Last month I podcast-interviewed Alexandra Green, the young Australian Para-cyclist who won a bronze medal at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, and who has never come home from a Track World Cup without a medal. We talked about what that was like, the mental gear-switch she had to make to go from being “able bodied with a limp” to being a disabled athlete, her work as the youngest board member of the Cerebal Palsy Alliance, being part of the Aussie Para-cycling team and much more. You can listen to the interview over here, but I’ve transcribed it too, for people who prefer to read their interviews.
You’re in middle of the Paralympic cycle, getting ready to aim for Rio. How does that feel?
Alex: Yeah, two years to go, so it’s all ramping up from now. Time has gone very quickly from London – it’s been a blur, there’s been no downtime really, and suddenly it’s two years and I’ll blink and it’ll be one year, and I’ll blink again and we’ll be there – hopefully! Hopefully I’ll be there! It’s going and it’s gone and it’s a whirlwind and there’s barely time to breathe.
Like most of the Paracyclists, you’re riding on the road and on the track – and you’ve only been riding since 2010, so when you won your bronze medal in the London Games, that was after two years of racing. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into cycling?
It’s a weird kind of thing. I grew up being told I don’t have a disability, just get on with it, so I spent my teenage years just being an able-bodied person with a limp, and then one day in 2007, I was watching a documentary about this girl trying to make the Para-equestrian team for Beijing, and it got me thinking, is my Cerebal Palsy enough to qualify me to go to a Paralympics? And I googled the Australian Paralympic Committee, they had a talent search day, I went, I was eligible, and I got into rowing, because I lived by the water and I loved the water, and I’d always wanted to learn to row.
By this stage I was 21, and I started rowing, and six months later I was on my first World Championship team for rowing, so that was amazing, and I loved it, but then some stuff happened where they weren’t going to take a boat to London, they didn’t have the depth within the team they were looking for. I was cycling for cross training, and I had a local coach helping me out, and he said “Come to the velodrome”. He spoke to the Paracycling coach who came out and saw me ride on the track, and he said “She’s got to come to Paracycling”, and that was it, basically.
I jumped over and then another six months later I was on a track bike at a World Championships. It’s crazy – amazing, but intense. It’s a pressure situation, but at least with cycling it’s pretty easy-ish to ride a bike, with rowing it’s so technique-based, so it takes years to build up that technique. But with cycling it’s about specific power and endurance, and I have that endurance from the rowing side, so it was an easier switch; if I hadn’t come from rowing, I don’t know if it would have been as quick.
Was it weird then, making that adaptation from thinking of yourself as able-bodied-with-a-limp to thinking of disability sports, did you have to make a head-switch there?
Yeah, and now I consider myself disabled, but I’m almost apologetic about it sometimes: “I’m disabled enough to compete for my country, but it’s mild, so….”. I don’t know where I fit in, necessarily. To all my friends and family I’m just me, it’s not that there’s a tag attached that says “disabled”. I don’t qualify for a disabled parking permit, I’m on the very mild scale – but I still have a disability, and getting my head around that is pretty ridiculous sometimes.
I read that you’re the youngest director on the board of the Cerebal Palsy Alliance
I am, yes, that’s another crazy, amazing thing that happened to me. I was asked to join a pool of people they were looking for to become board directors, to bring a youth perspective, and part of the constitution of our board is that at least two members have a disability, and they have to create a pool of potentials, so if anything happens they have people to fill the places. I got asked, and said yes, did some due diligence of looking at it in terms of what I needed to do for the board, and they asked me to join pretty much straight away, it’s been an intense and crazy ride. The pressure that’s on you in a board environment is amazing, and I love it! I am the youngest, but we have a very diverse board, and it’s something brilliant to be part of, and I’m learning so much.
Did that come about through the Paracycling, or was it from somewhere else?
