Road to Rio: Young Australian forges through tragedy to chase Olympic Dream

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The past year on the bike has been one of those patches where things fell into place for young Tasmanian cyclist Georgia Baker. She gained a place in the High5 Dream Team, her form on the road continued to build with four wins in the National Road Series, she went to Europe for track and road development and delivered performances that mean it will be hard for selectors of Australia’s Rio Olympics team not to pay attention. The 21-year-old has also just secured another big opportunity to impress, with yesterday’s news that she has a spot in Australia’s team for the 2016 UCI Track World Championships.

Yet, personally it has been a year where she has had to forge through the hardest of times, after suddenly losing a father who did so much to support and encourage her cycling. Rather than let the terrible loss sideline her goals, she has drawn from the strength and positivity that her father exuded in life to continue chasing her cycling dreams.

Georgia Baker’s cycling journey started at the age of 14, with a sporting talent identification program. She played netball and competed in triathlons but soon they would take second place.

“I got straight up onto the velodrome and really loved the speed and adrenaline of it all. I was hooked,” Baker told Ella CyclingTips.

The excitement and challenge of the bike grabbed her attention, but it was also the way in which she could share it with others that meant when she had to decide what sport to continue with, cycling was the clear choice.

“I could go out and train with other people. It was just a really nice cycling community to be around as well,” said Baker. Her enthusiasm for the sport also extended through her family, starting with her father Patrick who decided to alleviate the worry that came with watching his teenage daughter setting out on the road for hours on end by joining her. “He really enjoyed it as well so that made it easier because he would finish work and I would finish school and we would go training together,” Baker said.

Then her cousin and uncle also got in on the act and cycling well and truly became a family affair.

Her cycling prowess built quickly as she trained and raced with her family and the supportive cycling community in the island-state of Tasmania. Baker embraced road and track cycling and it wasn’t long before she made her mark on the sport, taking her first world champion title in the junior ranks on the track in 2011 and adding another two in 2012. Baker continued to reach the podium of the Australian and Oceania championships as she progressed into the senior ranks.

Then in 2015 the opportunities flowed. The timing for a breakout year was ideal too, as with the 2016 Rio Olympic Games approaching the long-held dream of trying to secure a place on the Olympic track team was at the front of her mind.

“I’ve always wanted to target the 2016 Rio Olympics so I thought if I give it everything I can look back and have no regrets,” said Baker. “I need to go for it, I need to give it everything.”

That didn’t mean leaving the road cycling behind though. Baker secured a spot in the High 5 development squad when it was initiated in early 2015, which meant she would head to the Tour of Qatar and ramp up her involvement in the National Road Series from the odd race in the past to regular participation.

Baker had a spot in Europe for a training camp and race program with the women’s Australian track team in June and July, but she also wanted to add a road race. She went through the gruelling selection process for Australia’s European women’s road development program in April to earn the right to join the road development team at the end of her track program for the eight-day stage race in Germany, Thüringen Rundfahrt. There were 20 vying for a road development program position, four got through to take part in the full program along with Amy Gillette scholarship holder, Kimberly Wells and Baker was, as she hoped, selected to join the team for Thüringen Rundfahrt.

Thuringen - Rundfahrt for women stage - 2

“It was definitely tough but I got through it. It is a hard camp. It’s not just physically challenging. It’s mentally challenging. You are always tired … but it’s not the worst thing in the world.”

There was something far, far harder Baker had to face in 2015. Shortly before she was due to head off to Europe with the track team she received the terrible news that her fit 44 year old father had a massive heart attack and died. There was no question that the place she needed to be was with her family, not over the other side of the world, as she and they dealt with the loss.

“It was something that was so unexpected,” said Baker. “My dad was a super fit guy, he always looked after himself. He was happy, the best person I know and it was a shock and I think and that was the worst thing. There was nothing really to prepare for that.”

He was also someone who had supported and encouraged his daughter’s cycling dreams every step of the way. After three weeks with her family, Baker made the decision that while it was hard to leave behind her mother and sister, it was time to head off and join her track teammates in Europe.

“I missed out on a couple of weeks of training in Europe but one of the reasons that really got me through was my dad knew how much I wanted to go and have that opportunity,” said Baker. That was something I really needed to do if I wanted to make this Olympic team. That was a vital step to prove what I have got, to show the coaches what I have to offer. The reason why I went was I knew that Dad, if I didn’t go, would have been so disappointed.”

Not that it was easy, with the emotions of the loss still so raw, but it was among a group where Baker had friends, not just teammates.

Building performance

As 2015 went on, it appears that the extra experience as well as the strength and determination Baker had to find to forge through the loss of her father were being channelled into performance on the bike.

She had managed some top-ten results in the National Road Series in 2014, but in 2015 she lifted her sprinting game and came across the line first in four stages to take out three tours. She also took second in the series general classification, behind back-to-back winner Ruth Corset (Rush Women’s Team) despite missing out on some of the races.

Baker believes the time on the road made her stronger and faster when she turned her attention back to the track. Baker took gold in the omnium and individual pursuit at the Oceania Track Championships in October. Then at the start of December she went to the World Cup in New Zealand for the team pursuit, securing a spot to race with two world champions, Ashlee Ankudinoff and Amy Cure, along with Isabella King in the gold medal race against Canada. It was a big opportunity that came on a significant day for Baker as it was her late father’s birthday.

Her supportive teammates donned black armbands during the tight battle. Australia lost the lead at the half way mark and then fought back to get ahead by the narrowest of margins with one kilometre to go. It was Baker who finished off the exciting final laps, giving it everything to hold onto the slimmest of leads.

“That was the fastest I’ve ever ridden in a team pursuit and it just gave me a lot of confidence that I can ride that fast and I can play a major role to contribute to the team,” said Baker.

Baker finished off the year with a madison national title and then opened up the podium places for 2016 with a silver in the scratch race at the Cycling Australia Track National Championships. It was also announced Wednesday that she had been selected to race the team pursuit at the 2016 UCI World Track Championships, which is in London in March.

Melissa Hoskins, who was part of Australia’s world championship winning team in 2015, was unable to go and defend the title because of illness. “It has however opened a door for Georgia Baker to be tested in London as Georgia has pushed her way into the team with some big improvements over the last six months,” Kevin Tabotta, national performance director at Cycling Australia said in a statement.

The Tasmanian, who is currently living in Adelaide, hopes that after the world championships it will all be about working toward the Olympics and right now it is hard to think beyond that.

“My major goal has always been to get there,” said Baker. “If I achieve it or if I don’t I should be happy and then I’ll make a decision after that about what I want to focus on.”

Whatever happens she is bound to be helped on her way by the strength instilled by a father that believed she could do anything and taught her to pick herself up and keep pedalling if she fell.

“Nothing will be as hard as what I’ve been through so I think that is one positive that you could take out of that horrible, horrible situation,” said Baker. “I can get through anything now. I’ve been through the worst … nothing could be as bad as that.”

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