Anna Meares, a coalminer’s daughter from Blackwater, Queensland, made one of the great comebacks in Australian Olympic history when she won a silver medal in the women’s sprint cycling at the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. History wasn’t new to her: in Athens four years before, she had become the first Australian female gold medallist in track cycling, winning the 500 metres time trial while also claiming bronze in the women’s sprint. Having already confirmed her position as the best performed Australian woman cyclist ever she went on to win gold at the London 2012 Games in the women’s sprint along with a bronze in the women’s team sprint.
What made Meares’ silver medal in Beijing truly memorable was that it came only seven months after she broke her neck in a race crash in Los Angeles. She arrived home after that in a neck-brace and a wheelchair. Her husband, former cyclist Mark Chadwick, became her full-time carer - cooking meals, brushing her hair, even helping her to brush her teeth. Her parents arrived to help, but her father Tony said he didn’t give her “a hope in Hades” of making it to Beijing. Her recovery began two weeks later, when she mounted her exercise bike and pedalled for two minutes. Her time on the bike expanded each day, and finally she was ready to unpack her racing bike. The miracle was on its way.
In the Beijing semi-final she clashed shoulders with local favourite Guo Shuang, but didn’t fall. The Chinese woman was disqualified, and Meares finally went down in the final to Britain’s Victoria Pendleton. Her silver was the Australian cycling team’s only medal in Beijing.
Four years on Meares turned the tables on her long time British rival. Having again beaten China’s Guo Shuang in the semi-finals, Meares faced the daunting task of not only taking on the defending Olympic title holder in her last ever Olympic event but also having to deal with the parochial home crowd supporters cheering for their champion.
Despite crossing the line second by the narrowest of margins in the opening race of the final, Meares was awarded the win after Pendleton was deemed to move out on her Australian rival in the final straight which led to her disqualification. Meares rode the second race to perfection letting Pendleton take the lead before eventually wearing her down to take the victory and win her second Olympic gold medal.
Earlier in the Games, Meares combined with teammate Kaarle McCulloch to beat Ukraine in the race off for the bronze medal in the women’s team sprint.
Meares returned for her fourth and final Olympic appearance in Rio, as she finished her storied Olympic career with a sixth medal in Olympic competition while also becoming the first Australian athlete to win a medal at four Olympic Games. Meares progressed through to the final of the Keirin where she would go on to claim the bronze medal. She had come close to the podium in the team sprint, finishing fourth with Stephanie Morton, while, in what would turn out to be her final Olympic event, she finished 10th in the individual sprint.
Harry Gordon, AOC Historian