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Losing her hair and having asthma didn’t stop Joanna Rowsell bagging an Olympic medal

If it wasn’t for her school accepting an invite from British Cycling’s Talent Team one day in 2004 cyclist Joanna Rowsell might not be an Olympic gold medallist, world record breaker or National, European and World Champion cyclist at just 25.

‘It was a case of missing double maths for laps around the school playing field,’ Joanna reminisces.

It was as simple as the crew turning up at Nonsuch High School, in Cheam, Surrey, with mountain bikes and the girls hop on for some sprint and endurance tests against the clock.

joanna rowsell

Only Joanna was invited back for more, on static bikes this time, and then came the news that would change considerations of studying natural science at university for a very different career…

‘I was told I had what it takes.’

Besides a bit of swimming and running at 12 years old Joanna admits she wasn’t the candidate you might expect: ‘I was 15, nearly 16, and I wasn’t doing any sports so I was quite surprised to be told I had talent and I was curious really to see how it would go.’

‘Mainly it was curiosity but I didn’t expect anything to come from it. I have always been competitive though.’

‘I had no idea I would ever get to this level,’ Joanna said: ‘I was told I had raw power but I had no skills on the bike what so ever.’

‘I was completely freaked out when I first went to the velodrome and I was told the bike has no brakes.

‘I just couldn’t comprehend this, how can you not have brakes on a bike? So I might have not even turned up to try out if they’d told me before hand.’

Just a year after that missed double maths lesson, and in her first full racing season, Joanna took her first national title marking herself Junior Women’s National 2k Individual Pursuit 2005.

It led to a place on British Cycling’s Olympic development programme and Joanna was representing team GB in the Junior European and World championship on the road and on the track.

Retaining the national title for another year Joanna went one step further and set a new national record on the track, but dominated the road too as National U23 champion and bronze medallist in the senior category.

Then it was back to the classroom to finish her A-levels in Biology, Physics and Maths. There was just time to fit in her first year of senior competition and international elite road racing, concluding the year with four national medals.

Leaving home for Manchester meant Joanna had an indoor velodrome to focus the winter season on – and it paid off – she took her first World title at the Senior World Track Championships winning the first ever Women’s Team Pursuit with Rebecca Romero and Wendy Houvenhagel.

There couldn’t have been a better time than while her team were the current World Champions and world record holders to hear their discipline was to be included in the London 2012 Olympics. Full of confidence they prepared for a home games.

Joanna said preparing for this competition was different for her to other competitors; it was her Olympic debut while many had been to an Olympic Games before.

She said she has not been to another velodrome the same noise level since: ‘It was beyond my wildest dreams. The crowd was phenomenal.’

But with six thousand seats filled all around you how do you keep your cool and take Gold in the team pursuit just as Joanna’s team did?

‘I was trying not to think about the bigger picture. I try not to thrive off the pressure.’

‘When I finished I realised ‘yes this was a big deal.’

The girls broke the world record three times at London 2012.

Joanna said part of preparing for any race involves mental warm up: ‘You try to eliminate negative thoughts such as ‘have I done the right training’ and the what ifs.

‘I try and eliminate all those thoughts and focus only on things you can control not what you can’t. Often you worry about losing but it’s important to remember that is out of your control.’

‘The pressure is all or nothing.’

‘You need to focus on pace and judgement. Block it (the crowd) out for the first few laps then psych it up.’

The hard work starts again every day for an athlete like Joanna, around 8am with a glass of orange juice, a bowl of porridge with blueberries or honey and an omelet in her case.

Kicking off the most important meal of the day for Joanna is a protein shake, a multi vitamin with a sachet of Spatone Apple, a natural liquid iron supplement, which she said is best taken on an empty stomach.

‘I think iron is a really important supplement and something which is often neglected which makes it even more important.’

‘To be on top form it’s vital that I focus on my iron intake to ensure my energy levels are at their optimum during training and on a race day. For four years, Spatone has played an essential part in helping me maintain my energy levels and oxygen efficiency.’

By 9am Joanna is training.

She said: ‘There is no point going out earlier because of the rush hour traffic.

‘I ride for three to five hours a day and have energy bars or a banana for energy.

Lunch is usually a jacket potato with baked beans or couscous and vegetables.

‘It’s carbs and protein. I never have just a sandwich, always a bigger meal if you like.’

