Australian born Rachel Neylan went from physiotherapist to one of the world’s best female road cyclists in only 5 years. She started cycling in 2007 and won a silver medal at the 2012 World Championship. Neylan is a determined, “live-life-to-the-fullest-person” who believes that, “Things are going to happen the way they meant to be, if you let your legs do the talking and that’s the bottom line.” She also keeps her fans, friends and family up to date on her website, with her latest news on twitter (@rachneylan) and on LinkedIn. The interview was conducted by Soma Analytics‘ CEO and Co-Founder Johann Huber (@mangohammock). Soma Analytics is also the company behind the Getuberyou email subscription service and webshop.
Johann: Rachel you have made it in only 5 years from a Physiotherapist in 2007 to stepping onto the podium as one of the world’s best female cyclists in 2012. How did you achieve that?
Rachel: I actually properly started riding a bike at the end of 2007 and then started racing domestically in 2008. I was already a runner and was always an athlete. I had the skills and the know-how to be an athlete. I also worked with a lot of Australia’s best athletes in my job as a physio. I knew all about the high performance environment, I was sort of a fly on the wall for all those years. As a physio, I was just on the other side of the fence. I knew what it took to be at the top (just in other sports). Ultimately it was a decision—all or nothing. I moved from Sydney to Adelaide. That was way back at the start, I had a nice life in Sydney and packed up my things and made a life change. It all started with that. You have to have a pretty good self-communication, really understand yourself and what you are about. I was in my mid 20s back then, and this feeling of being on the wrong side of the fence just grew.
“Ultimately it was a decision—all or nothing”
When my 2007 contract finished with the European Rowing season as a physio I was tired of the restless feeling of being on the other side of the fence. I went to the Swiss mountains and rented a mountain bike, it was that day I just knew, “Yes, I have to make this decision”. My lifelong dream is to be an athlete and I’m going to exhaust every avenue in the book of physiology to find out what I am suited towards. I had a fair bit of an idea that it could be cycling, and when I got back to Australia I googled “Australian women’s cycling talent identification”. The first group of search results was the Adelaide based Talent ID programme that I applied for. That initial step was a very small key to the door. I never knew what it was going to involve!
Johann: You sound incredibly determined and focussed. Were there times in the last 5 years where you doubted your decision and if so what helped you overcome them? Is there a visual “image” that you have in front of your eyes that motivates you to keep pushing?
Rachel: You are right. It is easy to stand up there with the lights shining and when people are giving you attention and saying, “Wow, look at your life!” But when you are alone, injured or resultless or without a contract, or that you are having a bad day you only have yourself. There is always doubt and second guessing yourself, that’s just being human, but that is where mental resilience needs to come into it.
“This image is now ingrained and pushes me to go to my limits and to give what it takes to achieve my dreams.”
I had a very bad accident in Italy at a training camp back in 2010 preparing for what could have been my first World Championships – a home one, in Geelong Australia. While I was descending the Passo Stelvio at 65km/h suddenly my front tire exploded and I fell on my face, I fractured my jaw, smashed teeth and ripped skin from my face. I was transported to a hospital in Innsbruck, Austria and had surgery that evening. When I gained consciousness after the surgery I realised that this ruled me out of competing in the world championships. Also I wasn’t allowed to leave the hospital for quite a while. But I wanted to get back to training as quickly as possible. It was just not an option to stop. I was completely alone. I had to be creative and make most of the situation; I did stair repetitions. Whilst doing this, I looked out of the window of the stairwell and suddenly saw the Olympic rings from the 1976 Innsbruck Winter Olympics. I couldn’t believe it. There was my goal – the Olympics – right in front of me when marching the stairs on the road to recovery – everyday. This image is now ingrained and pushes me to go to my limits and to give what it takes to achieve my dreams.
I think that people are born and wired to do something that is daring, bold and outside the box. You have it or you don’t. I believe its innate – you cannot build a champion athlete or just mould one. The same goes for top entrepreneurs, guys like Richard Branson, there is something totally innate there. It’s a subconscious drive that I can’t put into words. It’s an intangible desire to want to achieve your optimum, to your limits, you know? I don’t say my motivation is a ‘thing’, it is entwined into the nature I have as a person! That’s the best way I can explain it. There are obviously physical goals in your mind for you to stay on the podium, but those are only goals. Motivation is totally from within yourself, there is no other place to get it from. My career hasn’t been easy; it’s been a rollercoaster.
Johann: When you started you were basically a physio with a dream who quit her job, left everything behind and didn’t even know to ride a race bike. How did you make people believe in you?
Rachel: In 2009 I had no National team support, no international experience, no sponsors, no nothing; I got a friend to help me build a website with my name on it. I was fourth in the National Championships that January and I just wanted to start telling my story. I started writing a blog, which gave me an avenue to get myself a bike and nutrition sponsor, I could start to pay for some expenses by getting some products. I invited people on my journey by saying, “I am a passionate physio – turned athlete, I have taken a leap of faith, changed my life and on the road to become a world class cyclist. This is what I’ve decided to do – come along for the ride!” Let people feel the passion that you have. I think that you just have to let your personality shine, engage and inspire others in what you’re doing and that’s all you can do. You can invite them to come on your journey with you. I think I’ve found that’s the best way.
