The Rio Olympic Games are drawing closer, and for Joanna Rowsell Shand her daily focus is on making herself stronger, faster, and more in tune with her team mates – all in aid of a four kilometre ride in the velodrome this August.
The Team Pursuit rider is deep in preparation for what will be her second Olympics. This year, however, GB’s Team Pursuit squad isn’t quite as dominant as it was back in 2012, when they went into the Velodrome as World Champions, World Record Holders, and home favourites.
We caught up with the 27-year-old to find out how she’s managing the expectations and pressures of training in the run up to Rio.
"We want to win. We don’t want to go there to get a Silver or a Bronze or a fourth place."
One thing’s for sure – she’s going for Gold. Speaking about motivations within the squad, she said: “The pressure is more from ourselves, rather than anyone else. We want to win. We don’t want to go there to get a Silver or a Bronze or a fourth place. We’re Olympic champions from London, we want to get that Olympic Gold again."
The pressure then, is self-inflicted. Discussing recent headlines about sexism and a culture of fear withing British Cycling, Rowsell Shand is quick to defend her own treatment, saying: "I’ve very lucky to be a funded rider, I’m very lucky to be part of a squad where I would say we’re treated very equally to the men’s team pursuit squad. We’ve got so many world class staff working specifically for our medal. I haven’t got any complaints [of sexism]."
Though the Great British Team aren’t nearly as dominant as they were, she thinks they’re still in a good place – explaining: “Back in 2012, we went in as World Champions and World Record holders. But that year at the World Champs we’d qualified two tenths quicker than Australia. It was really tight, at the World Cup in London in February 2012 we’d won by eight tenths of a second. We’d won by really small margins, and people seem to forget about that. Obviously by London at the Olympics we’d won by a big margin, but people forget about all the narrow victories along the way."
She adds: “I think going into London we never felt complacent, we never felt head and shoulders above the rest of the world, we almost felt like everyone was chasing us really closely. This year it’s different in that we’re the chasers – but I’d still say we’re right in the mix."
"But it’s elite sport – you’re always pushing the boundaries – it’s never going to be perfect all the time."
The World Championships weren’t what the team had hoped for. Mistakes in qualification left the former World Champions fighting for Bronze – though they did eventually manage to gain the third place. Rowsell Shand says: “I think we learnt a lot of lessons from the World Championships, it was good to learn there, rather than at the Olympics. You could argue that as experienced as we are, we shouldn’t have made mistakes. But it’s elite sport – you’re always pushing the boundaries – it’s never going to be perfect all the time. But the big positive I took from the World Championships is that we were the fastest in the final ride."
The Team Pursuit squad at the World Championships wasn’t at full strength. Katie Archibald was still recovering from her knee injury, so Rowsell Shand competed with Laura Trott, Elinor Barker, and Ciara Horne – who struggled in qualification and lost the wheel. So ahead of the games, the team will work hard on riding in unison.
Rowsell Shand said: “I think the most important thing [in the Team Pursuit] is working together. Even during the race, if I’m on someone’s wheel, I can normally tell by their body language if they’re struggling – they’ll get a bit of a twist on or something – and I think being able to read your team mates during the race and seeing how they’re riding [is important]. You need to adapt in the race, you can have the best plan in the world in terms of lap strategy and lap splits, but if it falls to bits, you’ve got to adjust as you go. I think we learnt a lot from the World Championships in that sense."
Rowsell Shand also said that she believed the team needed to ride the full 4 kilometres they’ll cover in Rio more often in training – saying: “The pain that you go through in that final kilometre, you don’t really want to do that to yourself every day, you’d set back your training – we tend to do more 2 kilometre and 3 kilometre efforts. I think it’s important to do it more often and push ourselves right to the limit, and find where that limit is more often."
"You can’t think about 'what if this, what if that' all the time, your mind would just be boggled all the time."
The margins in track disciplines are so often very small – a tenth of a second here, eight of a second there. Discussing how she copes with the hairs-width between Gold and fourth, she said: “A small mistake that costs a tenth of a second could be a difference. It’s pressure, but I try not to focus on that during the race – I try to focus on my job, my turns on the front. You can’t think about 'what if this, what if that' all the time, your mind would just be boggled."
The same logic – focusing on the present moment – is something she employs in training as well as racing – saying: “I’m pretty much just focused on the next week. And the week after that. The week’s until the Olympics gradually tick by. I really enjoy the process of training. Watching the power outputs, and all the gym sessions, I find myself quite focused on the process, as opposed to thinking about the big target coming up. Take each day as it comes."
For many of us cycling is our hobby – our release from the stress and pressure of work. For Rowsell Shand, it’s very different – and sometimes she just has to squash thoughts of training and competition. She said: “My husband Dan is really supportive. He’s always there to talk to, if I want to talk about my training, but equally I can say ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ and we’ll watch a film or rubbish on TV and completely take our mind off it. It’s good in a way that he’s not a cyclist, he’s not part of the GB team. Some other girls partners are part of the squad, whilst he’s got a different outlook in things and can remind me that there are other things in life on days when it’s not going so well. That’s really handy."
Friends and family are a welcome reminder that there is life outside of the velodrome, she explained saying: “My husband’s got two nephews and a niece, the youngest was born in January, so to spend time with them is always quite refreshing. To get out of that bubble. We’re so focused on what we’re doing… it seems like the biggest thing in the World. But to have someone ask 'what’s that competition you’re doing this summer?' – it puts things into perspective. People have got young children to look after, and I’m worrying about riding round in circles for four minutes. It’s nice to put things in perspective occasionally and be around normal people. If I can use the word normal – but people with more normal jobs, and more normal lifestyles than me. I quite enjoy that."
"I never set out thinking ‘I want to inspire people’ because you don’t. You’re doing it [cycling] for a very selfish reason."
Of course, Rowsell Shand isn’t really a ‘normal’ person with a ‘normal’ job – she’s an inspiration to so many. Though it’s not a role she set out to fill, she’s pleased to be of service: “I never set out thinking ‘I want to inspire people’ because you don’t. You’re doing it [cycling] for a very selfish reason – you want to be the best in the world, or the best you can be. But I do really like it when I meet someone, or I meet parents, and they say ‘we’ve started cycling because of you’ or ‘our daughter wanted to join a cycling club because of you’. Especially in the alapesha community. So many people have said to me I’ve been an inspiration to them which is really nice for me to hear. There's so many more girls cycling now than when I started, it's phenomenal."
We can't wait to see the team compete - check out the great kit they'll be wearing here.