How do you react when, at the age of 50, you discover a latent talent that could have taken your life in an entirely different direction?
For Newcastle doctor Sally McKenna it was a bittersweet moment when she realised she could have been an elite-level cyclist, even an Olympian, if she had started training and racing 35 years earlier.
Her story is testament to how luck and opportunity can play a part in success. Undoubtedly she missed the boat, but, as she continues to push her physical limits, she is showing that age need not be a barrier to athletic excellence and fulfilment.
McKenna, 52, took up cycling barely two years ago after moving to Newcastle from the Central Coast. In October she won the blue-ribbon women’s sprint at the World Masters Track Cycling Championships in Manchester, beating Denmark’s reigning world champion, Janni Borrman, in the 50-54 age category. She also won silver in the team pursuit and bronze in the 500-metre time trial.
“I’ve only really started cycling in the past two and a bit years,” she told Weekender. “I started road cycling about two years ago then went across to track cycling at the beginning of this year. I competed at the state, national then world championships and won titles at all of them.
“I’ve always been very sports-conscious but have played lots and lots of different things, mostly team sports like netball, softball, but really didn’t do much very seriously because of work. My work took up a lot of my time until I could get a bit further into my career and I could free up a bit more space to do things I like a little bit better, be able to put the time into training that you need to excel.
“I think my competitors at the world championships pretty much train like elite athletes. You don’t just turn up quite fit and expect that you’re going to do OK.”
I road race against girls who race in the national road series, so I do, I think, ‘Wow, what could have been possible?’ It’s just simply amazing what people can achieve if they’re doing something in a very planned way.
McKenna works as an addiction medicine specialist for Hunter New England Health’s drug and alcohol service.
She concedes she is somewhat of a perfectionist and confesses to a healthy competitive streak. She trains six days a week – often twice a day – and has transformed her already athletic body into a powerful, age-defying frame. Part of her gym routine involves box jumps, as depicted by Anna Meares in TV commercials before the Rio Olympics.
“In the last year I’ve built quite a lot of muscle and have discovered box jumping and other such fun activities. I’m not quite up to that [Meares’] height, but I’m not going too badly. I look like I’ve been at a gym my whole life, fairly muscly. I haven’t been in a gym all of my life; I’ve just been really active. But certainly in the last year, when I’ve done a lot more strength work at the gym, I don’t think too many people would pick me in a fight.
“I’m a typical girl. I get on the scales and I think, ‘Oh my god.’ My weight was just going up and up. My body shape has changed, but I don’t think potentially for the worse. My legs and my butt certainly have changed. It hasn’t been a big issue. I’ve maybe been a bit self-conscious because my arms are quite strong and people certainly comment on them, but that’s just genetic, I think.”
McKenna, a member of the Hunter Women’s Cycling group, can be found regularly on her bike on the Fernleigh Track riding one-kilometre hill sprints to improve her lactate threshold. Before the world titles she travelled to Sydney once a week to practise at the Dunc Gray Velodrome. This devotion to training has made her competitive against elite riders less than half her age, prompting thoughts of what might have been.
“I absolutely do think about that quite often. The sort of times that I’m riding, they’re not competitive times, but they are qualifying times, even at my age, in elite events, even against the younger girls who are looking to have a cycling career. I race against girls who race in the national road series, so I do, I think, ‘Wow, what could have been possible?’”
McKenna regards herself as a “guinea pig”, having adopted an intensive training program, under coach Glenn Lewis, in her 50s. She trains on the graffiti-daubed track at Newcastle Velodrome at Broadmeadow with other Hunter riders, but most of her gym sessions she completes alone.
“This year I’ve missed maybe two training sessions, otherwise I’ve done what I’ve been told as well as I could and been really fascinated by what the outcome may be, and it’s been quite amazing. It’s just simply amazing what people can achieve if they’re doing something in a very planned way.
“There were certainly some dark moments, the cold mornings through winter, getting out of bed in the dark thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing? This is ridiculous.’ And then I’d think, ‘These are the days maybe my competitors are not training. These are the days that make the difference, the days you go and do it when you don’t feel like it.’
“Having a coach helped enormously because I thought, ‘He’s put all this time into writing this program for me and monitoring it.’ I owe it to him not to say, ‘I’m not going to bother today.’ It keeps you on the straight and narrow as well.”
McKenna was clueless about the cycling scene until she moved to Newcastle five years ago.
“I thought I need to look at doing a few things outside of medicine so that I’ve got a bit more balance in my life. I actually rang one of the cycling shops and asked if they knew of any group rides. They said there’s this one and that one. I turned up and started doing a group ride on a Saturday through Hadley’s Cycles, and the people I was riding with were saying, ‘Are you racing this afternoon?’
“I thought, ‘Racing?’ Of course, I knew it existed, but I’d never thought of it as a sport or something you’d take seriously. I sort of got a bit more interested and then decided to get a racing licence, joined a local club and started racing. I was in the lowest grade and got left behind in my first race, but I just sort of turned up and started to get a bit better, and then about two years ago I was at a local cycling event and a cycling coach approached me and said, ‘I was just watching you ride, and you could be a lot, lot better if a few things were a bit different with how your bike’s set up.’ He started coaching me.
“I didn’t really know bike clubs existed, to be honest. I joined Hunter Valley Masters Cycling Club, and they sponsored me to go to the world championships, which was very kind of them. I got an enormous amount of local support, not necessarily financially, but just from the cycling community.”
McKenna represented her school at state athletics when she was young.
“But it all sort of stopped when I started studying, really. I’ve always been doing something, like fun runs, always had that side of my life, but never really able to focus on it close to full-time.”
She has risen from F grade in mixed club competition to be one of only four women in Newcastle B grade. She bought a new race bike this year, and her daughter christened it Iris after the Greek rainbow goddess. Months later she brought home a cycling world champion’s rainbow jersey from Manchester.
“My bike, because they’re pretty expensive things, she has her own room in the house which is now just called Iris’ room.”
McKenna says she is “chipping away at the edges” of age world records.
“I reckon they’re in danger if I keep training. Not wanting to sound too confident, but they’re in sight, anyway, which I find bizarre.”