Caroline Buchanan: Finding a way to fly again

by Simone Giuliani


In October, on Caroline Buchanan’s 28th birthday, it looked like everything was falling into place again. Her year had been dominated by recovery from a horrendous accident, but the excitement twinkled in her eyes as she stood in the industrial surrounds of an indoor skatepark in the suburbs of Melbourne, there training with the Australian freestyle BMX squad. Buchanan – an eight-time world champion across BMX and mountain bike racing disciplines – unashamedly had her L plates on when it came to this trick-focussed discipline. In so many other ways, however, she was clearly in her element.

Methodical, focused, she stood back to observe the more experienced players around her launch off the ramps into the air. Buchanan has 16 national titles under the belt already, and was clearly assessing the possibilities at the skate park that would later host the first Australian BMX Freestyle Championships.

Although Buchanan was stepping outside of her comfort zone of BMX racing, learning new skills step-by-step on the bike is a well practiced art.

So too was her patience, skill and ease dealing with the media – rather than being stilted or cagey, her natural enthusiasm shone through, her words bubbling out as she talked of the exhilaration of taking on a new challenge. Australia’s darling of the dirt was too busy looking to the possibilities ahead to fixate on the fitness she’d lost and the plans she had needed to change.

At the end of 2017, Buchanan was crushed by an off-road-buggy and landed in intensive care with injuries including a broken sternum, broken nose and collapsed lungs. It was a terrible accident that would have left many nursing their wounds and bearing deep physical and psychological scars. But instead of letting it stop her in her tracks, the Canberra-born athlete used it to spur her on – she embraced a challenging new BMX discipline where falls are a part of the territory, and risk taking is rewarded.

I looked back at the past eight years and two Olympic cycles to when I’ve performed well — when I’ve been my happiest — and I think it’s been when I’ve had just the most all-round calendar,” Buchanan told Ella CyclingTips on the sidelines of the Rampfest skatepark. “When I have had different disciplines, that’s when skill-wise I’ve been the best rider, it’s been when I’ve been most outside my comfort zone…  [that] I’ve really been hungry to perform and I love being an athlete.

With the change in disciplines came a realisation that jumping flat and low like a racer wasn’t going to cut it for Buchanan this time. The winner of multiple four cross and BMX world championships had to dare to fly high as well. And dare she now did, with no sign the accident that crushed her body would do the same to her spirit.

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The Australian athlete — who has mastered multiple disciplines, consistently delighted an army of fans and carved out commercial success in the notoriously challenging field of women’s cycling — was beginning to soar again.

Her sights were set on a BMX Freestyle World Cup at the start of November, where Buchanan delivered a top ten finish and qualified for the World Championships of this new Olympic discipline.

Once at Worlds — held just a week after her World Cup debut — all went well, qualifying into the finals. But then, in practice, she collided with another rider.

The blow was two-fold: gone were her chances at Worlds and the opportunity to compete in the first ever Australian National Championships in the discipline where tricks and flair rule rather than speed. More time off the bike — and then in December things got even worse.

A legacy of her 2017 accident, plates put in months after the accident when Buchanan’s broken sternum initially failed to heal, had broken. That meant another round of surgery. That surgery revealed the break still hadn’t healed properly. Then it was even more problems with the new plate, and yet another round under the knife.

It was a cruel blow – although after what Buchanan has pulled herself through already this year, the odds seem good that she will find a way not just to deal with it, but to come out the other side stronger than ever.

That accident that changed everything … and nothing

A year ago, when that off-road buggy rolled, Buchanan was too busy thinking about survival and taking her next breath to contemplate what the accident would mean for the career she’d spent her entire life developing.

After starting out racing her bike as a five year old, the BMX and mountain bike racer was familiar with dealing with injury, but this was something else altogether. She was in Cooma, New South Wales — in the middle of nowhere with no phone reception — and she’d been crushed by the buggy she was in with a friend. Broken sternum, broken nose, bleeding around the heart, collapsed lungs.

This was an accident that was life changing, and potentially life ending …

All she could focus on was making it to hospital and making it through, so she had the luxury of time to think about the rest later.

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“There were definitely the different phases. First you’re just fighting for your health and your life and you don’t even think about sport,” said Buchanan, as she cast her mind back to days where she had to turn every ounce of her considerable mental and physical strength toward the simple task of surviving.

There was no time to dwell on the loss of fitness she’d spent so many years working up; no time for wondering if her hard-earned sponsors would stick around; no time to contemplate just how much work was ahead of her to come back. That was for the later she was now so focussed on making it to.

“After I got out of ICU, got stable, regained health – then it went more into the phase where the first question to any doctor was, ‘how long am I going to be off my bike?’

“Automatically the athlete started kicking in,” said Buchanan. ‘I was thinking what’s my game plan from here?”

