After agonisingly missing out on the Olympics, then getting Covid-19, a change of scene is helping Kiwi rider Michaela Drummond keep her cycling dream alive.
When the road to Tokyo closed off for good, Michaela Drummond was finished.
She’d poured everything into the New Zealand track cycling programme for the last four years, only to come up just short, named as a reserve for the 2021 Olympics. Her glass wasn’t half-empty or half-full. It was shattered.
“I didn’t think I would ever be happy again,” the 23-year-old says.
Drummond had been trying to make the team pursuit team for the Games, with five spots available. She’d had enjoyed a lot of success in the past, including a bronze medal at the 2019 world championships in Poland. While she was a key member of the squad, competition for places was fierce, and every ride in the lead-up to the Olympics mattered.
That’s where she’d come unstuck. During a World Cup event in Brisbane, she’d only lasted one race after battling exhaustion and a rash on her leg.
Back home in Cambridge, a bout of food poisoning struck her down when she tried to compete in the madison, another one of her events. Her struggles were compounded by an auto-immune disease that took her out of training and racing for four months.
At the same time, the team pursuit outfit was firing on all cylinders. They produced a blistering ride in their home velodrome, which was just half a second off the world record set by Great Britain. Jamie Nielsen was also back in the mix after taking a break to have a child and was stronger than ever.
Deep down, Drummond knew she wouldn’t be able to get back in. Instead, she started planning out 2020 and a possible move to Europe. Of course, coronavirus soon scuppered that. But it did raise one big question: maybe if the Olympics were delayed, she’d have another chance to make it?
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When the Games were pushed back, emails from Cycling New Zealand hinted at a possible re-selection process. By now, Drummond had recovered from her auto-immune disease and was training hard. She was motivated and hopeful.
In the end though, the selections didn’t change. When the move to Europe firmed up, she decided she wanted to focus on road cycling for a bit to improve her strength and her endurance.
Just as she settled on her future, however, an extra bunch spot opened up in the New Zealand track team. There were now six endurance riders, not five, set to go to the Games. Tokyo was back on.
“I didn’t actually know about this for a wee while, and I’d already planned to go over to the road,” she says. “When it opened up, I was hoping after racing the world championships for the last four years and competing in the omnium and a lot of madisons at the World Cups, that I’d be in good contention for the spot,” she says.
But in a now familiar cycle of hope and disappointment, Drummond wasn’t picked.
“It was probably the lowest point for me because I really felt like I deserved that spot. That was a hard point to get through,” she says.
While Drummond was still involved as a reserve, she couldn’t face another year of watching on as the others prepared for Tokyo.
“I had a lot of pain going to the track every day and I just felt really hurt still in the environment,” she remembers.
Turning up at the velodrome was suffocating her and she needed to get out.
“I just had a lot of fear in the environment that I was in. Mentally, I wasn’t doing well seeing what I wanted to be doing and not being able to do it. I love my team-mates and they’re amazing and my best friends, but they’re also my competitors,” she says.
Drummond talked a lot with a psychologist provided by Cycling NZ, who helped her understand what she was going through. It helped to change her perspective on missing out. While she didn’t make the Games this time, she realised how much she’d enjoyed the journey, and didn’t want to give up on it just yet.
To keep her dream alive though, she needed something different.
Her boyfriend lived in Portugal, and they’d been doing long-distance for a while. Now was the perfect opportunity to head over there and live with him, as well as getting in some racing on the road while the track events stalled around the world.
Leaving the relative sanctuary of New Zealand took her away from a largely Covid-free world, and into Europe’s ripe petri dish. It didn’t take long for her to be exposed.
Drummond and her boyfriend decided to get tested for Covid-19 before heading away on holiday, only for the results to come back positive. Lying on the beach was replaced with lying at home devouring Netflix.
While her boyfriend was quite sick, in bed with a fever and body aches, Drummond only had to overcome a bit of a headache. Fortunately, the virus didn’t linger and she hasn’t suffered any long-term effects either, with a range of scans declaring she was healthy again and ready to get back on the bike.
She had secured a deal with Italian team BePink, who are regularly invited to race at the highest level of women’s cycling on the World Tour. They’ve taken on several Kiwis in the past and just recently signed Christchurch teenager Henrietta Christie.
Drummond’s first race for the team was the mythical Strade-Bianche in March; a brutal ride over white gravel roads which whip up dust and drama like an electric beater. Her debut taste could have easily sent her sprinting back to the track in Cambridge, but she savoured every moment.
“That race made me fall in love with road cycling… I think it’s my most fun race to date. Just riding with some of the best women in the world, it was something special for sure,” she recalls.
She’d caught the road cycling buzz; fittingly summed up by a bee sting on her leg towards the end of the day. She went on to race some of the biggest events on the calendar, including Belgian blockbusters La Fleche Wallonne Feminin and Liege-Bastogne-Liege Femmes.
“I’ve managed to do every climber’s race you could think of, so as a sprinter, it’s been truly tough!” Drummond laughs. “But I think it’s been these races that have been making me so strong, and I think once I get to a race that suits me, I’m going to be more than ready to do a good sprint.”
And bubbling away in the background is her desire to return to the velodrome. She wants to come back at the end of the year and compete at the track nationals, before hopefully making the team for the Commonwealth Games in 2022.
She’s confident the road is making her a stronger athlete and driving the endurance and fitness she needs to lift her levels on the boards.
While the road to Tokyo might be closed, Drummond’s finding out there’s always another way to get where you want to go, even if you have to go off the beaten track.