Cycling: Pilot change hits prospects

By Grant Chapman

Sonia Waddell.
Photo / NZ Listener
Sonia Waddell. Photo / NZ Listener

One of New Zealand's strongest Paralympics gold medal prospects has taken a hit now former Olympic rower Sonia Waddell has withdrawn from the track cycling programme.

Over the past two years, Waddell has formed a successful partnership with blind rider Jayne Parsons, capturing a world para-cycling title over the 3000m pursuit 12 months ago and closing within a second of the world record at the Oceania championships in November. But the combination parted ways shortly before they were due to defend their world crown in Los Angeles earlier this year.

Waddell (39) and husband Rob, an Olympic single sculls champion and America's Cup sailor, have three young children and run a farm in Cambridge, caring for mares and newborn foals.

"I always said I would cycle while it fitted in with my family and it no longer does," she says.

"Rob is still pretty busy with Team NZ and I now need and want to concentrate on family and business.

I could no longer give the commitment required for an Olympic campaign and Jayne had an excellent option to ride with another pilot - the timing was perfect for everyone."

Paralympics NZ cycling director Brendan Cameron is philosophical about the change: " We were pretty lucky to have someone of her calibre in the programme. We always knew she had her hands full with family commitments and we took that into account with every campaign.

"When she handed in her resignation, we totally respected that and had to start looking for another pilot. It happened over Christmas, which is family downtime, and we'd rather it happened then than later. We still had time to put some plans into place."

Losing Waddell, last year's national time trial champion, seven months out from the London Paralympics could compare with re-building a new pairs combo in rowing - with a couple of added twists. The new pilot must meet strict eligibility criteria to prevent team 'stacking'.

"It would be unfair if the US team signed up Lance Armstrong with an athlete on the back," says Cameron. "There's a stand-down period, depending on what level that pilot has competed at. For an Olympic athlete, it's an Olympic cycle.

"A lot of them are coming from other sports like rowing or triathlon and the tandems are now getting so competitive."

The fresh team must also re-qualify for the Paralympics, although this seems as simple as merely contesting an international event before London. The rookie pilot must learn to manoeuvre the extra length of a tandem bike. Underpinning all of that, though, is the high level of trust needed between a blind athlete and the person charged with guiding her around a track at high speed.

Cameron has already found that replacement - former representative netballer Kylie Young - and started forging the new combination. Young finished sixth in the individual pursuit at this year's national championships and has been on Cameron's radar for a couple of years.

"You could see she [Parsons] was a bit nervous at the first camp but, by the third day, they were ticking along quite nicely. The potential shown early is really encouraging. I think we're on target and we've got time. "

New Zealand should still be well represented in the blind pursuit at London. Parsons enjoyed success before Waddell, claiming a bronze medal with a previous pilot at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, while the pair of Phillipa Gray and former basketball international Laura Thompson finished third at the most recent world championships.

- Herald on Sunday

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