — the drops, the low bounce not the high bounce,” she said.
Meares puts her grounded and humble nature down to her upbringing in central Queensland. She now lives in Adelaide.
“I’m a country girl at heart. I don’t think I’ve changed too much,” she said.
“I think it gave me a sense of community. And pride and community and family is at the forefront of everything for me so I think that became my anchor.
“No matter where I went in the world, and what sort of levels I reached, I always came back home and I think that was really important.”
In 2016, at the age of 32, Meares became Australia’s most decorated cyclist in Olympic history but by this stage she thought motherhood was out of reach.
“I never thought I’d get the chance to be a mum,” she said.
“I honestly thought I had missed that window, which is why in my retirement I looked at adoption, [but] as a single person in Australia that’s non-existent, pretty much.
“I became a foster parent and I’ve cared for children between the ages of four and eight.”
Things changed when Meares met her partner Nick Flyger.
“We both agreed that if family happened for us that would be wonderful but we weren’t putting any pressure on it because we weren’t sure that our age would allow us,” she said.
“But low and behold, we were blessed with our gorgeous baby girl, Evelyn.
“She was born in February, she’s almost three months old and we just love her to bits — she’s a little gem.”
Anna Meares with her partner, Nick Flyger, their baby daughter, Evelyn, and their beagle, Bruce.(Supplied: Sarah Reed, The Advertiser)
As with many well-known athletes, Meares received many offers from publishers after retiring in 2016.
“I wanted to be open and honest which is why it’s taken me a little bit of time to actually do it because I wasn’t in the right mindset when I retired to put a book together,” she said.
Meares said her memoir reflects on the hurdles she faced throughout her cycling career, and the road after.
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