Learning to Love Again
By Sam Squiers
The pounding roar of the crowd floods the velodrome. You glance down to the wheels beneath you edging closer to the starting line, as the green and gold of your lycra injects that familiar shot of pride through your veins. Suddenly everything seems silent, then like an emerging storm, the noise starts up again, it’s a chant, it’s your name – like a choir in unison, they’re chanting your name. The goosebumps mosaic your arms as you take a deep breath. This is it, this is the moment.
It’s the year 2000, it’s the Olympics and it’s on 29-year-old Michelle Ferris’ home turf. Years of hard work, training, discipline and sacrifice have culminated in this. She’s an Olympian, a medallist, she’s stood on the podium on the biggest sporting stage of all and kissed the sweet metal of her success.
So why then did it all come to an abrupt end?
How did someone who reached this level of success suddenly find herself hating the very sport that brought it all?
“And when I say I hated it, I hated it… I hated riding, I hated cycling I hated everything about it, I couldn’t watch it, I couldn’t do anything,” Michelle tells me over coffee at a café just opposite the cycling store she manages in Cronulla.
For Michelle, the journey from country kid to Olympic silver medallist all began because she wanted a day off school.
“At high school there was a hospital opposite the school and they have a charity ride each year. It’s a 24-hour relay and the hospital had a team but needed a few more people so came and asked the PE teachers if there were any students. When they said you’d have to get Friday off school. I was like I’m in.”
Michelle impressed straight away. When she kept pace with many of the professional male riders in the group, they suggested she join their cycling club. She gave it a go and was soon winning races.
It was just by chance or fate that Michelle’s breakthrough came. It was 1992, and the first year they decided to have a junior women’s competition at the national titles.
“At the time I was doing endurance events like pursuits and I got put into the sprint because it was the first time they had it so they just put whoever in.”
Michelle had never trained for a sprint before, but the signs were there. In the qualification she clocked a time faster than the two senior women trying to press selection to represent Australia at the Barcelona Olympics. That certainly caught the attention of AIS selectors and two weeks later, Michelle found herself living at the national base in Adelaide. She was just 17 years old.
Just one month later Michelle was selected in the Australian team for the Atlanta Olympics. She celebrated her 18th birthday over there. It was a selection, they told her, for her to gain experience. She stunned them all when she stood proudly on the podium with the silver medal around her neck and an Olympic record time to boot.
“To go there for experience and to come away with an Olympic record which stood till Beijing. A 12 year record and to come away with a silver medal when I was going there for experience to me it was pretty amazing.”
Expectation built for four long years up to the once-in-a-lifetime moment. The Sydney Olympics. Few athletes have the chance to experience the games in their home country and Michelle was ready for it.
“I remember feeling firstly relief as I had a few injuries leading up to the Games and secondly excitement to be competing at an Olympics on my own backyard knowing all my family and friends would be there.”
Confident in her form, Michelle ached for that gold medal but nabbed silver in another exhilarating race. She stood on that podium with an Olympic medal around her neck. It’s a proud moment to be able to star as Michelle did on her home track, a special experience. Yet recounting it is difficult.
“What was a good experience was also a disappointing one because I did have such high expectations. I knew I was in the best shape I was in.
It’s nice to chat about it now, if you had gotten me five years ago I wouldn’t have been able to talk to you about it because I still would have been fuming.”
That joy was quickly suppressed as Michelle struggled with exhaustion both physically and mentally. She took some time off and when it was time to get back into it, something was missing.
A training camp in Switzerland was where it all came to a head.
A number of different factors led to her decision. There was the coach change and the niggling injury hindering her training. But more than that it was the absence of her hunger, her passion that led her to make the call.
It was the reaction that hurt Michelle the most.
“The hardest part for me was the day I said I’ve had enough, the very next day I was on a flight out of there all my stuff was left with them and they basically closed the door and opened it for the next person in and even to this day I’ve never even got a call from them to say ‘hey how you going? Do you need a hand in transitioning back into the real world? Do you need anything?’ and that was disappointing,” Michelle says as she glances down to her coffee.
Five torturous years of anger, confusion and bouts of depression followed.
And the bike was a no-go zone.
Michelle refused to ride, refused to even look at her bike, nor watch cycling on the television.
“I hated cycling.”
Then in 2008 a special moment at the Beijing Olympics changed Michelle’s perspective forever.
“It was actually when Anna Meares after her accident (where she broke her neck months from the Olympics) came back and won gold. I thought I can’t be angry at this sport anymore because it’s not necessarily its fault it’s just things that have happened along the way for me”
That day Michelle got back on the bike.
“I just started wanting to do it for fitness, wanting to do it to be happy and healthy and started enjoying it again”
You get the feeling that LivGiant has been a somewhat therapeutic process for Michelle.
“I wanted to help other people enjoy riding cause as much I had that negative bit at the end where I hated it, it was a personal thing. I wanted to show people how fun and how much enjoyment you can get out of riding.”
Leading weekly rides in Cronulla has given Michelle a new perspective on the sport she loved, hated, and now loves again.
“Because now I have the opportunity to help people who have been beginner riders enjoy a simple ride and a coffee afterwards, so that to me is the most rewarding thing more so than being a coach to anybody.”
But Michelle can never do anything half-hearted and the competitive spirit that saw her win two Olympic medals soon returned.
The World Masters Games Michelle made her comeback and blitzed the field to win three World Titles.
Soon enough another challenge then presented itself.
With the encouragement of Ironman Tim Ahern, Michelle was led closer to the sport, although it wasn’t without resistance.
“Well don’t think you can get me doing that stupid triathlon stuff, I told Tim, I’ll start running to lose weight. I might do a half ironman just to have something to work up to…just for training, I kept telling him,”
“So I just started training running with this group and then all of a sudden, I’m in the pool training. Then I’ve entered a half ironman and there I am doing a stupid triathlon.”
Michelle never expected to enjoy it as much as she did, and this year competed in her first full ironman in Cairns.
“They’re no longer stupid triathlons anymore,” says Michelle laughing.
“It was great, I loved every moment of it, I hate swimming I hate it with a passion, but from the moment I got in the water to the 13 hours and 20 minutes later, I loved
every minute of it. “
The camaraderie, the support, the challenge of triathlons is what now has Michelle hooked on the sport.
“It is such a rewarding sport whether you come first or last. It’s more about personal achievement than winning.”
As she clicks on the ‘submit’ button for yet another ironman and as she encourages beginners and elite riders alike every week on a LivGiant ride, it’s hard to believe there was a moment when she almost gave it all away.
Learning to love again has been a long-term process for Michelle, but it’s riding that has led her down a whole new fulfilling path.