Win with authority, lose with grace. Caroline Buchanan is one of the most respected and least controversial bike racers in the history of the sport. She was groomed at an early age to be a professional and, more important, a role model as a BMX racer, which carried over into her mountain bike career. Caroline was at the top of both sports when she sustained a life-threatening injury a year and a half ago. The journey back to world-class athlete status has been a turbulent one, but with monumental goals in her head, we can expect that she’ll come back and achieve every one of them!
There is a focus, dedication and intensity that professional athletes put into their craft that molds them into a different kind of human being. Sometimes these characteristics carry the athlete much further than the top step of a podium.
The first hospital could not accommodate her injury, and the single available ambulance had already been dispatched to the Canberra hospital. All they could do in this small rural hospital was provide oxygen using an oxygen bag mask (at one point they were completely breathing for her) and give her pain meds that would eventually make her throw up, causing even more torture. It was now a waiting game, because they could not take the chance of transporting her again without an ambulance. They were stuck in limbo for about an hour and a half before they could load her up for that two-hour drive back to Canberra. With her broken sternum; double punctured, collapsed lungs; and heart bleeding, Caroline was breathing fumes and trying not to panic, doing her best to stay calm and in the moment. This is the formula that made her a champion, and now, this was the formula that was going to keep her alive. When all was said and done, Caroline spent five days in the ICU (three of which she doesn’t even remember) and had to wait two and a half months to get a release to fly so she could return to the U.S.and get the proper surgery on her sternum.
Pre-Olympic fitness versus post-op fitness.
THE MAKING OF CAROLINE BUCHANAN
At 9 years old, most little girls are playing with dolls and having tea parties. Not this one! Caroline Buchanan was already a seasoned veteran with almost five years of BMX experience under her little belt. She was groomed by supportive parents who had a vision and marketing background. Not crazy, over-the-top BMX parents, but nurturing and supportive parents who wanted nothing but to see their young daughter succeed. She was preparing for the BMX World Championships in Paris and was given this advice from Robert De Castella, one of her childhood mentors: “If you can be the complete Yellow Pages—and some athletes you can glance at and they look like they’re the whole package, but there are a lot of pages missing, you’d never know—but if you can be that full Yellow Pages, any time you need to turn to a strength, you have that ability to turn to that page and use it.”
Think about that for a second. Caroline, as a 9-year-old girl, not only listened to this advice, she comprehended it. It was that kind of focus and understanding that would guide her to be one of the most successful women cyclists of all time. Early on her parents would do press releases to mainstream Australian media with Caroline’s race results and accomplishments. It didn’t take long for her to develop a strong fan base, both in the bicycle industry and in the civilian world. She quickly became known throughout Australia as a face of the country in action sports.
Caroline was brought up to think outside the box. The guys were getting paid, but what about the girls? Missy Giove was breaking barriers in the mountain bike world and starting to find her own success, so Caroline and her parents started investing in her own brand and promoting her name—not just in the cycling word, but to corporations and household brands.
“You create what you want. I’m fortunate now. I’ve been injured, and no sponsors have dropped me. I’m still supported by the industry, and I’ve been told, ‘We don’t support you for what you do; we support you for who you are.’ It has kept my love for the sport. There was a period where I was being told to fit a mold that wasn’t me, to be limited to just one discipline and ride a certain bike brand for limited time. I don’t want to be held back. I don’t want to adjust. I don’t want to be told what to do. I now have the ability to ride the bikes I want, the right size, the right brand for each discipline without being told what events that I need to go to.
“Just like growing up, I was able to create what I needed before mainstream media came to the sport. I get to choose what brand I like. Going back to the heart and soul of it all, why do we ride bikes? I really feel like I get to go full circle. I’m most valuable to a brand for doing everything. Like a family will have a boy riding skateparks, a mum who rides a daily commuter, a brother racing BMX, and the dad on a mountain bike.” This is who Caroline has the most influence on—the general public looking for a role model.
