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McIlroy in her third sport at third Games

Three Commonwealth Games in three different sports, but this time is different for Kate McIlroy, as she swaps her briefcase for a bike. Suzanne McFadden reports.

While her Commonwealth Games team-mates were already toiling and striving on the Gold Coast, Kate McIlroy was still hard at work behind her office desk in Wellington.

Last Friday, she switched off her computer, bid goodbye to her work colleagues at Xero, and set off on her last demanding bike ride – two hours over the capital’s hills. 

Today, she expects to arrive at the Games village feeling relaxed and confident for the women’s cycling road race later this week.

This plan of attack is so far removed from the pre-race build-up McIlroy has had before her past two Commonwealth Games performances – first as a steeplechase runner in Melbourne 2006, then as a triathlete in Glasgow 2014.

But working full-time until a week before race day may, in fact, give her a unique advantage.

“In the other two Games I’ve been to, I was immersed in the high performance system as a full-time athlete," the multi-talented 36-year-old said. "I was training, travelling, going from a camp straight into the Games. This time around, I’m not in that system, so I’m going from Wellington, on my own, straight into the village environment."

“I’m probably a lot more relaxed this way. Having been to a few Games before, I know what it’s like. It’s amazing being around all of the athletes, but it can also be really tiring. I didn’t want to spend two weeks in the village, so that’s why I’m going a bit later. I could stay at home and train in the environment that I know and like.”

McIlroy’s reinvention (or perhaps that should read ‘third reincarnation’) as a road cyclist has earned her New Zealand sporting legend status.

The 2005 world mountain running champion, turned steeplechaser, turned triathlete, turned cyclist reckons she’s in a good headspace.

She’s enjoying her work-sport-life balance. She’s been working for accounting software company Xero for almost two years, where she’s now the marketing operations co-ordinator.

“The training load for cycling is nothing like triathlon. It’s basically half of it. There’s no way you could be a triathlete and be working fulltime. So this time around I can still work and fit my training in. Sure, there are days when it’s a bit of a juggle, but it also takes your mind off sport for a while and focus on something else. I like that.

“I don’t know if I would be in the same headspace if I was younger. With a lot of years' training behind me, maybe I don’t need to do as much training as some of my competitors now. I have quite a huge aerobic base to draw on. Having the experience and mental part of it is a huge advantage.”

If she had the choice, she would still be a runner.

“I grew up with running, and nothing, to me, beats being as fit as a runner. If I could still run fast, I’d still be doing that.”

But, after finishing fifth in the 3000m steeplechase at the 2006 Games, a string of injuries put paid to her track career, and she turned to triathlon. She was 10th at the 2014 Games, but a horrific mountain-bike crash, where she tore her hamstring off the bone, ended that sporting endeavour.

Strangely, it didn’t put her off riding a bike, though, and she kept cycling to “stay sane”. It was a sport she didn’t particularly like, but now she has grown to love it. “Cycling now feels so much easier than the other sports. My body responds to it so much easier, and I don’t need so much physiotherapy to hold my body together,” she says.

She’s a natural climber, and thrives daily on the punishing hills of Makara, Whitemans Valley and Blue Mountains.

“I also do a bit of gym work, and a bit of stretching. It’s just a lot less stressful," she says. "Not constantly worrying whether my body is going to break down is a massive factor in my enjoyment of it too."

Don’t think for a minute that at 36, McIlroy is easing off and riding for the hell of it. She’s as competitive as she’s ever been, and has the results to back that up.

She broke on to the elite cycling scene a little over a year ago, finishing third in the 2017 national road race. This year, racing across the ditch for the Specialized Women’s Racing team, she scored top 10 finishes in both the Tour Down Under and the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race.

And yet, being chosen for these Commonwealth Games was never on her radar, she admits. “The way it has unfolded, I could never have planned or dreamed of,” she says. "I'm still surprised by it."

The tactical playbook required for a cycling road race really interests McIlroy. “It’s a lot different from a running race. For me, it was 'run as fast as you can right from the start'. I love that you have to play your cards right in cycling,” she says.

But it took her a while to get her head around competing as part of a team. “I’ll have five other New Zealand girls there with me on the Gold Coast, and we'll be on the start-line as a team. We’ll have a plan of how to get a few girls across the finish-line in the highest possible positions. You’re not really riding for yourself; you need to help each other."

What happens after these Games, McIlroy says, is totally up in the air. She’s “on the fence” over whether she would ever become a fulltime cyclist.

“I’m 36, I’m realistic about my age,” she says. “But if I could ride for one of the best pro teams in Europe, maybe guest ride for them for a month or so, then great, I’d love to do that. There are some races I would love to do and do well in.”  

For now, she’s happy in her paid profession, but she's still “bouncing around trying to figure out what I actually want to do". She’d like to one day work for a sports organisation, putting to good use all the knowledge she’s garnered from the many sports from her athletic career.

With the wisdom that comes with being a long-time international athlete, McIlroy is confident that she can do her job in the 112km road race on Saturday – six laps of an 18km course that, while not technically hilly, is “lumpy enough to sort people out”.

“I’d love to bring a medal home - every athlete would love to win a medal. Yes, it would be a great story, for sure. But I don’t feel at all like I have unfinished business at the Commonwealth Games."

McIlroy’s workmates would appreciate a medal too.  “When I left the office [on Friday] they gave me a huge bunch of flowers and a bottle of champagne, and some really lovely messages," she says.

Surely, those are gifts usually reserved for winners? “I know, I know,” she laughs. “Now I’ll just have to bring something home.”

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