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'I'd try to brush my hair and burst into tears because I couldn’t do anything'

Team Ireland track cyclist Shannon McCurley’s Road to Tokyo hasn’t exactly been straightforward.

INJURIES ARE UNFORTUNATELY part and parcel of sport.

Every athlete encounters at least one at one stage or another; some hit harder than others.

Ireland’s Australian-born track cyclist and soon-to-be two-time Olympian, Shannon McCurley, is certainly in the latter bracket, her past few years ravaged by setback after setback.

tokyo-2020-official-team-ireland-announcement-cycling Shannon McCurley. Source: David Fitzgerald/SPORTSFILE

A quick Google search makes for grim reading, her list of difficulties the stuff of nightmares: several concussions, a shattered elbow, broken wrist, fractured coccyx, appendix removed, motorbike crash, car crash, and so on.

McCurley, who will compete in the women’s Madison event with team-mate Emily Kay after her bumpy road to Tokyo 2020, wholeheartedly agrees.

“I think my biggest one was probably following Rio where I had a motorbike cut me off, that was the big scar across there,” she begins, pointing to her arm and showing the journalists on the call her battle wound. She’s speaking on Zoom from the Irish cycling team’s base in Majorca just a few weeks out from the Games.

“I shattered my elbow, fractured my wrist on the other side so I was double-splinted, but I also suffered a nasty concussion from that and had to get stitches under my chin too so for me that was, mentally more than anything, [challenging] trying to come back.

“I was trying to transition from a sprinter to endurance and then I’ve had this blow happen and I’ve only got six months before I need to be back racing. I think that’s the most I ever struggled, coming back from that one.

Little things like I’d wake up in the morning and try to brush my hair and burst into tears because I couldn’t do anything. I thought about throwing in the towel then but this is all I’ve ever known, it’s my life and I love it so I think that’s what kept me going and wanting to push onto Tokyo.

“I’d experienced it in Rio and I made the call then that I was going to switch over and I wanted to be back and in Tokyo and not be just making up numbers like I was in Rio.”

Physically, she was broken, but mentally, she was shattered.

She bottled it all up through a difficult period; keeping her family, friends and coach in the dark for the most part.

“I’m probably the worst person when it comes to talking to someone, especially at that time. I was dealing with my doctor and a neurosurgeon and they were probably the only two people I really spoke to.

I’m generally pretty headstrong but trying to pick myself up then, I thought I’d probably messed myself around with the concussion and it was just a feeling I’d never felt before.”

The concussive symptoms lasted four months or so, with three elbow operations in between. Slowly but surely, McCurley got back to scratch, with plenty playing on her mind.

But she was soon knocked back to square one. “Two nasty concussions very close together” about a year-and-a-half ago, after crashes at competitions in London and Brisbane respectively stopped her in her tracks.

“The recovery from those, I really struggled from, just the accumulation of concussions in that time,” McCurley explains. “I just couldn’t bounce back from the way I would have if I’d hit my head the first time so it’s a bit of a relief that I had the extra year to get myself right and back into form and not have any ongoing problems with concussion.”

shannon-mccurley McCurley in action at Rio 2016. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

What exactly were the problems?

“Basically if I had an elevated heart rate I would start to black out at times. We found any time I put myself in the red, I wouldn’t last too long before I’d get really dizzy.

“It wasn’t so much a pain but afterwards I would get headaches and stuff like that. Everything was blurry and dizzy and if I went too far I’d black out.

“The first time we put it under pressure was in a race which probably wasn’t the best idea. I basically put myself into the red zone and tried to race and I can’t really remember too much of the end of the race, which is quite scary.

I think that was more the eye-opener for me because the whole time I was like ‘I’m fine, my body’s fine, it’s just in my head,’ so I was kind of ignoring the concussive symptoms I was experiencing and I think I just needed that wake-up call to say, ‘Okay, this is serious, I need to treat this like a real injury’.”

Eye-tracking was a big thing through her rehabilitation and recovery, as were neck exercises to help build up strength after the whiplash.

Confidence was another thing she had to slowly but surely restore, firstly getting back on the saddle and then throwing herself back into the chaos of racing — something her mother was certainly concerned about, more so than her.

“I may have struggled with it first but I was able to switch my head on. I knew that if I was going to keep going, I needed not to be concerned about the outcome or what could happen. I wanted to race but I wasn’t going to put myself there if I wasn’t there to win it.”

Should the Olympics have been in 2020, as originally planned, it would have been “very much hit and miss” for McCurley, who likely still would have been selected though recovery and the need to get her head right were being prioritised. And rightly so.

When the Covid-19 pandemic took hold of the world, the 29-year-old flew back to Melbourne. She spent lockdown there, training away on her own, before touching base in Majorca in March.

It was in Spain she stayed until Team Ireland headed from there to Tokyo 2020 last week.

Herself and Kay strike the perfect partnership, similar in ways but with enough differences to make it work. McCurley, who was a 800m and 1500m runner in her younger years, is the louder of the two, she laughs; both strong racers, and confident in their connection.

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The logistical challenges through the pandemic certainly haven’t been easy, training apart and racing just once this season in Ghent in April.

“We haven’t done a whole load of Madison work,” she concedes. “Racing is training, the best way to learn stuff is through racing and especially Madison, we can’t train what we do in a race because you need the chaos, those bodies around you and we missed all that…”

But everyone’s in the same boat, she reminds herself, the build-up together in Spain a successful one, despite the difficulties of missing home.

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

On the other side of the world, McCurley would rather be in her “second home” of Dublin with family there, but the lack of Velodrome prevents that.

“We have a good base out here in Majorca and a good group but there is obviously no place like home and I do miss my friends and family heaps. It’s not easy.

“But this time, coming out here I had my head screwed on pretty well. I had a goal. First, it was being selected and then, from there, it was tunnel vision to Tokyo so the fact we have done this the last few years and had that goal has made it much easier for me.”

With the experience of Rio 2016 under her belt and knowing what the Games is all about, she’s hungry for more.

While it’s all very different this time around; the track cyclists based outside the Olympic Village, and perhaps without the same hype and fandom; McCurley knows herself and Kay are there to do a job on the biggest stage.

With the whole world watching on, they’re determined to put on a show.

“We want to have our best race to date,” she deadpans, when asked about their ambitions as the interview winds down.

“We’ve been training really well together so we want to execute what we’ve been doing in training and from that, we know we should get a pretty good result.”

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

About the author:

Emma Duffy

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