Medals aren’t really made of gold, silver or bronze. They’re made of sweat, determination and the will to win. These words perfectly epitomize Ireland’s very own track cyclist, Lydia Gurley, who has dedicated her life to the bike.
The Galway flyer’s achievements in her short cycling career are exceptional and include two individual bronze medals at World Cups. Her greatest achievement to date however came last February when she, alongside her Cycling Ireland teammates, fulfilled a lifetime goal, as Team Ireland qualified for their first ever Madison event at an Olympic Games.
“It felt like a dream really, said Gurley.
“Myself and Lydia (Boylan) were very fortunate to get selected to go World’s but there were many riders who were involved in the qualification process – Shannon McCurley, Emily Kay, Alice Sharpe. It’s been a massive team effort. They were part of the two-year qualification process so we could accumulate points at European Championships, World Championships and World Cups all over the world to qualify. I’m really proud to have played a part to get Ireland to an Olympics.”
Qualification for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games has been a whirlwind two-year process where Ireland have accumulated points at various competitions over the past number of years, including two top-ten finish at the 2018 and 2019 Track World Championships and an eighth-place at the 2018 European Championships, to name just a few.
The UCI Track World Championships last February was the final event before the qualification window for track cyclists closed. The responsibility of taking Ireland home was put on the shoulders of Lydia Gurley and Lydia Boylan.
How crazy was that Women's Madison Race?!— Cycling Ireland (@CyclingIreland) February 29, 2020
Congratulations to @LyD_ers & @lydiagurley who fought their way to 11th 👏
The result provisionally qualifies 2 slots in the Women’s Madison & 1 slot in the Women’s Omnium at the Tokyo Olympics 🇯🇵https://t.co/3HPe98MGUv pic.twitter.com/CttoRAGdUZ
The pair survived a brutal race to finish 11th and accordingly qualified two slots in the Women’s Madison for Team Ireland. By virtue of qualifying for the Madison, one starting space in the Omnium event was also secured. Ireland does not have an indoor velodrome which facilitates training, so to qualify for the Madison event in the first time of asking is nothing short of remarkable, if not world class.
“I thought about that moment every day for three years, and it finally arrived. It’s hard to put into words. Many times we’ve been down and out and come back through it, so we are really proud of what we achieved.”
Prior to 2017, the Madison was only used as a training exercise for women as they were not permitted to compete in the event internationally. The event had long been contested as a men’s only event, with a long tradition going back deep into the 19th century.
After three straight Olympic Games from 2000 through to 2008, the event was dropped before the London 2012 Games, as there were no corresponding women’s event.
In 2017, the International Olympic Committee announced the return of the Madison for the Tokyo 2020 Games, this time for both men and women. With events finally put on the international calendar for women, parity was created almost 60 years after the women’s World Championships were instituted.
For Gurley, since the announcement, the Olympics has been the sole focus.
“Absolutely it occupied my mind every single day. That was goal number one. We’ve worked very hard and we always believed that we could do it. We knew were starting on an equal footing to all the other teams and we had strong riders who were capable of competing at that level.
I believed from day one that we could do it and we did, so I’m very proud.”
From the ecstasy just two months ago, the emotions are very different at the moment with the coronavirus taking centre stage globally.
“It’s a very strange time at the moment – I mean I remember a month ago it felt very surreal to be on a team that’s just qualified for the Olympics and now the world has shut down and it’s all very surreal.”
I’ve had been out here in Mallorca training but now everything has been shut. It’s something that’s really effecting training and our ability to travel and obviously then prepare for events. It’s a new and surreal world from the euphoria I experienced just a few months ago.
“We are respecting the rules here. We’re not allowed on the bikes so we’re doing our best to train indoors. I think the general feeling her in Mallorca is that if we all play our part this can be over sooner and normal life can return again.
It’s really trying to make the best out of a bad situation. It’s not a perfect scenario but it’s the same for everyone. I see so many stories where many athletes haven’t even qualified for the Olympics where we somewhat we have an advantage in that we have qualified team Ireland for the Olympics, so you just have to take the positives.”
Astonishingly, the Tribeswoman only took up track cycling five-years ago. Her love of cycling first began when she started taking part in triathlons while she was living in Canada back in 2010 – this partly explains her incredible endurance base.
“I initially started cycling when I was in Canada. I enjoyed it so much. The speed and the sense of freedom and peace that you get.
I first got a mountain bike and almost crashed into a bear, so I figured that was the end of my mountain biking days! After that, I got a road bike and joined a club. I really enjoyed being active with other people and being outside and riding a bike.”
Gurley then moved to England where she spent time at the University of Birmingham doing a PhD in renewable energy. After a lot of thinking, Gurley’s passion for the sport ultimately convinced her to make a brave life-changing decision. She put her PhD on hold to focus on cycling.
“I figured to myself that the cycling was the thing that I enjoyed most. I focused on that and I did some Nationals in Ireland and contacted the team about try-outs. In the summer of 2015, I got the opportunity from Team Ireland. I just essentially stayed out there for about year and it worked – I improved the whole-time training with the team.
Then in 2016 there were some retirements which gave me the opportunity to race at European and World level. I kept working really hard behind the scenes which was the main thing and taking opportunities to race and learn where I could.”
Taking a step back from a professional career is daunting and at the time Gurley did have self-doubts over her decision. Whilst she is now a full-time cyclist and receives funding, it hasn’t been an easy path finding the right balance right between working and training as an amateur.
“I guess it worked out in the end, but at the time, from a professional point of view, it was probably not the best thing to do.
Like a lot of the Irish track cyclists I had to go through a good period of a year and a half of not receiving any funding. The funding is based on results and for the first year I wasn’t competing at the level where I was eligible.
I think that’s the reality of sport – it is difficult and sometimes you have to fight for it. It takes time but you have to stay committed.
I’m grateful and very fortunate that my family provided the necessary support at the time and a lot of the financial support. I trained for a good year and a half without any payment, so I had to rely on some of my own savings and support from my family.
I remember a time I was at a thing with my aunt in Cardiff together to go buy a coffee. I thought to myself, ‘why do I do this for something that may or may not happen’?
I guess I can look back now and say it was the right decision to make. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to represent your country and potentially compete at the Olympic Games. I would rather try and not succeed that not try and wonder what may have been.”
The International Olympic Committee announced their historic decision to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Games until next year. The Games were due to open in just over two months but the COVID-19 pandemic has forced the first peace-time postponement of the Games.
Now, they will officially take place from July 23, 2021 to August 8. Whilst the dates have changed, the goal remains same.
Whilst the dates have changed, the goal remains same.
“It’s one day. If we bring our A-game, I genuinely feel that on our day we can get on that podium. That’s what we’re aiming for.
There’s going to be sixteen teams fighting for the ultimate prize. I think it’s going to be a very interesting race. It’s something we can be incredibly competitive in.
We have strong riders. There’s no doubt we’re going into that race wanting to achieve something incredible. We’re not just going there to participate. That’s not what we’ve prepared for. We’re preparing to do the best we can to make ourselves proud, our families proud and our country proud.”
Watch out Tokyo!