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A childhood dream, allegiance switch and personal struggles: Emily Kay's long Road to Tokyo

’20 years of working every day with the dream of going to the Olympics, to finally achieve that was pretty incredible.’

A PICTURE PAINTS a thousand words.

When Emily Kay was officially selected to represent Ireland at her first Olympic Games earlier this summer, she posted an old photograph on Twitter.

It was from 20 years ago, a five-year-old Kay decked out in pink kit on a pink bicycle. She was inspired by someone she saw on the cover of a magazine: Italian Olympic mountain bike champion, Paola Pezzo.

Pezzo raced in pink kit, pink was Emily’s favourite colour. A star was to be born.

“I said to my Dad, ‘I want to ride a bike, and I want to go to the Olympics,’” Kay recalls. 

“20 years later, I’ve been selected for my first Olympic Games. For me, it just just means everything and the response I got to that tweet from the Irish public, saying how proud they were for me to represent them. It means everything. 20 years of working every day with the dream of going to the Olympics, to finally achieve that was pretty incredible.”

A few weeks out from the Games, it was still surreal. After all the highs and lows, good days and bad, the ups and downs — and there have been many — her childhood dream had come true. She could call herself an Olympian.

Confident going into selection, it wasn’t until official confirmation landed in the form of an email that she could breathe.

“I just called my Dad and I burst into tears,” Kay remembers, speaking to the media over Zoom from Team Ireland’s pre-Tokyo 2020 training base in Spain.

“I was just like, ‘I’ve finally done it, I’m going to the Olympics’. It still massively feels quite surreal, just in this bubble, training in Majorca.

“I guess for most of my career, the Olympics has kind of always felt quite far away. It’s four years, it’s five years, and to be a week away from flying to actually go to my first Olympic Games is quite surreal. It’s quite scary. But I just can’t wait now.”

It’s happening. Herself and Shannon McCurley are flying the flag together and competing in the Women’s Madison in the early hours of Friday morning, Irish time.

Born in Coventry, Kay qualifies to represent Ireland through her grandfather, who was born in Dublin and grew up there. With family living between the capital and Wicklow, she spent plenty of summers through her childhood on Irish soil.

In terms of the track cycling circuit, she spent several years representing Great Britain and England, before the 25-year-old switched allegiances to Ireland in late 2019.

“100% the best decision I ever made,” Kay wanted to represent the green, white and gold, and also felt it was the right direction for her career to go.

Obviously, though, there was some concern and worry, too.

tokyo-2020-official-team-ireland-announcement-cycling Emily Kay. Source: David Fitzgerald/SPORTSFILE

“I was nervous. Obviously, I wasn’t born in Ireland, and I have represented the UK. I wanted to represent Ireland, but obviously there was that, ‘Oh God, will I get into the team, will people be okay with me being in the team, will the public?’ There’s that worry.

“Everyone in the team; the staff, the riders; welcomed me and I just slotted in like I’d been here forever. I’ve no doubt some people aren’t over the moon that I’ve done it but the majority, 99%, have been incredible and supported me and congratulated me every time I’ve gotten a result or selection. I can’t say I’ve had a bad reaction.”

She’s aware of the grief Declan Rice and Jack Grealish have gotten for going the other way, but stresses: “It’s part of sport, it happens. If you have dual nationality you’re allowed to.”

The positive response to that tweet in particular floored her.

“People were just so kind. It means so much to me to represent Ireland, to represent my family, my heritage. I feel such a sense of pride every time that I put on the jersey.

“The first time I rode for Ireland, I just burst into tears after because it was so special for me. Now, to represent Ireland at the Olympics, I just want to deliver a result for Cycling Ireland, for Ireland.

“That tweet was pretty special. I said I hope I can do Ireland proud, and people were just saying that I’d already done them proud and they were proud to have me representing them. It was really special for me.”

When Kay first raced for Ireland, she really wanted to prove herself. She went through a period of wanting to show she was “worthy of being part of the team”.