Giving up was never among the options.

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“It was just more about being realistic. Knowing as an athlete what it’s taken to be at the top and then realising what six months of being off the bike will mean. With what I have lost strength wise and muscle wise I had to then just be realistic with my own personal expectations,” said Buchanan.

So she set to work developing a plan B for 2018.

On her side was the timing. With the Olympics not till 2020 —  where she is still clearly focussed on delivering success in her bread and butter discipline of BMX racing —  there was a little breathing space. After talking to her sponsors she walked away with the confidence they would back her through her recovery. The rider, whose commitment and professionalism on and off the bike has been unquestionable, had earned their loyalty.

“There were no rules. All of them wanted me to recover and all said no matter what bike you are on or what you’re doing right now, we support you,” said Buchanan.

In turn, this gave her the opportunity to think differently; to work out exactly what the best path to recovery looked like rather than to just automatically take the expected one. Would it be a squarely focussed battle to gain back what she’d lost, or could she throw something else into the mix as well?

“It was already for me a very challenging year and really a year focused more on life,” said Buchanan.

“I’ve been a professional athlete for so long … being an athlete has always been my focus. But this year it’s really been just my health, my life — I just got married,” she said with a grin creeping on to her face.

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“So this has been more of a life year and a bit of a set-up year for me. I was inspired by the thought that I’ve pedalled in a straight line for 22 years and I wanted to have an extra challenge of seeing if I could transition from being that racer, to also having that extra discipline as a freestyle athlete.”

“When it’s your race to lose, it can become very stressful. Whereas I think if you set a challenge really high and you’re hungry and you’re motivated … they’ve always been my best years.”

Suddenly, instead of it just being a fight to get back to where she was after six months off the bike, there was the motivating joy of learning something new.

“Sometimes in BMX racing or mountain biking it can be months that you can dedicate to your training to have a win months down the track,” said Buchanan. “But in freestyle it’s been refreshing for me coming back from this major injury, because every day there’s a small win.”

“It’s been those small daily wins, instead of looking at the big picture, that have really … allowed me to continue that rebuild with passion. It’s been a huge process of self-discovery for me.”

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Risk, reward and resilience

Freestyle BMX is not a sport for the faint hearted; crashes are par for the course and experimentation is key. For someone recovering from such a massive injury, a sport which necessitates flying through the air upside down may not seem like the most obvious choice.

“Ever since I was five years old and BMX racing, I had maybe one or two crashes a year. It’s very rare and you’re always trying to avoid a crash, you are always try to not bend your carbon rims … you are trying to be, like, perfect,” said Buchanan.

“And in this sport [freestyle] you can crash 20 times a day. You know going into a new trick you’re probably going to crash but you’ve got to have that resilience; that ability to crash, get back up, crash, get back up and just keep learning.”

She may be describing her new discipline, but it could just as well be referring to her year. Surprisingly, constantly battling with the consequences of such a major setback have made her more willing to embrace those risks on the bike, rather than less.

“It is about embracing the challenge, but also knowing what the human body can sustain and what you can fight through,” said Buchanan. “I’ve always been a very calculated rider [and] I think that’s given me really good longevity in my career, it’s given me the multiple world championships.”

“Now it’s like I have to turn off what is almost one of my biggest assets, one that has made me so successful in these other disciplines. Let’s turn it off and say, ‘well I’m going to crash this first couple of times and then just roll through it and be able to just get up and smile, proceed and keep learning’.”

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“Prior to my accident, I don’t think that I would have had the resilience to be able to take on this sport.”

Plan Z?

There have been far too many opportunities to hone the art of resilience during her recovery, from the initial problems with her sternum that kept her off the bike so long, to a string of crashes once she got back on it and started competing again.

And in the latest instalment, Buchanan has now gone from soaring in November to all of a sudden having to relive those tough post sternum surgery days. The latest surgeries in December where her steel plate had to be replaced now means another challenging stint of recovery as she waits for the break to heal. In turn, that means instead of being able to roll over the pedals to soar spectacularly through the air, she’s more likely to be rolling herself gingerly out of bed and having to deal with restrictions on lifting anything more than a cup of tea.

And while it can’t be easy to end the year right back where she started — off the bike while recovering from that horrible accident — Buchanan has still managed to make the last 12 months productive, with plenty of growth and experimentation packed in. She has represented Australia in her fourth discipline at a World Championships, taken a win at Crankworx Whistler and at the Women’s Jump Jam, written a children’s book, got married and delivered two more of her Next Gen scholarships for up and coming female riders.

It may have been a long way from the Plan A she started out the year with – or even plans B or C – but even with the latest setbacks you get the feeling Buchanan will run out of letters in the alphabet before she’ll run out of determination to keep finding new ways to turn lemons into lemonade.

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