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‘How could I be a Paralympian?’

In the first few years, there was a lot of me just pretending that everything was fine and trying my best to keep putting one foot in front of the other. The reality is I was obviously in a bit of denial, but also quite depressed about it.

 

In 2012, I took a trip to Egypt and I remember standing in front of the pyramids thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh. I haven’t been living. This is living a real life, and these things aren’t unachievable. My life isn’t over, I can actually still live.’ It was at that point that I realised that I needed some external help, and ended up seeing the psych for a while, to help me work out who I was in this new life and how to plan a bit of a path forward.

 

From the moment I was diagnosed, I had continued to try and stay fit but my body temperature goes up, my body says ‘no, you’re not doing that.’ I’d tried so many things. I couldn’t even handle going to a local swimming pool because the water was too hot for me.

 

Then I started working at Wesley College in Melbourne in the rowing program, and one of my colleagues was Matt Ryan, who competed as a rower at the Beijing and London Olympics.

 

I told him my issues and how desperately I wanted to get back into exercise and he came up with a plan. We put a stationary bike in the office with the A/C on and a fan in my face and started small.

 

After about six months, I was going through a really hard personal time and he said, ‘You need something positive to focus on; I think you should try to make the Tokyo Paralympics team. If you work half as hard at that as you do this job, no one will get near you.’

 

At the time I didn’t know much about para-sport and so my first reaction was, ‘Matt, are you joking? I’m not paralysed, how can I be a Paralympian?’.

 

Matt knew that the woman who won the cycling time trial at the previous Paralympics had MS and when I saw that I went off to see if I could get classified. I could and was classified as a WC4 para cyclist.

 

 

 

Matt wasn’t the only Olympian I knew

Shane Kelly, the five-time Olympic cyclist, multiple-time world record holder, three-time Olympic medallist, is married to one of my best mates. I asked him if he’d help coach me. He didn’t really have a choice but, in any case, he said ‘yeah absolutely’.

 

From that moment, we started on this path. I would never have thought that my body was capable of doing anything near what it’s currently doing – the training for paras is as demanding and strenuous as it is for the able-bodied riders, just managed differently depending on the impairment. But both Matt and Shane believed it possible for me. Whenever there was an MS roadblock, they would find a way around it.

 

It’s no exaggeration to say that Matt and Shane saved my life. I say that because I was in such a bad place and their belief in me is the only reason that I’m doing what I’m doing today. Having something positive to focus on in that moment in my life kept me moving forward.

 

When I won the World Championship on the track in March and then on the road in September this year, the very first two people I spoke to on the phone were Matt and Shane. I’m doing this as much for them as anything else – I want to prove that they were right to see something in me.

 

That’s what motivates me to get up and do what I’ve got to do every day, thinking that those two men, themselves incredible athletes and coaches, thought that I could, when no one else (including me) did.

 

Photo: Casey Gibson – Cycling Australia

 

Now I’m in the Australian cycling team program in Adelaide working with the national track coach (Cameron Jennings), so I don’t get coached by Shane on a weekly basis. But whenever I go back to Melbourne he still coaches me; he’s still heavily involved and a big influence on me.

 

Things like how to ride the bike properly and my race day plans and processes are what he taught me right at the beginning. We check in every week or two and he still gives me the little nuggets of gold in terms of relating any experience I’m struggling with to something he himself has faced.

 

Shane’s personal experiences as an athlete have been so helpful – not just the huge successes and dealing with the associated pressures, but also some of the big disappointments including the famous one at the 1996 Olympics.

 

He went into the 1000m time trial as world champion and favourite, and his foot slipped off the pedal at the start and at the time they didn’t allow a restart (the rule was changed as a result), meaning instead of walking away as the Olympic champion as expected, he had DNF next to his name.

 

His approach to winning and losing is something that has really been integral for me, because I lost a lot of races before I became successful. Each year that I lived away (which was from shortly after deciding to try and do this) I would fly back from the UAE, on unpaid leave from my job, to race at nationals and get flogged.

 

But I always did it because it I had to find out where I stood and had to learn a lesson from each of those races to make me better for the next one. That was something that Matt, Shane and I all agreed was important in terms of progressing and getting to where I wanted ultimately. It was tough, but always worthwhile.

 

View this post on Instagram

A big couple of days at #tracknats2018 – a couple of gold medals and, unbelievably, a world record in the IP today! So glad the @shanejkelly finally got to be a part of some winning rides – he's been there to see me get belted on the road too often 🙈. Big thanks to @vicinstsport, in particular @drhbrennan for stepping in and giving all sorts of advice and support since I landed in Melbourne. Big thanks to @renewphysio (Fooksy) for helping my body recover everytime it throws us an MS curve ball. I have to give the greatest of thanks to both Shane and @cameron_jennings for their coaching and careful management of me since my return. So grateful for the support of everyone at @australiancyclingteam and @cyclingaustralia and, of course, my @vis.sprintsquad crew! Results don't come from just one person – I have literally got a village of people holding my hand through this! #sprintsquadcheersquad #trackcycling #paracycling racing photo 📸 credit Con Chronis

A post shared by Emily Petricola (@em_petricola_cycling) on

 

One year I raced during an MS relapse. I’d lost a lot of power in my right leg so it was like riding on one leg through the course. And I was really tired; the kind of fatigue that you get when you’re having an MS issue. I can’t describe it. It’s not like anything I ever had before I was diagnosed. It’s literally like your body can’t function.

 

I remember being on the flight back to the UAE thinking, ‘I’ve got to do this one more year, give it everything and then, if I’m still not good enough, I’ve got to pull the pin.’ Because I felt I was doing so much compromising.

 

Giving up a lot of the day, getting up at four o’clock in the morning to train before I went to school and teaching for a full day on top of trying to manage the MS stuff. It was really hard work.

 

I came back the next winter to train with Shane and during some testing at the VIS, a sports scientist said I should consider the track based on my physiological results.

 

I had only seen velodromes when my best mate and I had watched Shane race years prior… and even then I probably was more interested in having a glass of wine and a chat with her! I’ll never forget how intimidated I was when I turned up for the first couple of four-hour sessions with Shane.

 

It was terrible. It took until the last hour of the second session for me to actually get onto the boards because I was so scared by them – I was convinced that my poor balance would mean I would definitely topple over.

 

But I remember saying to Shane at the end of the very first session, ‘This may feel like it’s hard to believe, but I’m going to win gold medals on the track. I promise you.’ Being Shane, he said, ‘Oh, I believe it, I believe it.’

 

I think about it now and there’s no way he could have believed it!

 

In 2018, I broke the world record for the first time. It was really hard to believe that in my first international pursuit race I had broken the world record. It was in qualifying and I sat there covered in ice packs to try and get my body back to a normal temperature so I could try to do it again in the final. I remember saying to the physio afterwards, ‘This is unbelievable, how did that just happen?’

 

Para cycling has meant everything to me. It has given me a purpose, and really has been the silver lining in the daunting black cloud that is MS.

 

I don’t know what tomorrow will bring. All I can do is get up and force myself to do whatever I can each day, just do my best with everything I attempt despite whatever else is going on.

 

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