It wasn’t exactly a straightforward transition, however, more of a slow burn after taking some time away from racing to work on herself.

Extremely open about her personal struggles, it’s interesting to hear Kay speak about that journey of self-growth.

“I’d been an athlete since the age of five. It’s all I had ever thought about – in my life, I was always going to be an athlete. I’d never, ever thought about what I would do after or if it didn’t work out or if I was injured.

“My identity as a person was all about cycling and I don’t think that’s a very healthy place to be because if something goes wrong, a race goes wrong and an injury happens, it’s the end of the world. It’s, ‘This is all I am. If I’m not a cyclist, what am I?’

“I took a bit of time to find out who I was as a person, to separate my cycling identity from me as a person. I think that’s massively helped me because it takes the pressure off racing, I’m more level about selection so for me, it was kind of stopping and going, ‘All I’ve been is an athlete for 20 years or so, I need to take some time to work out who I am as a person so that if this all ends tomorrow, I’m still okay. I’m still Emily’.”

Currently undertaking a sports science and sports psychology degree at the Open University, having left school at 17 to go full-time, Kay has really come to terms with those athlete identity struggles, putting theory to her practice and gaining a better understanding.

Over the past while on social media, she has opened up about eating disorders and mental health.

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tokyo-2020-official-team-ireland-announcement-cycling Kay (left) and Shannon McCurley. Source: David Fitzgerald/SPORTSFILE

She’s comfortable sharing her experiences and talking about it, doing it for others rather than herself.

She hopes that sharing her struggles will help those going through the same thing now.

“I suffered with bulimia for 10 years and, towards the end of that, depression. I think when you’re going through it, it’s very difficult to talk about. At the time, I felt embarrassed. Now that I’ve come out of it and am in a very mentally strong place, I think people, if they feel able to, should talk about and it’s something that I’ve posted about a lot.

“A lot of my struggles were about not feeling the lightest or the strongest person in the peloton and actually being a stronger and bigger-build athlete and kind of feeling that I needed to conform to this endurance look. I’ve learned that’s not what sport’s about.

“My body is my strength and it is what makes me the rider that I am and I hope that by being able to talk about that and show that I have gone through those struggles, got help and there is light at the end of the tunnel, can in some way help someone else notice the warnings signs when they are struggling, to get help. Maybe if they wanted to speak to me, I could help them in any way.

“I know I am able to talk about it now because I have come through it, it has made me stronger and made me who I am now, and I can deal with things a lot better.”

It’s amazing to look back at what Kay’s done through those struggles, enjoying remarkable success on the track in a world champion crown, five European Championship medals and a brilliant Commonwealth Games bronze to name but a few accolades she’s earned.

“When you have an eating disorder you don’t really realise the impact that it is having,” she nods, “but when I was going through the recovery I remember my psychologist saying that; ‘You do realise that you’ve probably been competing at about 70-80% of your potential, and look what you have achieved. Imagine if you didn’t have this eating disorder, and imagine if you didn’t starve your body of food’.

“I look back on it and think I was World Cup gold medal winner, Commonwealth medal winner, European medal winner: I did that with my body not functioning at its full potential. That massively drives me now to fuel my body and give it what it needs because if I can do that at 80% then what can I do at 100% if I am stronger and fitter than ever?”

“Physically and mentally the best that I have ever been” now, enjoying Cyling Ireland’s programme, which is less regimented than the UK system, Kay has “never felt a group of people believe in me as much as they do”.

Now, it’s all eyes on herself and McCurley in the Land of the Rising Sun.

Her Australia-born team-mate has bounced back from struggles of her own brought on by injury — Kay has had her fair share of those too, from concussions to 30 stitches in her face after a crash — but they’re both in a positive headspace now, ready to take to the world’s biggest stage.

One thing’s for sure; they’ll savour the experience together.

The destination will certainly be sweet after the long journey.

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

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Emma Duffy

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