Cerebal Palsy Alliance is formerly the Spastics Centre; they deal with children and adults with CP, and I saw them when I was young, and first diagnosed with Cerebal Palsy, and we did some treatments through the Centre, so my name’s been on the books my whole life. I did another programme after London with the Cerebal Palsy Alliance, and I think that reintroduced me to the association – and Paracycling brought that about.
So you’re doing that, you’re racing, you’ve just finished your Mechanical Engineering degree, what do you do in your spare time?
Sleep! I am a fully qualified Mechanical Engineer, but I’m not working as one yet. I don’t know where that’s going to take me either. At the moment I ride my bike full time, I work at a bike store in Sydney part time, I’m on the board, and after Rio hopefully I’ll get a job as a Mechanical Engineer full time for at least a year, and then re-assess the Paracycling after that for Tokyo 2020.
I was looking down your palmares, and you’ve got some great results. Obviously you won the bronze in London, and you won Track World Championships gold in the Individual Pursuit in 2012, and you won silver and bronze in the Track World Champs too. So every time you’ve been to a Track World Champs, you’ve come home with a medal.
I have, and I’ve got one in each colour, but I prefer gold!
It must be quite frustrating that you don’t have many Track World Championships, and you may or may not have one in 2015 – do you look at it and think you want to beat Sue [Powell, another Aussie Paracyclist in the C4 category] on the track, but there’s not many chances to race?
I guess I’m lucky that Sue, one of my main rivals, is another Austalian. We see each other a bit more often, we have State races and Nationals, and things like that, but Worlds is the pinnacle, it’s what we aim for, and build up for, and I want those World Champs stripes back. I need another opportunity, I’m desperate for another opportunity. It’s tough when the UCI have not announced the next Track Worlds, and I hope they’re working on it, and I’m sure they’re working on it, and there’s stuff going on behind the scenes that I’m aware of, but at the moment there’s no announcement.
I’m building up as if there’s a World Champs., it’s all we can do, but mentally it’s really hard when you jump on the bike and you know that three’s noting there. It’s the mental side of it that get to you. I can prepare physically, but mentally my visualisations are off because there’s no location.
One of the things I find interesting is that the Aussie Paracyling team seems so close, like a family, very close-knit.
It’s pretty awesome. Not that I’ve had experience with the Great Britain or USA cycling teams, but in terms of my perspective, and seeing other teams out there, we’re a pretty cool team if I do say so myself. The staff and mechanics and soigneurs and coaches, and the staff back in Australia helping us with the sports side, the nutrition, everything. Everyone gets along really well and it’s pretty relaxed and chilled, as most Australian team environments are – and then race day comes and race faces go on! Behind the scenes it’s an amazing bunch of people, we ride together and have fun together and I love it.
I loved it on twitter where the Aussies were teasing people who still had races to ride by posting photos of themselves eating bad food and such.
There’s always something like when we were in Canada for Road Worlds, if you finish earlier, they have this doughnut place, and our tandem boys got a whole box of doughnuts each and just devoured them, and there were photos, and “do you want one?” “No, we can’t eat doughnuts pre-race” – just ridiculous jokes like that. The amount of sugar some of those boys can consume after a race is just insane.
Aussies are naturally hyper anyway, so sugared-up tandem riders…
Oh gosh, it’s ridiculous – and you give them a beer afterwards and it’s even worse!
I think that’s one of the things that attracted me to Paracyling – with the Worlds in 2012, being able to watch people on twitter. And your Paralympic blogs were great. I grew up in London, and seeing the city through riders’ eyes felt really good.
London was amazing. We were in Wales while the Olympics were on, so we got to feel a bit of the build up, but there was an ad for Channel 4, that big one, saying “Thanks for the warm up” to the Olympics, now the Paralympics can get going, and it was just… the atmosphere, there was no downtime between the Olympics and the Paralympics, there was still that excitement in the air, and that was incredible to feel that.