Twice a week the afternoon is spent in the gym working on core stability and weights working on the muscles in her legs.

Core Stability is the control of trunk stability using specific muscles. For cyclists this sort of training will improve balance and co-ordination.

And to end the day more protein and carbs are on the menu. On the evening I spoke to Joanna a chilli was cooking.

She admits to the odd guilty pleasure too:

‘I do enjoy my chocolate that’s no secret but I think if you work hard you deserve it, not all the time but everything is ok in moderation. ‘

So where is this training going now?

‘At the moment I’m focusing on the Commonwealth Games. I won the World Championship individual pursuit so I’ll focus on that for Games.’


‘Also as a competition gets nearer my training changes to focus on higher intensity.’

Joanna described the later part of the day as ‘relaxed’ otherwise.

She said: ‘Recovery is just as important as the training.’

‘I’m away travelling quite a lot so in my spare time I want to relax with family and friends.’

Though the athlete has had to endure time away from training not out of choice too.

Last August Rowsell broke her collarbone at the London cycling festival.

She said: ‘It’s a common injury in cycling because of the way you land when crashing on a bike. The sort of breaks can vary, you can be back on bike in five days in some cases.’

But it was a case of five weeks, an operation and training on the Wattbike with pillow on the bars, for Joanna.

‘I had surgery as I had displaced the bone. It felt like it was sticking out of my skin, even though wasn’t.’

‘I had a metal plate put in and six screws. I felt amazing after the surgery but not so good after the aesthetic wore off.’

‘I spent four weeks on an indoor bike building as much fitness as I could.

‘It was tough and I came back from it.’

Joanna is used to overcoming health related setbacks.

Firstly managing exercise-induced asthma her entire career.

She said: ‘Occasionally it’s been a set back.’

‘It is worse in the winter or when I’m ill but it’s not a major set back.’

Joanna said she has kept on top of the asthma by trailing different inhalers and finding which prescription works best.

She has this advise for other sufferers worried about participating in sport because of asthma:

‘If it’s well managed you can overcome it. You just need to try out different inhalers and take them regularly.’

But even more inspiring was Joanna’s determination not to let another condition ruin the proudest moment of her career.

Having lived with alopecia since she was ten, 23-year-old Joanna bravely took to the Olympic podium without her wig, coming out to the international media and a 17million strong audience.

‘I knew it was going to be a big deal,’ she said: ‘I knew there was a lot of people in the velodrome but you don’t think of all the people at home also watching on TV.’

‘I knew it was national alopecia day and I had lots of people in the alopecia community wishing me good luck, saying maybe it is meant to be that I do well on that day.’

‘From ever since I can remember I had small bald patches. I lost all my hair at ten, I used to have nice long hair.’

Joanna recalls her early school days calling herself ‘quite a girly girl’.

Despite growing her locks back at about 16-years-old it fell out again.

‘I don’t want to let it hold me back. It is very easy to be shy and not to go out of your comfort zone and do new things. But I have always had an attitude of ‘I don’t want it to hold me back.’

Joanna said the moment she roared to victory she simply got off the bike and took her helmet off as she always would, without a wig on.

When the race is over she is whisked to the podium and there isn’t an option or chance to change. She takes to the podium in her kit, sweat and all, and not wearing a wig at that moment was natural.

Joanna hopes she has inspired other sufferers.

She said: ‘I’d say you mustn’t let it hold you back, you only live once so what’s the point in shining away and not doing things you want to do.’

‘People usually take a second look and get over it. A lot worse things can happen.’

Asked to name someone who has inspired her though and she said ‘Chris Hoy’.

‘He’s just a genuinely nice guy. When I first met him I was unknown to him but he still said hi and chatted.

‘He has time for everybody and talk to everyone.

‘He’s never become big headed and I think he’s a great example of how to be successful.’

With the Commonwealth Games in sight and a new women’s cycling race on the final day of the 2014 Tour de France in July, it’s a big year for cycling.

I left Joanna looking ahead with her health mantra for support:

‘I just always think about the bigger picture and what I am training for. In general I really enjoy training.

‘But it’s natural to have days when you feel it’s not a good day. Either leave it for that day or go out get it done.’

Follow Joanna on Twitter @JoannaRowsell
Follow Joanna on Twitter @JoannaRowsell

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