When Anna Meares landed in London to race bitter rival Victoria Pendleton for sprint gold at the 2012 Olympics, the British tabloids were waiting, loaded with cruel barbs.
“One of the headlines was `Broomstick versus Lipstick’,’’ Meares told 160 female secondary students at an Empowered leadership event at Adelaide Oval last week.
“I was typecast as the ugly coal miner’s daughter coming in to steal Queen Victoria’s gold.
“I had never been judged or commented on how I looked in a profession that required nothing to do with image, and it was a real challenge for me to walk into that environment, stay composed and perform on the highest stage sport can offer.’’
Meares continued, detailing her treatment by a male customs officer at Heathrow Airport.
“I handed over my passport and all my papers to get my accreditation to go into the Olympic village,’’ she said.
“The gentlemen looked up and said without a smile, ‘You’re Victoria’s rival’. And I said, ‘Yes, Sir, I am, please let me in’. It took 20 minutes of processing and he spoke not a word to me in that time.
“When he passed me back my accreditation and passport, he said `Enjoy your silver’.
“I hadn’t even entered the country and the customs officer is slinging me the best lip I have ever received in my life.
“It could have thrown me because it doesn’t take much for someone that you do, or don’t know, to plant a seed of negativity that will grow and grow and potentially derail all the hard work that you have done. That was that moment for me.’’
Fast forward to the best of three final of the sprint and Meares would lose the first round by the width of a lead pencil line, only to be awarded the win after the race commissaire relegated Pendleton for impeding her line.
Less than 20 minutes later, and four years after breaking her neck in a track fall seven months prior to the Beijing Olympics, Meares became a dual Olympic champion, executing her famous `track stand’ – balancing her stationary bike on the bank on the track – to force Pendleton forward and launch her winning attack.
“I honestly believe the reason I won this day was not because I was physically better, but I had done the work mentally to perform under pressure, to make decisions without hesitation, to have a plan to follow – all of that comes from the preparation prior,’’ Meares said.
The 39-year-old retired in 2016 and remains the world’s most successful female track cyclist in the history of World Championships. She is the only Australian athlete in any sport to have stood on the medal podium in four consecutive Olympics.
Resilience, personal loss, and overcoming adversity were common themes in Meares’ speech which she concluded with the words of former coach Gary West who died from Motor Neurone Disease a year after Rio.
“He always said that you can’t guarantee an outcome… but what you can guarantee is accepting who you are, owning yourself, following the process and application to give yourself the best chance of success, and celebrating those successes when they come,’’ she said.
Meares, a mother-of-two and a foster carer, joined Minister for Women and the Prevention of Domestic and Family Violence Katrine Hildyard, Magistrate Jay Pandya, and Port Adelaide Football Club AFLW stars at the event, hosted by Power Community Limited (PCL) and supported by the South Australian Women’s Fund.
The Empowered program is delivered by PCL in partnership with Centacare and the Department for Education and aims to enhance female students’ positive sense of self, build confidence and foster critical thinking about gender equity and women’s rights.
Empowered runs alongside the nationally recognised Power to End Violence Against Women (PTEVAW) program which uses the power of sport as a hook to start conversations with Year 10 male students about domestic violence and challenge gender-based norms that can lead to abuse.
Prevention is one of four key pillars of the new National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children 2022-2032, launched earlier this month.
Respectful relationships and consent education in schools are among long-term priorities outlined in the plan, with a focus on ending violence in one generation.
*If you would like PTEVAW and Empowered to visit your school, contact Cam Sutcliffe by email email@example.com
Pictures: Angus Northeast