I have had to come back from a lot of setbacks and really scrape the barrel mentally, emotionally and physically in hard times and make some tough decisions. I’ve had long periods of rehab, times with no money and no team contract, and also spending a long time away from friends and family. There have been times when I have thought, “What if I can’t get next month’s rent, some race results or a team contract?”
Then I go to that place where I know is secure and rock solid – that place I need to draw my inner strength – ultimate, physical, spiritual mental resilience. You have to just say to yourself, “Nobody else really cares if I succeed or not. This is my dream. This is my time.” There is a little bit of fire in the “I’m going to do this despite all the curve balls and barriers”, but its sheer determination and resilience that comes from that indomitable inner drive. There are emotions that manifest from that place, but if it’s not there, then you have no solid grounding for when times get tough.
Johann: How much of your success would you say is physical and mental? Would you say it’s true to say that if you are 100% committed, then your body does what your mind does?
Rachel: A huge amount of it is mental. You can be mentally strong in the races and when it comes to being a fierce competitor, but as soon as you get a setback find it’s just too hard. I learned how to fight adversity before winning races! When I had the accident in Italy I had to rebuild myself from a low lonely place and come back from a serious injury – there is nothing physical about that. You really have to be creative and think outside the box. With a strong mind you can always find a way around a physical limitation.
As a trained physio I am always thinking about alternative methods, which I guess is part of mental resilience and managing yourself as an athlete. Once I had an injury after a crash that meant I couldn’t sit down. Afterwards when I trained, I worked on the stepping machine in the gym, walked up hills and trained on the bike ergo just without sitting down. You have to adapt and push other limits – that’s why mind matters over body.
Johann: Do you meditate or search for ways to keep your mind active?
Rachel: I’ve got a very busy mind and I find it hard to shut it down to have mental rest, I want to get better at that. I try to have some meditation time everyday, some quiet time. I also really enjoy yoga, letting the body and soul mould together without thinking. I have had so many incredible experiences reinforcing the value to take mental time out. I think a lot when I’m out on the bike in nature, that’s when my creative ideas flow, often I need to stop and write notes!
Johann: Lately there has been a lot of talk about “Corporate Athletes”. What does that really mean and do you think that sporting insights are really utilized in the corporate world yet?
Rachel: In my opinion as a health specialist – forget about being an athlete – body movement, body gestures, body language and the amount of exercise you do is a huge predisposition or indicator for stress. A lot of people suffer from this. Whether it’s the chicken or egg in the cycle – exercise is a big part of it, also lack of sleep and alcohol ingestion all goes hand in hand.
There is a lot to learn from sport science, elite athletes have been monitoring themselves for years. There is a lot to extrapolate from the athletics world into the corporate environment because to be an exceptional CEO or a leader (or even just to excel in your job) to the best capability you need to be a healthy human being – not JUST exercise a lot. This quality side is something that athletes have to use day in, day out. Also in order to be resilient you need a good combination of physical, mental and emotional awareness. You also need to integrate your social, environmental situations well.
Successful people aren’t just the superstar geniuses, actually they are the guys that have emotional intelligence, and have the ability to lead remaining emotionally composed when under stress. I think that is one of the biggest challenge for anyone striving for high performance in any domain, CEO or athlete.
Johann: In what direction do you see your future heading?
Rachel: My life is all about being an elite athlete at the moment. And my focus is selection for the Aussie team in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. But of course there also needs to be a life after cycling. I am passionate about the wider integration of sport and health – there are lots of dots to join, I see my place here. I like to get my head outside of cycling so that I can think about these sorts of things. At the moment I’m pretty heavily involved in training and fixed on my goal for the Olympics next year – that’s the big one.
Johann: On a closing note, if you had to give one piece of advice to all the “corporate athletes” out there, what would it be?
Rachel: Every person has to make their own decisions, but the corporate environment has to foster and facilitate those good decisions. At the end of the day that is where they are spending most of their time.
Whether it be behavioural, mental, spiritual, physical data about their habits, feedback is good. You don’t even need heart rate. It is giving the person information to make correlations between their bio data, daily work performance and personal feelings. Having specific parameters in terms of sleep, diet and exercise and some type of emotional, behavioural parameter. It is in an organisation’s best interest to keep its people physically fit, healthy, happy and stress free. It is important in getting people who may not necessarily be in tune with their ‘whole’ self to assist them in these health integration processes.
“It is in an organisation’s best interest to keep its people physically fit, healthy, happy and stress free”
Corporate health strategies need to not just focus on the physical—this is key. Using technology is great, information as ‘biofeedback’ can really educate and reinforce towards behaviour change. I believe that it’s getting people to understand the link between the physical, mental, and emotional parts of self – delicately integrating all facets of health to get the most out of yourself. There are huge links between all three of them. The corporate environment cannot be separate from this process, to constantly strive to improve this integration in its valued people.