Being a woman in a male-dominated industry, Caroline states: “I don’t see being a woman as a limiting factor as much anymore. I see it as a great opportunity, as a challenge. I remember going to Harley-Davidson; I wanted to get my Harley license. You gotta convince these brands of the place and value that you have. I remember thinking, ‘How can we look at things differently? Where is your perception now, and how can we work together?’ I think that social media has really opened up the doors to this whole space of women in sports, women in biking, females dominating in what is normally a man’s world. It has always lit a fire under me rather than being a limiting factor of like, ‘Oh, I can’t do that.’ So, for Harley and these other brands, they’ve always thought, let’s put men on bikes. I think now with the help of social media and analyzing data and the followers, who are actually looking through the eyeballs, and then to be like, ‘Yeah, 85 to 90 percent of the eyeballs are actually men.’ So, getting a female on a Harley, doing promotions, that’s actually going to get men’s eyeballs and that’s actually going to sell bikes to men.
“At Crankworx last year, they made women the show. When I won the dirt jump comp with Joyride, we had the same podium as the men. Their goal is to make heroes out of the women and make more stories. Like for the pump track, normally it’s the women who go first and then the men. But now at Crankworx, the women close the show. To be honest, I think it is an exciting time in women’s action sports. Now there are so many women, like Vicki Golden in motocross, Casey Brown breaking barriers in the whip contests and Hailie Deegan racing cars. I feel that as long as you are moving forward, you are moving in the right direction.”
It is one thing to self-promote and turn the attention on yourself; it is another to go out and get the results worthy of such attention. Caroline has won numerous national and world titles in multiple disciplines. It comes from focus and hard work. When asked point-blank, “Why do you work out so hard, outside of specific bike training?” Caroline responded, “For BMX, that’s the level it’s now gone to. All the girls train that hard. For me, where I have to go the extra mile is the pre-season and doing things like swimming laps, doing a little more endurance, having more volume and time, and doing two-hour gym sessions three times a week. The workout sessions for BMX and mountain bikes, the skill sessions, the sprint sessions—yeah, every day it is so much. But then, throughout the season, when I am jumping from BMX to mountain bikes and back, I want to be just as successful in November as I am in January. If you train hard, you make racing easy. The recovery times are shorter after injuries, and you train to not be injured. Considering the number of crashes I’ve had, it is amazing how my body has just bounced back. Two or three weeks later, I’m at the next event back on top. I owe a lot to the training side of it. You are not necessarily training for the sport; you are training for the injuries and also for the ability. I love being able to do two sports, BMX and mountain biking— double the calendar, double the workload. I may seem a little over the top for the sport, but, yeah, I enjoy it, too.”
“In mountain biking, my biggest competitor or rival has obviously been Jill Kintner. We go head to head. My first world title was in my hometown in 4-Cross against her. That was the last 4-Cross race that she ever raced. We have the same birthday. We’re both Scorpios. Yeah, we’re competitors. That’s always part of it; the crowd loves it. We always put on a show. We are like polar opposites in terms of our personalities, how we go about going head to head in races. But, I think that’s what makes it fun. At the end of the day, there is always that respect level. We always shake hands at the finish line.
“You have to execute the same process that made you win and execute the same process whether you win or lose. It’s super tough. I am super competitive. That is what has made me like, you know, as successful as I am. But, yeah, at the same time, I’ve always had my little messy things, like my goggles. When my goggles go on, that is a different competitor. When my goggles are off, there is no need to carry that.”
“A big lesson to me was that no race is ever your race to lose. It doesn’t matter if you’ve qualified number one. It doesn’t matter if you’ve ticked off every single box and picked lane one for the inside advantage. It doesn’t matter if you’re the world champ at the time and the crowd favorite; it’s never your race to lose. That was a big thing for me, the hype of my first Olympic games. I was undefeated by the clock. I’d won every World Cup. I’d won every time trial. I won the time trial there. I won the semi and had first lane choice for the final. I was the world champ at the time. I was Sports Illustrated’s number-one pick for BMX. I was Australia’s girl. I think that was definitely a moment where I allowed the hype and everything to be become bigger than it was.
