Caroline Buchanan’s London Olympic campaign was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment.
The gun went off. Eight finalists scrambled for the lead. A crescendo of hills. A blur of colours.
An Olympic dream over in less than 39 seconds.
Despite lining up for the women’s BMX final as favourite – she was the fastest qualifier, won the time-trial and swept the field in her semifinal – Buchanan started poorly, was cut off and quickly reduced to a mere spectator. Past results count for zip in this roll-the-dice, thoroughly Gen-Y sport. No second chances. It’s all about instant gratification.
Buchanan consoled herself on the trackside. After discarding her helmet she sobbed into her hands, 10 intricately painted nails – gold, in anticipation of the coronation that would never be – accented against her jet-black hair.
‘It seriously feels like a nightmare,’ she said to the assembled media. ‘My house has burnt down, my brother has broken his neck, so I’ve had setbacks in my life before. But nothing compares to this. I just want to get out of here… I got fifth, but at the end of the day I wanted gold.’
Exorcising the demons
Fast-forward a year and the landscape has changed. Buchanan’s black hair is gone – replaced with a lighter, auburn colour – and she is upbeat as she reflects on the race that forced her to ‘hit rock bottom’.
‘I think once I got to that Olympic final, I hadn’t prepared myself for being in a situation where I’d ticked every box,’ says Buchanan, 22, from a hotel room in Los Angeles where she is waiting for a flight back home. ‘I got to that moment and I freaked out. Instead of choosing lane one I chose lane three – a big mistake – and it caused me to doubt myself. At that elite level you can’t allow your competitors to have that edge.
‘I was devastated [by the result] and I think all the people back home who stayed up to watch me cried as well. But looking back on it now I’m actually glad, because it’s brought me up to an even higher level has really made me do a lot of soul searching.’
When Buchanan speaks her voice is light and feminine – surprising for a self-confessed ‘tomboy’ – but her choice of words is no-nonsense, oozing energy and confidence. Time, it appears, heals all wounds.
So too do world championships. In July Buchanan won the BMX world title in Auckland – her first in the discipline after nabbing gold at the 2009 four-cross world championships.
‘I put myself in the same position I was in at London and this time I picked lane one. I had the Olympic champion right next to me but I knew it was my time. I cut her off and she came fifth – so the roles were reversed.
‘That definitely removed the demons for me. London is behind me now.’
Building a speed machine
It all started when Buchanan was eight years old. The Canberra native was on a family outing when they drove past a BMX track in Tuggeranong and went in for a look. It was love at first sight – at least as soon as she saw her older brother hop on a bike.
‘Anything my brother did, I copied,’ laughs Buchanan, who wasn’t deterred by the largely male-dominated sport. ‘I fell in love and never looked back.’
It helped that her father is a former track cyclist from Wales. For the first several years they kept training fun – despite Buchanan’s entering tournaments from age nine – and it wasn’t until BMX was announced as an Olympic sport for the 2008 Beijing Olympics that it took a more serious edge.
But there was heartbreak along the way. In January 2003 the family home burnt down in the Canberra bushfires and her brother suffered a serious injury.
‘That was a tough year. Our family home burnt down and we lost everything. BMX became a huge focus for our family – it kept us sane through what happened. We’d lost everything except our bikes.
‘Then that same year at the national championships my brother had a bad accident. He broke his neck and was actually a quadriplegic and then a paraplegic on the track. Luckily he regained feeling later in the hospital.’
It was a period that tested the mettle of this most determined of Aussie athletes. Add to that her own injuries – she suffered kidney failure after one accident – and it’s a combination of events that would have had most racing into early retirement.
But Buchanan was undeterred.
‘Accidents happen in BMX and it was a scary thing. But I think it’s just as dangerous to walk down the street; at any moment you could get hit by a car. I don’t think you can live life scared,’ says the woman who has earned her reputation as a daredevil of the track.
World class to world best
Buchanan’s transformation from world class to world best has been a remarkable one. Following the London Olympics she joined the AIS as a full-time athlete, where she has been working closely with strength and conditioning coach Julian Jones on building a power advantage and improving her starts.
‘He’s been an angel for me. Over the last few years I’ve had the feeling that some of my training hasn’t been suited to BMX, and Julian has really helped me to change that.
‘I think to have the AIS fully behind the BMX program will take the sport to another level. Before that we didn’t have all of the disciplines like nutrition and biomechanics and sports science behind us. Now we have this, and it’s a real confidence boost.’
Buchanan just competed in the downhill world championships in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, where she placed fifth. She will now turn her attention to reclaiming her four-cross world title in Leogang, Austria, on 21 September. She is the only rider in the world competing in all three disciplines in 2013.
‘The skills cross over so they both benefit each other. And I guess after going into the London Olympics and setting my goals so high and seeing how that pushed me to a new level, I want to put myself under that pressure again. It’s a big ask and logistically it’s a nightmare, but I’m looking forward to it.’
While the long-term goal is gold at the Rio Olympics, Buchanan hasn’t dismissed ‘going to the dark side’ and trying her wheels in track cycling. She’s also eager to pursue a media and marketing career at some point – an ideal path for the prolific user of social media – and being admired for more than her sporting prowess.
‘I don’t want to be known as just a BMX racer. I want people to realise there’s a person under that helmet so I make sure I have a profile outside of the sport.’
From the AIS – www.ausport.gov.au