There is no better experience than achieving your dreams, and despite it being ten years ago, for Cycling Australia star Kaarle McCulloch receiving the news she made the team for her first multi-sport event for Australia is a memory that feels like yesterday.
“I remember getting the phone call because it had been my dream to go to a multi-sport event, and seeing it was my first multi-sport event, I was pretty excited about it,” McCulloch said.
“In some ways it does feel like a while ago, and a lot has happened in between, but there are aspects from the Games which feel like it was yesterday.”
Selection for the team to compete in India, would come shortly following the 2010 UCI World Championships in Denmark in March of 2010, and McCulloch was confident on making the team after pairing with Anna Meares to win the women’s team sprint event, in a world record time, the duo’s second consecutive world title.
“By that time [following the world championships] I was a double world champion, and I was feeling pretty confident about my selection to the team,” McCulloch said.
Kaarle McCulloch paired with Anna Meares to win the team sprint at Delhi. (CGA Archives)
Selection to the team was another step in the meteoric rise of the young cyclist who had only began competing in the sport of track cycling in 2005, after being encouraged by her step-father to take up a new sport following a junior career in athletics.
“It had only been five years… I was 22 in Delhi, and I had got on the bike [and began cycling] when I was 17,” McCulloch said.
The Delhi 2010 Games would be the first time the Commonwealth Games had been held in India, a new experience for the Commonwealth Sport movement, but also for the then 22-year old.
“I had never been to India before the Games… when we flew into Delhi, the airport was brand new, it kind of impressed me because all of the infrastructure for the Games was amazing and it was a good start to what would be an amazing event,” McCulloch said.
“We had people greet us at the airport, the mascot for the Games [Shera] was there welcoming athletes as they were arriving… it made you realise this was bigger than sport for India.”
It was not just a significant opportunity for the host nation but also for the rider on the rise who would encounter a new set of learning experiences herself.
Kaarle McCulloch in action at the velodrome in Delhi. (CGA Archives)
“I definitely felt new pressures because I saw Delhi as being a great opportunity to get experience for other multi-sport events, and I really wanted to see after being a two-time world champion [as a duo] to see what I was capable as an individual,” McCulloch said.
“I had being training super well in the Colorado camp in high altitude [about six weeks before the Games] but as I soon as I hit Aigle, Switzerland [two weeks before the Games] I sort of hit a downward form spiral.
“I got some food poisoning in Aigle, so when I got to Delhi, I felt like I was scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of form…
“I definitely did not achieve what I wanted to in the individual events and part of that was anxiety and pressure, something I had never experienced before being at my first multi-sport event.”
The new feelings found a younger Kaarle facing challenges almost all elite athletes will face during their careers, so having the team’s elder stateswoman as a roommate proved to be a source of advice.
“The team went with a different strategy in Delhi than previous events and Games, and we were roomed with another team member from a different discipline of cycling, so I was roomed with the endurance rider Belinda Goss who was at that stage a bit of an older member of the team,” McCulloch said.
“So it was great for me to be roomed with her because she had a wealth of experience, and she was different from my teammates, so it was fantastic to be able to get as much insight and advice from her and her experiences.”
Kaarle McCulloch (R) paired with Anna Meares to win the team sprint at Delhi. (CGA Archives)
McCulloch was competing in three events at the Indira Gandhi Indoor Cycling Velodrome, the individual sprint, the team sprint, where she was world champion, but first up was the 500m time trial, the event which for Kaarle holds “a special place” in her heart.
Sixth in the world at the time, her main rival at the Commonwealth Games would be world champion partner and teammate Anna Meares.
Meares, the reigning world champion in the time trial would go on to claim the gold medal, Kaarle would claim the silver medal, her first career medal, but the event would also provide valuable lessons she would never forget.
“I did have a lot of issues and troubles with controlling my anxiety and my nerves, when I was younger, I have distinct memories of [the time trial] in Delhi of thinking a little too much about wanting to win rather than thinking about how to win,” McCulloch said.
“So looking back on it, I did actually get a lot from Delhi, it was a great learning experience for me because it really made me realise I need to take a different strategy about how I prepare for an event.
“Being a two-time world champion, people just expect you to win, but don’t understand how hard it actually is to win.
“Having that experience of not doing as well as I had wanted, those poor performances from I had wanted, really helped me establish a way of how I did want to prepare and compete in the future.
“The 500m time trial holds a special place in my heart, I won the event at the Gold Coast 2018 Games, which is probably the most significant individual achievement I have had in my career… it was those experiences in Delhi… which really helped me in my later career.”
In an interesting quirk in the sport of track cycling, a day later after competing against each other and being fierce rivals, McCulloch would then team up with Meares to compete in the team sprint, an event the world champion duo were the favourites to win.
Kaarle McCulloch (R) winning her first Commonwealth Games gold medal. (CGA Archives)
“It sounds a bit cocky, but it was like I was in automatic mode,” McCulloch said.