We rock up to competitions and there are four people in the audience watching us, and then to go to London and have a packed velodrome, and thousands and thousands of people cheering for you. I’d never heard something that loud! I can remember it so vividly, to sit on that warm-up bike and just hear people cheering and be so excited to watch you race – it just put the nerves and adrenaline through the roof, to another level completely. And my parents were in the crowd, they don’t normally come and watch me unless it’s a big meet. It was one of the best races of my life, even though the result wasn’t there for me, the atmosphere was insane.
Channel 4 did it so well, they gave us brilliant coverage, and we had the daily Paralympics comedy show, ‘The Last Leg’, with Adam Hills from Sydney – and watching Jody Cundy, for example, becoming nationally famous for that week was hilarious, it was wonderful.
His outburst, what a classic! I loved that – Paralympic, Olympic, it doesn’t matter, we’re all there. And to see the Last Leg joking about various prosthetic limbs, and whatever disability, bringing a humour to it, just involved everyone. Jody Cundy’s outburst, some of the drama – it was awesome!
So when you think back, apart from the velodrome, what are your memories of London?
I had a really nice glass of prosecco in a beautiful little café in one of the cobbled streets of London. Riding the Tube, the Athletes’ Village with everyone, I think just going out onto the street and having people come up to me and say congratulations.
I was looking through photos the other day, and I’ve got this photo from the velodrome, of when I got my medal and I went up to see my family afterwards at the close of the session, and there were people there that wanted to congratulate me, and look at my medal, and that was really nice, no one’s ever asked to see my medal before, or said congratulations, or “I watched your race and you did really well” and all the little kids that came up and said “Can I touch your medal?”, that was really cute.
What I wonder about paracyclists is when you’re an able-bodied cyclist after the Olympics you get to go to World Cups and you still get lots of people supporting you – but it is weird to have that one fortnight of superstardom and then go back to normal?
It’s not something I think about often. It’s nice to have that atmosphere in the velodrome, but then when we go back to racing, it’s not like I notice the lack of crowd support, because you’re just focused on what you’re doing. I guess now that you say it….
Oh no, I’ve put something in your mind!
Now I’ll be like “ah, look, there’s my dad cheering – thanks dad!”
I really loved this year’s Road World Champs, because I was watching it live on my laptop, from Greenville, South Carolina, and that made me really happy, being able to see the races
How cool was that?
It was wonderful, wasn’t it?
We were watching it back in the hotel – on the day before the race it’s “stay inside, don’t stand up and blah blah blah blah blah”, standard cyclist stitch-up, and for us to be able to watch our friends and mates race, it was so cool! And to watch the C4/5 men fight to the line, and for us to see that sprint, and see round the back of the course, it was the coolest thing ever. Livestreaming of a race, why has that not happened before?
America does this – they seem to be experimenting – “Let’s just put an iPhone on the back of a motorbike and see if it works, let’s see how we can make it happen” – I love that approach, who needs TV when you’ve got the internet? It made me really happy.
Oh gosh, me too. And of course the Americans will do that, they’re really into that stuff, you ask them to livestream a race, of course they can make it happen!
Watching it, the C4/5 women were racing with the C1/2/3 men, and Jody Cundy, who’s my twitter superstar, was telling us how to tell the fields apart, to look out for the different coloured helmets, different coloured race numbers – but I was wondering, how does that feel in the race? Does it make it super-complicated?
It’s pretty crazy. We had something like fifty riders in our bunch, and you have to remember, when we normally race as the women, there’s about seven, so you go to fifty – and all different disabilities, so you go from C1 and the way to C5, so it’s the whole spectrum of single bike riders. You’ve got single-legged guys, and chicks with one arm, and then everyone in between, and you go down a hill and some people are naturally better downhill, and you go up a hill and the single-legged guys, because they’re so much lighter their power-to-weight is so different, they just fly up the hill. So you have to pick your helmet colour depending on what you’re doing, and not get caught behind the wrong person, so it is tactically exciting.