“It came back to changing my approach to my calendar, changing my approach to my contracts, saying I don’t want bonuses. I don’t want contingencies. I don’t want any of that. This is what I can deliver. This is the authenticity, the ability; this is the standard. I think that was the best thing that it did for me; it made me realize to not go to events with everything on the line to lose, because that is when you choke; that is when everything unravels, and that’s when I’ve had the biggest face-down moments.
“At the end of the day, it is a sport. It was all the hype of the Olympic event. I had lane one all day. There was David Beckham staring back at me. The commentators were announcing that I was unbeaten. The royal family was sitting right there. I’m like, I should have chosen lane one. The competitors got in my head, and I ended up choosing lane three. I lost the Olympics right at that point, and the gate hadn’t even dropped. When the gate dropped, I got cut off and battled from seventh to fifth, and the Olympic medals were in front of me. None of the past had mattered by that point. I didn’t execute in the final moments when it mattered. Psychology-wise, now I’ve started having an A, B and C plan for every race. I never went into those Olympic games with a plan A, where everything could go right, where I could have first lane selection and I could be the number-one qualifier. Then what do you do, and what do you focus on? What’s that performance plan? I never really did that. So, once I got to that moment of everything going right, it was almost like destruct, unravel. I was thinking, ‘What are my competitors doing?’ I’m in the gate, knowing that the girl next to me is going to cut me off. David is staring back at me. The weight of a nation is on me. I’m the reigning champ, the world champ. No one has beaten me on the course today. I’d already lost the race by that point.
“The fixes are to stay in the moment, I’m here now, what can I address right there and then? Go back to the same performance plan, repeat the same pattern that made the performance happen throughout the entire day. So, you gotta have the same routine, same buildup, same process to get the outcome. I would have looked back at, throughout the rest of the day, I had chosen lane one. So, choose lane one, ignore the competition, come back to the process, come back to my breathing. Not allow the external influences, to not be like overwhelmed by everything and to be able to channel back in. I think if I’d have done that, sat on that gate and realized I had gotten caught up by the big screen, looking at the Royal Family, the walls of like ten thousand people. To come back and I just look up at that GoPro sign at the end of the first corner, only focus on my breathing and my task is to bring my energy down, to focus on my checklist. My Olympic final lap was messy. It was messier than even my first lap around the track.
“The second Olympics was a similar outcome, except it was a semifinal. I ended up getting cut off and cased the first jump. My bars moved. I got cut off in the first turn and crashed. I didn’t even make it to the Olympic final.
“The cool thing about the second Olympic games was I was like in tears. I went up into the crowd. I had my Australian flag wrapped around me, and I watched the Olympic final from the stands. Mariana Pajon, who is the two-time Olympic champion [she is the reason BMX is famous in Colombia], more than half the crowd was there to see her. There was a sea of Mariana fans. She has millions of followers. She is the Justin Bieber of South America. So, as I walked in, I got this standing ovation from the entire crowd. Mariana’s granddad and family basically walked up to me and gave me a hug. For me, that was my real-life Olympic moment. I hadn’t even made it into the finals. Mariana and I always treated each other with respect. We were fierce competitors for years but always clean. So, to walk into those stands, have that support from her family, get this standing ovation from that crowd, and not even be in the final, I was like, ‘Wow!’ This was almost a bigger moment for me and had nothing to do with crossing the line first.”
The 2019 season is all about bringing back the machine for Caroline, which means repairing her body. Having another surgery to reset her sternum after the titanium hardware broke last season led to another six-month setback. Sitting out Sea Otter will be torture, but to get back to 100 percent, she will need to be patient during the healing process. Caroline is looking forward to a busy mountain bike season with Crankworx and the Pump Track Worlds this year. Next year, all of her focus will be on the 2020 Olympics, so it will be back to the roots of BMX and unfinished business. Olympic qualifying has already started, and she doesn’t even have her name on the board right now. Since she is outside the top 20 in points, she’ll have to come back and earn a spot on the Australian Olympic team, something that has just been a given in the past. The ultimate goal will be to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics—and to win a medal would be icing on the cake. Caroline’s progression has really helped bridge the gender gap and has put a spotlight on aggressive women’s mountain biking.
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