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Olympics: In hot pursuit of a medal

The New Zealand women's pursuit team have improved by almost four-and-a-half seconds since last year under coach Brendon Cameron. Photo / Alan Gibson
The New Zealand women's pursuit team have improved by almost four-and-a-half seconds since last year under coach Brendon Cameron. Photo / Alan Gibson

The sight of Brendon Cameron armed with a stop watch on the inner rim of the Athens velodrome was a reassuring sub-plot to his partner Sarah Ulmer's individual pursuit gold medal at the 2004 Olympics.

If not the power behind her pedalling throne, he was certainly the key adviser to New Zealand's queen of cycling.

He committed to paracycling from his Cambridge base after her retirement, which coincided with the building of the Avantidrome. It's no coincidence London Paralympic medals were secured during his tenure, including gold to Phillipa Gray in the individual pursuit with pilot rider Laura Thompson.

Now Cameron's back for the Rio Olympic campaign, looking to emulate those results with the women's team pursuit.

The 43-year-old's genial smile remains. The only difference from yesteryear is the transition from a youthful jawline to a voluminous salt'n'pepper beard that would earn selection on a polar expedition.

Cameron's influence is evident from the seconds getting shaved off his charges' best times.

Lauren Ellis, Rushlee Buchanan, Jaime Nielsen and Racquel Sheath finished fourth at February's world championships in London, defeated by Britain in the bronze medal ride.

The Brits were 3.685s clear of the Kiwi quartet, who could not improve on two national records set earlier in the meet. Canada, the silver medallists, edged them by 0.003s for a place in the gold medal ride against the United States.

"That's like 4cm over 4km," Cycling New Zealand high performance director Mark Elliott quantified at the time. "But they have delivered above expectations."

Cameron's knowledge of the sacrifice to succeed at Olympic level is hard to match. A two-time Olympian in the team pursuit, at Atlanta in 1996 and Sydney in 2000, he devoted himself to the cause as an athlete. Then he became the strategist in the glory of Team Ulmer.

"I've managed to get sign-off from my family," Cameron says with a chuckle, in reference to a household which now includes daughters Lily and Emily.

"I am lucky. It's the life Sarah and I lived, so she understands.

"I will miss my daughter's fifth birthday [Emily] and her first day at school. I impress that on the athletes, too. We are all in on this until the Games, and I've got to get some guilt trips in there."

Cameron said the world championship performance, when they pipped the world record-holders Australia time-wise, would make his charges "sleep with rocks in their beds over the next five months".

This year's best time of 4m 18.264s trumped last year's top effort by 4.409s. With the result now in perspective, Cameron's worked out his modus operandi for Rio.

"A number of the Olympic podium contenders misfired so we downplayed our result, but we're smelling the coffee.

"It's a matter of knowing the potential of individuals in the squad and developing them. Some nations have robotic squads but ours is uneven. Like getting the best out of fours and eights in rowing, self-belief is incredibly important. My job is to ensure the mental side of their preparation is addressed."

Cameron has brought in strength and conditioning adviser Nic Gill, the man charged with keeping the All Blacks in shape since 2008, and injected a mindset that his pursuiters are a few milliseconds off reaching the Rio podium.

"Gilly's our impact player. He has the girls riding bigger gears and they've got a consistent gym programme with a lot of erg work."

Another guest could make a cameo.

"Sarah might sit down with them at some point," Cameron says. "She doesn't like telling back-in-my-day stories, so it will be more about the journey, the years that didn't go right, and the slog. Her journey [from seventh in Atlanta to first in Athens] was one of the longest. She'd been to a couple of Olympics before she made the podium."

Cameron's team is training in Trexlertown, Pennsylvania, in the build-up to Rio, somewhere he lived and trained in 1994 before the Commonwealth Games.

New Zealanders have trained in the area for a generation, often participating in races from June to August at the local velodrome. The undulating training roads around the area are viewed as ideal and accommodation at the university hostels is cheap because it coincides with the American summer holidays.

The area is also home to a significant Amish community. Their traditional Christian beliefs often mean sharing the roads with horses and carts. Organic roadside fruit and vegetable stalls are abundant. Such a timeless venue offers plenty of assistance to a group of tech-savvy cyclists, but Cameron's stop-watch is still likely to play its part.

- Herald on Sunday

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