Champion rider puts health ordeal behind her
Despite a tumour that eroded her leg bone, Prudence Fowler never gave up cycling. Now the talented teenager has an incredible 24 national titles to her name.
Prudence Fowler has crammed plenty into her 16 years. Chances are if you’ve never heard of her, you soon will.
Add in a nasty health complication when she was 12, and it’s been an eventful young life with a pile of sporting highs.
It helps that the Diocesan School student has bundles of energy and an inquisitive, restless spirit. But if you think she’s just another young sportsperson with a single-minded determination to be the very best in her sport, at the expense of other aspects of a teenager’s life, you’d be wrong.
Fowler has dabbled in a range of sports, but it’s cycling where she’s making a significant impact.
She has been scooping up national titles since 2015, and has bagged a stunning 21 national age-group cycling titles, on both the road and track. And soon she will ride for New Zealand at the Oceania championships.
But it was a bone tumour, found on her lower left leg when she was 12, that adds an extra layer to Fowler’s story.
After the tumour was discovered on her left ankle, Fowler had an operation to remove it. But it grew back.
“No one really believed me,” Fowler says. “But when I ran my finger up my leg I could feel the lump. We had the scans done again and it was back.
“It was growing off my tibia into my fibula. It was double the size of the first time.”
The returned tumour eroded her fibula, which had to be reconstructed. Cue months of pain and frustration for an immensely active youngster.
“I had the second operation when I was 13. A metal plate was put in. There was plaster and a moonboot, for about three months,” she says.
“It was pretty painful. I couldn’t run, but it wasn’t as bad when I was cycling.”
Her father, Jose, remembers it as “a terrible time for somebody who was as fit and active as she was all the time”.
Five screws and the plate are still in her leg, but due to come out – “it’s just about finding the time", she says.
The tumour proved to be benign and Fowler is confident it’s in the past.
“There are a few things I can’t do at the moment because the screws are still in. You can see them because they stick out; I can’t wear boots because they stick out so much.”
So, did the thought occur to her during the months of operations, treatment and rehabilitation that she wanted to jack it all in and find another pursuit? Well, there was one dark day.
The first operation Fowler remembers as “not too bad”, and boiled down to six weeks off her bike. The second was more complex.
“I remember going to the physio after I’d got the cast taken off. He asked me to curl my toes and I couldn’t do it,” she says. “I was sitting on the table and about to have a meltdown because I couldn’t move my toes.”
Those times are long gone, and it’s full steam ahead for the multi-talented teenager.
The youngest of three children, Fowler has dabbled in a variety of sports including triathlon, water polo and swimming. She admits she still holds a candle for rowing, which is how she got her scholarship to Diocesan in Year 10, after starting her high school days at Mt Albert Grammar.
“They had a really strong rowing team, and it’s ironic because I don’t row anymore,” she says. “I did one full season and got the school’s under 15 rower of the year.”
On top of her slew of cycling firsts, Fowler has also won three national age-group duathlon team titles, riding the bike leg. In the only individual triathlon she’s ever raced, the U13 nationals in 2016, she won the bronze medal.
So how did Fowler start cycling?
Dad Jose had competed in Ironman events and Fowler, along with sister Esta and brother George, would follow him around watching him ride.
She wanted to start riding in Year Seven at school – “and I wasn’t the skinniest”, she quips sheepishly.
“When I asked Dad, he said it wasn’t really the sport for me. He bought Esta a new bike and gave me her old one and let me get on with it. So I was out to prove a point. That’s where it started.”
That determination shown at age 11 is still intact. She has won both the national U17 road race and individual time trial for the last two seasons, plus she won the criterium title as well this year.
She was then named in the nine-strong NZ U19 women’s squad for the Oceania track champs in Invercargill in October.
It’s wise to be wary of shouting the odds whenever a gifted teenage sports person emerges. Much can happen in their lives around those years.
However her cycling coach, double Olympic medallist Hayden Roulston, is adamant: “She’s definitely got something a bit special about her.”
Their partnership didn’t get off to a flying start. Roulston discovering he had to put a hold on his energetic pupil.
“Pru’s mindset was ‘more is better’ and it’s a mindset quite a lot of young riders have,” he says.
“When we started working it was actually about slowing her down, giving her two days off a week, prioritising and trying to get the most out of training sessions, rather than beating a dead horse day in, day out. It took a wee while to get that across to Pru.”
Fowler happily accepts that. When they first met, “he asked me what training I was doing. I said I was doing rowing and cycling and he was like ‘you’re mental’,” she says.
“When he first made me have two days off each week, I thought ‘I hate this’. One of the first rides I did with him was a recovery ride and my heart rate went over 200 beeps a minute. It definitely took a while to get used to it.”
Roulston is based in Christchurch but keeps an eye on her progress – along with about 15 other riders around the country aged 19 years down - through the power metre on her bike and emailing her programme to her.
He also introduced Fowler to a book he insists is crucial to her development, The Power of the Subconscious Mind, by Joseph Murphy.
Essentially it’s about keeping positive thoughts and dismissing the negatives. It has had such an impact on Fowler, that she has colour-coded paragraphs of significance for quick reference.
“I used to have a really negative mindset and doubted myself with everything I did. I didn’t think It was a problem,” she says.
“People would say ‘you’ve got such a negative mindset’ and I’d feel like ‘well, it’s doing all right for me’.”
As Fowler was working through the book, she remembers one eureka moment vividly.
“I ran down the stairs and told Dad: ‘It’s finally clicked, I get it now!’ I always worried about everyone else around me.
“If other people are going to be ‘you’re not good enough’, your sub-conscious mind has to be strong enough to overcome that. You have to believe in yourself enough, so that when other people are telling you things, you say ‘I don’t care, this is my race’.”
Roulston, who won silver in the individual pursuit and bronze in the team pursuit at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, believes discovering the essence of the book has had a massive impact on Pru.
“She’s very intelligent, on and off the bike, a big thinker. Sometimes she overthinks a bit. But she’s a star athlete in terms of listening, understanding and she really trusts what I say to her,” he says.
Given the mountain of titles, national and regional, school and club, it’s intriguing that one of Roulston’s work-ons with Fowler is preparing her for the bad days.
“Not that you want to talk about getting beaten, but I’ve made her aware that you’re not always going to win, and the times you do get beaten there’s going to be a real lesson in that loss.”
Roulston also pushes the importance of spending time “being a teenager”, remembering there’s more going on than simply racing.
But Fowler is no blinkered sporting nut.
She fills in on occasions as the cook at one of her parents’ two Auckland restaurant/bars. “We’re a family that just mucks in and gets on with things together – just the way we roll I guess,” Jose says.
She’s academically bright, with a bent for science and maths, but she’s unsure what she wants to do with her life.
“I’ve no idea. It changes every day. But I am a curious person,” she says. “I get bored really easily so I want to do something that’s going to keep me on my toes. I can’t think of anything worse than going into an office job.”
She also makes it clear she doesn’t want to make sport her full-time career.
“I want to go to university and set myself up for that side of life. You can’t rely on sport to get you places,” she says.
And after her brush with serious injury at a very tender age, she knows how easily life can change.
That said, Roulston predicts Fowler will be seen at the top of a dais at a major competition in the near future.
“She’s got the goods, eh.”