Victoria Pendleton: I just want to be ordinary (after I've competed on Strictly Come Dancing, of course)
Sunday 30 September 2012
When Victoria Pendleton stepped off a bike for the last time at the London Olympics, she felt nothing but relief. She was 31, her race was run, her time was up. She was now a former sprint cyclist, albeit one with two gold medals. She embraced the fact.
Many sportsmen and women dread the end of what has defined them since they were children. What stands before them can seem like a kind of featureless Alaska, a life more ordinary.
Some shrink from the prospect. Sunil Gavaskar, the great India opening batsman, once remarked that when he was finally dropped from the Test side, he would carry on playing for his state; then he would play for Bombay and when he was no longer good enough for that he would form his own team and ensure he picked himself.
"I just felt relief that I wouldn't have to put myself through that again," Pendleton said. "The pressure of having to compete in a home Olympics as the champion is not fun – not at all. I love my job but having people ask you how many gold medals I was going to win... well, I was going to try to win one. Frankly, it was no fun any more. I had done it for so long that the enjoyment had gone. I know a lot of athletes dread the end.
"Someone else usually decides you are finished and that was something I never wanted to have forced upon me. The standard of women's sprinting has moved on ridiculously, and to have asked my body for more would have been too much."
You think of Rebecca Adlington, like Pendleton a heroine of the Beijing Games, beaten into bronze in the 800m freestyle by the 15-year-old American, Katie Ledecky, the surest sign that the game has moved on. "Exactly," said Pendleton. "Nobody is going to hold up their game just for you."
Her autobiography, Between the Lines, dramatically illustrates the change that comes with the final race. It opens in Beijing, in the Laoshan Velodrome where Pendleton is about to go head to head with her great rival, Anna Meares.
She thinks of her fiancé, Scott Gardner, her father, Max, a talented amateur cyclist and her first inspiration. Then she thinks of Meares and tells herself she will "blitz", "annihilate" and "destroy" the Australian.
Between the Lines comes to an end four years later in London, when Meares and Pendleton, her career over, start talking about their weddings and what dresses they will wear. They are human beings once more. "When you have had a close cycling rivalry for so long and when they have knocked you flying, you cannot but feel determined to beat them," she said.
"A lot of what I have to offer as an athlete doesn't come from my physical make-up. What I do have to offer is drive and tenacity. I haven't been born as the best sprinter in the world, I don't have enough muscle matter. I have lost most of that since the Olympics – five kilos just by not doing weight training. So I had to use what was up here." She taps her head.
She is still using her legs, albeit in preparation for the BBC's Strictly Come Dancing which is no easy ride – as anyone, who saw pictures of Jerry Hall, sitting drained on the studio fire escape alone with a cigarette during rehearsals, knows. It is, however, nothing like defending an Olympic title.
"I had to decide if I would do it six weeks out from the Games," she said. "I thought that if the Olympics did not go to plan, this would be something I could totally immerse myself in. It would be a new world."
But the Olympics did largely go to plan. She is an attractive, articulate young woman who has appeared on the cover of Esquire magazine and dressed as Audrey Hepburn to advertise Hovis on television.
Celebrity, especially given the extraordinary absence of achievement of so many who aspire to it, should come easily. "Oh no," she laughed. "I avoided cameras entirely, once. There are hardly any photos of me as a teenager because I thought I didn't look right.
"I once thought: 'modelling, how hard can that be?' It is actually quite hard. Long days with a host of interviews. You tell yourself to smile, to stand up straight and tell everyone how pleased you are to be here."
The lessons she learnt from the sport psychiatrist, Steve Peters, whom she describes as her "second dad" are transferable to her other life.
"It was all about perspective because living inside a sporting bubble it is very hard not to think your performance is the only thing that defines you as a human being; that without a gold medal you are worthless," she added.
"All this 'celebrity' will run out at some time. I don't have this ambition to be one forever. I will make the most of my opportunities but, when it's over, I would like a smallholding where I would keep rescued animals like horses and greyhounds. That would make me happy."
Victoria Pendleton was talking as part of the Gatorade Hit Squad. For more information: www.gatorade.co.uk
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