“I was so comfortable and so confident in our abilities as a team to pull off the win.
“We had a good feeling and we had a good bond with one another.”
The feeling proved to be golden as the pair dominated the field, winning the gold medal against Scotland by over two seconds, an eternity in track cycling. Kaarle’s first breakthrough victory at the Commonwealth Games.
“If you won a medal, especially a gold medal, you were presented with a bracelet by the Australian Commonwealth Games Association (Commonwealth Games Australia), which is still in my Mum’s cabinet of memories from my career,” McCulloch said.
The now Commonwealth champion returned for her final event, the individual sprint.
Meeting up against teammate Emily Rosemond in the bronze medal match, McCulloch was again on the receiving end of learning a new and difficult experience, this time on track rules.
“That race is the one which hurts because I felt like I was the better rider on the day, but I broke the rules and I got relegated and when you break the rules that is what happens,” McCulloch said.
Games officials disqualified Kaarle for dangerous sprinting, the officials and their decisions were a source of controversy at the Games for a number of the Australian cyclists, but Kaarle took the ruling in her stride, and learnt from the experience.
“I remember that was the point where I told myself I would become stricter with the rules and try not to break them because I didn’t know I had done an illegal move at the time, but these are the things you have to learn the hard way,” McCulloch said.
“So whenever I am in the sprint, I now always take a little look over my shoulder to make sure I am in the right place and no one is there.”
Kaarle McCulloch paired with Anna Meares to win the team sprint at Delhi. (CGA Archives)
The Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games proved to be a golden meet for the Australian Cycling Team, finishing with 21 total medals, including 14 gold medals.
Kaarle would finish her maiden Games with a gold medal and a silver, and aside from the experiences gained on the wooden planks of the velodrome, the Games in India would also provide Kaarle with a humbling experience of the world.
“I think one the most interesting things that happen to me during my time in Delhi, and one of the things that shocked me at the multi-sport events, there are all these free vending machines, and I thought this is magnificent,” McCulloch said.
“So I always had Coke bottle beside my bed… I don’t even drink Coke… but I thought this is great, this is free, I am going to take this and have this bottle near my bed.
“Then one day I was laying on my bed, and we had a team of cleaners come through every day, and they were all women, and the supervisor was a man, and they would be cleaning the apartments on their hands and knees scrubbing the floors, which I thought was quite strange.
“This lady came around my side of the bed and she noticed the bottle of Coke beside my bed, and she looked at the bottle of Coke, and then she looked at me, and she didn’t really speak English, but she was looking at the bottle, so I offered it to her, and I said, ‘please take it, please have it’… she was a bit nervous, but I said yes, yes, please take it.
“She was a bit scared because she didn’t want her supervisor to see, but she took it and she opened it and took a sip and her eyes opened wide, and she skulled it!
“I realised in that moment, and had a greater understanding of the differences in the way of life between Australia and India, and it just opened my eyes as to how lucky we are in Australia… but also opened my eyes to maybe I played a small part in the happiness or joy to that one lady’s life.
“But I was grateful for all the Games staff and volunteers, the cleaners, everyone who made the Games a memorable experience.”
Kaarle McCulloch during the 500m Time Trial event. (CGA Archives)
It proved to be a whirlwind trip for McCulloch, flying into the nation, competing and then leaving, meant she only got to experience the Athletes’ Village, the velodrome and out of the window going to and from the two locations. But the Games in Asia, provided the opportunity for Kaarle’s father to attend in person, so being able to share the experience with him was a highlight.
“You could invite family and friends into the village, so I could bring my father into the village and show him around, so that was a great experience,” McCulloch said.
But given the nature of the cycling program, McCulloch missed out on attending the Opening and Closing Ceremonies and donning the now-infamous uniforms.
“I have to say that uniform was the most outrageous uniform to date,” McCulloch recalls with a laugh. “I guess that’s the plan in the design to be ‘out there’, so the yellow tops and the grey skirts definitely did that.”
But while she didn’t get to celebrate at the Ceremony, the Games provided experiences that Kaarle has used throughout her career and continues to call upon as she prepares for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
“I really enjoyed Delhi, it was a great experience… an experience which helped me at the Gold Coast, which gave me a world of confidence that has kicked off a great few years for me,” McCulloch said.
“I’ve been selected for the team for Tokyo, and I am in preparation for the Olympics, which has been pretty rough, I was considering retirement following the Games in Tokyo, but now it has been pushed back a year, I am now thinking to myself… hmmm… Birmingham is not too far away.
“So it is a bit of a strange time and I am rehabbing a back injury at the moment so it has been a little bit frustrating, but I am hoping by the end of the year and I am pushing towards Tokyo as hard as I can.”
While she continues to pedal and prepare towards her second Olympic Games, Kaarle McCulloch can call upon the lessons she learned at first Commonwealth Games in Delhi a decade ago.