And I personally love racing with the C1/2/3 guys, because suddenly I can sit in the bunch and it’s a bit more interesting in terms of who can sit in, who’s got the skills. I usually get spat out the back because it’s so fast from the get-go, but I really enjoy racing with the men. I know there’s a lot of chicks out there for who it’s not their preference, they’d prefer just C4/5 women, or separate C4 and C5, which would be amazing, but at the moment we just don’t have the numbers to get that going.
So the bunch is nice, but it’s tough. There were people coming behind me at one stage and I was “oh my gosh, is this another C4 chick? Who’s catching me? “ and you look back and “I can’t even tell what helmet colour that is!”, and a guy goes past you, and you try to jump on him, “am I allowed to draft him?” but ok, he’s a C3 not a C4, so it’s all good, so there’s a lot to think about.
How often do you do races like that with a mixed bunch? Is that something you have to work out at World Championships, while you’re in the race?
Yes, racing with the C1/2/3 men is a World Champs thing, but every weekend I’ll go and do a road race with the boys, but usually all limbs attached! You end up coming down to a sprint with the C1/2/3 men and the C4/5 women, but you’re only racing the C4 women, so it’s “ah cool, I’m winning – or am I winning? Did I have to sprint this person, who’s coming up behind me?” – you can hear someone coming but you’re not sure if it’s male or female, if it’s C1,2,3,4,5 – so it makes it interesting, and slightly dangerous at the same time!
I could see why [C5 World Champion] Sarah Storey started her sprint early
She could have started her sprint from six kilometres out, and she still would have crushed everyone!
You’ve been all around the world cycling, with this adventure. You’ve raced in all kinds of countries – what have been the moments you look back on and think “wow”?
It’s all really amazing. I really like going to somewhere where English is not the main language. I love going to Spain because we’re always there in the summer, and you get to work on the tan lines, the riding’s fantastic, it’s great coffee, that’s always nice! Most of our camps are dry, but every now and then we enjoy a nice glass of red in Spain, that’s quite nice after a race.
I’ve been to so many amazing places, and you know what’s really lovely? When we go to the track in New Zealand, in Invercargill, and we fly from Sydney to Queenstown, and you land between these snowcapped mountains, and there’s green grass at the bottom, and all these lakes, and it’s like landing in Lord of the Rings. That’s pretty amazing!
And so your goals – obviously Rio?
That’s the goal – make the team, and then there’s big goals and little goals – make each World Championships for road and track up until then, throw in a few gold medals, be a really good part of the Australian team, enjoy it all and approach training how I need to approach training, every day – little things like that along the way.
So if you had any tips for some 15-year-old Alex sitting out there, what would you advise her about getting into Paracycling?
Save up your money for a good carbon bike first out! No… If it’s really want you want to do, go for it, don’t let anything hold you back if it’s your dream, and don’t be afraid. I’m still working on that, I have a lot of fear, and if I’d been more focused when I was younger, on getting past that, that would have been nice. Try not to be scared.
Writing? Oh no, I’m a terrible writer. I’m an engineer, I write in bullet points!
But your stories wee great! It felt like you were talking to someone when I read them.
Very conversational style of writing, mostly because I talk to myself when I do have to write things! I’m not a great writer, I prefer to chat to someone in person or over skype – I’m more along for the cycling side of the journey rather than the documentation of it.
Though your photos make riding in Sydney look like the best thing in the world ever.
It’s pretty snazzy, you’ve got to try it!
When I think of your world, the sun’s always shining and the sea’s always sparkling…
That’s pretty much how it is! 99% of the time…
And you’re always smiling and happy?
It’s the only way to be, especially when you’re a cyclist on the beaches of Sydney, it’s pretty good!
You can follow Alex on her cycling journey through her website, twitter, facebook and instagram. You can buy bikes from her in her part-time job at the Clarence Street Cyclery in Sydney. Here’s the video of her getting her bronze medal at the London Paralympics, and a video profile of her by Cycling Australia:
I’m funded to interview riders and people involved in women’s cycling by my wonderful Patreon supporters, who give a dollar or two a month to keep me going, and who I appreciate enormously. Find out more about that over here.