The Road to the Olympics: Cyclist Mel Spath
Watching the Olympics (only two more weeks!), what you see is the glory: Athletes performing super-human feats, records being broken, medals being won.
What you don’t see is the path these athletes take to get there: the immense personal, trying professional, and grueling physical challenges they have to overcome in pursuit of representing their countries at the Games.
And that’s why, over the next several weeks, we’re giving you an inside look—a peek inside the life of women with Olympic aspirations. For anyone who’s dreamed of being an athlete (or just loves being a spectator!), it’s a series you can’t miss.
Mel was running late, and asked me to reschedule our call to 9 PM. Having spent the day doing research for her doctorate, she had to squeeze in a quick training session in the evening.
When I rung her a little past 9, she appeared on our video call having just gotten out of the shower and focused on preparing her salad. “Just one minute,” she said, “I just need to finish making my dinner.”
“How was the training session?” I asked her.
“Wet. It’s been raining here a lot,” Mel replied about her home in Dublin. Originally born and raised in Germany, Mel had moved and become an Irish national after marrying her husband and coach, Ryan. Now, a PhD student at Trinity College, Mel has spent the previous year splitting her time between research, a married life, and her training.
I asked her what her biggest challenges were these days, and she replied, “Balance. Definitely balance. I’m trying to prepare myself for UCI racing and finishing the PhD.” She smiled and then finished, “Oh, and of course I want to see my friends! I’d like to have a social life.”
Curious, I asked Mel for a quick rundown of her weekly training schedule. Typically, she says, it’s 15-20 hours a week, through the cold, wet, and dark Irish seasons, either at 6 AM before reporting to her research or in the evenings when she comes home from her studies. But, of course, as any cyclist knows, 15-20 hours training on the bike never adds up to just 15-20 hours. The time it takes to prepare beforehand and the time it takes to recover afterwards—especially when the weather is cold and wet—can make competitive cycling feel like a full-time job.
But there’s a goal for all this: To represent Ireland in the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
Mel began cycling competitively in 2007, when her now-husband encouraged her to ride a local cycling challenge, the Wicklow-200. As the name suggests, the Wicklow-200 is a 200 km organized bike ride through the mountainous regions of County Wicklow, Ireland. On Ryan’s old mountain bike and without training, Mel completed the ride in an impressive time, passing athletes who were riding expensive equipment and had months of training under their belts. As Ryan recalls, “She was amazing. I knew then she was talented. A huge chunk of it was physical, but another chunk of it was mental. Mel had both.”
After the Wicklow-200, Mel never turned back. Within four years, she transformed from the academically focused girl on her boyfriend’s old mountain bike to an elite, top-ranked mountain and road cyclist in Ireland, contending for UCI (International Cycling Union) points to qualify Ireland for the Olympics.
The journey, however, was not without bumps. In 2011, Mel was asked to train with the Irish Track Cycling Pursuit team in preparation for their journey to the 2012 London Olympics. Unfortunately, at the Irish Pursuit Team’s first world cup in Astana, Kazakhstan, a flat tire during the race caused the team to lose its chance in securing the points needed for Olympic qualification.
Disappointed but not discouraged, Mel continued with her studies and set her sights on Rio 2016. I asked Mel why she was sacrificing so much of her life for the Olympics, and she replied without hesitation, “It’s the biggest honor in sport. To represent your country. Everyone knows the Olympics. They may not know anything about your sport or what you do, but they know the Olympics, and for women, well, since it comes every four years, you really only have a few shots at it if you begin a bit later in the sport, and if you’re looking to have kids.” (Mel is currently 31.)
Like many female athletes with her background, Mel isn’t fully funded or sponsored. So, she has to continue to balance two full-time, vastly different, careers: her academic career and her cycling career. There’s a well-known catch-22 for female cyclists: to be fully sponsored, you need results. To get results, however, you have to spend and invest 100% of your time into cycling. Most women can’t afford to this, and so, they sacrifice training time for time at the office at the expense of their results.
In fact, if you were to do a survey, you’d find that most elite female racers are highly educated, professional women like Mel—women who hold PhDs, MDs, JDs, or MBAs. Male athletes? Not so much. It’s a glaring disparity engendered from necessity: Most female cyclists cannot afford to spend all of their time on cycling. There just isn’t enough money in the sport for them.
So why do it? Why wake up at 6 AM in the cold rain piling on four layers, all of which will become soaked within the first hour of the ride, with your bike wearing lights like one of Santa’s reindeers during a snowstorm, to push your body into extreme pain—only to come home so frozen that you can barely use your fingers to unlock your door? Why sacrifice precious time to build an otherwise lucrative career in another field to make close to nothing without much guarantee that you’d even have a chance at it anyway?
“Well,” Mel explains, “It’s taught me a happier way of living. I realize I can challenge myself and make goals, and that things I didn’t think were possible can be possible. Cycling teaches you these simple things you forget sometimes. Sports, in general, give you a different perspective and confidence. It teaches you to push your boundaries, and I’ve learned through cycling that the things I am most scared of, like performing poorly, aren’t really all that bad.
And athletes can share that with others. They can help share this way of being happy, being focused and determined, and living healthy through example.”
Not a bad perspective for someone who confessed to me that she was once caught in the frozen rain with a flat tire and that her hands were so frozen she had to call Ryan to come and fix it for her. (But, of course, she cycled back home.)
At the end of our call, I asked Mel what she would share if she could tell non-athletes anything, and she replied, “Just go out and do it. A lot of people don’t do things because they think they can’t do it, but you just have to do it to prove yourself wrong, that you can do it. People put up borders. Things are possible. Sports teach you that those borders can be knocked down.”
Congrats to Mel on her recent Irish National Road Race Championship win! You can follow Mel and her road to the Olympics 2016 at her blog: www.melaniespath.com.