Olympic medalist shifts gears for exam time

29 October 2012

Kaarle McCulloch (right) with cycling
sprint partner Anna Meares

When 24-year-old Human Movement and Health Education student Kaarle McCulloch arrived at the Olympic Village in London as part of the Australian track cycling team, she played 'spot the sports star' in her head, hoping to catch a glimpse of Usain Bolt, Bernard Tomic and Steve Hooker.

"I saw so many amazing athletes," she said. "I had my photo taken with [NBL superstar] Kobe Bryant, and the great [six-time-gold-medal-winning track cyclist] Sir Chris Hoy. I also saw Usain Bolt once in the food hall - he only came in once because people just harassed him the whole time!"

Little did McCulloch realise that within a few weeks, dozens of people would be asking her to pose with them after her Olympic debut: a bronze medal performance in the Women's Team Sprint, with individual gold medal-winner Anna Meares. McCulloch's Olympic appearance in London was in itself an impressive feat. The former runner had taken up cycling at the relatively late age of 17 but her expectations after having won the world Women's Team Sprint title three times with Meares had been nothing less than gold.

At the time of the medal-winning ride on August 2, McCulloch admitted feeling overawed before the event and disheartened by the result, yet she now says all her memories of her Olympic experience are positive ones. "I never had a 'low' moment, from the time I landed in London to when I left, and I was on this massive high for the entirety. It was just so special and now that I have had that experience and that taste it makes me even hungrier to go again."

Judging by her track record, McCulloch will not willingly shy away from this goal.

After narrowly missing out on the Australian team for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, McCulloch was determined to make her Olympic dream a reality in London. The regimen to achieve this was a taxing schedule that included intense weight resistance – the 167cm blonde can full squat 135kg, as well as 110kg on a single leg. Despite the commitment required, McCulloch is able to refer good-humouredly to Olympic preparation: "we smash ourselves, recover and then do it all over again".

Between high-pressure training and sporting travel commitments, McCulloch says she found her University assignments a welcome diversion.

"When I get to sit down and read about pedagogy or work on syllabus materials, I can take myself away from cycling and into my other passions," she says. "Once things quiet down I look forward to going home from training and sitting and working on an assignment for a change of pace."

As if the tail end of semester isn't stressful enough, life has been "far more hectic than anticipated" for McCulloch since her return from London. Her schedule has been so packed she hasn't even been able to take a well-deserved holiday as originally intended.

But after only a short few months off her bike, McCulloch is already itching to get back to her Olympic form, undergoing a full training routine again in a bid to return to peak fitness levels.

"I crave that sensation of feeling so 'fast'; the feeling of being almost superhuman that came from being in the best shape of my life," she said.

McCulloch said her Olympic journey was made easier by the knowledge the University of Sydney accommodated her needs as an elite athlete and supported her pursuit of excellence.

"The University understands the demands of elite sports performance as well as the sporting, academic and professional ambitions of elite athletes."

Consistency has been the key for McCulloch's University studies, making sustained progress in her Bachelor of Education (Secondary)(Human Movement and Health Education) degree between cycling seasons. She says she expects to finish her studies before the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Looking ahead, there's no denying the future looks bright for McCulloch. While her focus is driven by dreams of seizing gold in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, McCulloch intends to combine her training in teaching and expertise in cycling to good use by developing a school-based cycling program to discover "the hidden talent in our schools".

"I think for cycling we really don't tap into the grassroots systems enough and schools are a controlled environment where we can find kids who could be the next generation of superstars," she says.

"Even more importantly, this program could help create more awareness about cycling and about bike safety. It's that 'unintended' exercise that keeps people healthy and is a great way to help save the environment as well. I am really passionate about all of these things combined."

Ultimately, McCulloch is adamant that no matter where she ends up, she's bound to be a winner, provided she continues to work hard and follow her passions.

"It's true you need talent to be an Olympian but 80 per cent of what's needed isn't physical: it's motivation, dedication, drive and, most importantly, persistence.

"As long as I truly do the hard work and don't do anything half-heartedly then I am always in a good place whenever I'm about to be tested, whether it's lining up for a race or sitting down for an exam."