Kiwi sister trinity conquering the cycling world
Under their parents' roof in Cambridge, the home of New Zealand cycling, live the three Wollaston sisters.
Quickly, they're gaining fame as the superstar siblings of Kiwi cycling (even if one doesn’t even like riding a bike).
Within the space of a few days in August, and across two different continents, two of the Wollaston sisters had world medals proudly draped around their necks.
And the third sister could rightly claim to have helped play a role in the success.
First on the podium was Nina Wollaston - who won silver at the Para-cycling road World Cup in Baie-Comeau, Canada, at the front of a tandem bike with visually and hearing impaired rider Amanda Cameron.
A few days later, Nina’s youngest sister, Ally, became a world champion - winning gold at the world junior track cycling championships in Frankfurt, Germany, and hurtling within a whisker of the world record in the 2000m individual pursuit.
One of the first people to throw their arms around the 18-year-old was the middle Wollaston sister, Claudia.
Claudia - who her sisters say tried cycling for a week before deciding it wasn’t for her - was part of the New Zealand track team as the performance analyst, helping the riders determine where they could scythe 100ths of seconds off their times.
Before that, 21-year-old Claudia worked with New Zealand’s Para-cycling team.
“It was so cool to have her there in Germany,” says Ally. “And it was really helpful, too. She videoed the team pursuiters, analysed who was dropping the pace, who was picking up the pace, how long they were on the front for.”
The New Zealand women's team pursuit quartet of Ally Wollaston, Emily Paterson, McKenzie Milne and Samantha Donnelly also won silver.
The Wollastons have certainly come a long way from the three little girls who gave their all in Weetbix Tryathlons.
Their parents, Brent and Gill, are clearly proud of all three of their talented progeny. “They all get along, and they support each other,” says Brent, who, as a weekend cyclist, was a kind of role model to his girls.
And here’s how it all began.
Nina, the eldest, was 13 when a friend at school asked her to join her cycling team, because they were one rider short.
“I think she asked me because I was familiar with a bike – Dad was riding and Mum had a bike too,” Nina, now 23, recalls.
She loved that first race, and as her attraction to the sport grew, dad Brent took her out riding on weekends. “When they show a bit of talent and interest, it’s important you foster it,” he says.
“Dad was a social cyclist, but he was really passionate about it,” Nina remembers. “He hurt us on some of the early rides, for sure. But it was pretty funny when we slowly got better than him, and he stopped coming on rides with us.”
Ally was “the copycat little sister”, who jumped on a bike because her sister had. “It was the easy choice at the time, and it looked like Nina was having fun,” she says.
Both sisters played “every sport under the sun”, gradually dropping them one by one, until they were both left with cycling.
Nina made the New Zealand team for the junior world track champs in 2014, where she won bronze in the team pursuit. But after three years in the Cycling NZ programme, she failed to make it back into the national squad.
She decided to take a break from the track, and ride on the road. But, a month later, she was hit by car while out training; her broken her elbow required two surgeries.
Nina wondered if it was a sign to stop riding altogether, but the US pro team she’d already signed with still wanted her to come over for the criterium season. Although she never got to race, being part of the team environment convinced her she still wanted to ride.
Back at home, her old coach Brendan Cameron (who’d coached his wife Sarah Ulmer to OIympic gold) asked Nina if she was interested in becoming a pilot on a tandem bike.
“Next thing I know I’m in Invercargill in my first race on a tandem with Hannah Pascoe, my first stoker,” she says.
Wollaston had a couple of days to learn how to ride the bike, before qualifying for the world Para-cycling champs in Rio - where they were happy to finish fifth in the sprint and individual pursuit.
“I’m so glad I got into it, it’s really cool,” she says. She’s now competed with three stokers – cyclists on the back of the tandem, guided by the pilot – including multiple world champion Emma Foy.
Nina’s recent silver medal with Amanda Cameron in the World Cup road race came as a surprise, she admits, after a disappointing time trial.
“The road race was eight laps of a circuit with a hill, and the hill really suited us being a smaller tandem. Others were dropping off like flies, but we held on and won the sprint for second,” she says.
There were tears of joy: “It was Amanda’s first medal, and my first world medal since the junior worlds five years ago.”
The tandem pair were gearing up to race at the world championships in the Netherlands next week, but Cameron withdrew for medical reasons. An architectural technician, Cameron was born profoundly deaf and has gradually deteriorating vision from the genetic condition Usher Syndrome.
Nina Wollaston will now meet the team in Tokyo to check out the road course for next year’s Paralympics - which remains their main aim.
In Frankfurt, Ally Wollaston was determined to turn around the disappointment of the previous world junior champs. Although she came home with silver, again in the team pursuit, she was forced to withdraw from the omnium and madison events through illness.
The heat inside the Oderlandhalle Velodrome this year encouraged fast times, and Wollaston was “gunning” for a world record time in her 2000m individual pursuit qualifying ride.
It’s Wollaston’s unorthodox style to go out as fast as she can from the start-line, and she came within six tenths of a second of the world record set by Kiwi rider Ellesse Andrews in 2017. She took out the final from British rider Elynor Backstedt.
“It was bittersweet because I was so close to the world record. But I’m still very happy, regardless,” the new world champion says.
The next step for Wollaston is a monumental one – from the juniors up into the elite women’s ranks. She’s hoping to start training with the women’s endurance squad soon. The Olympics are a future goal.
Both sisters would love to ride together on a US professional team. That’s the great thing about the Wollaston trio – they all get along. There were never any real dramas between them growing up, either.
When they were apart – Nina went flatting and Ally went to boarding school at St Peter’s College – “it made us appreciate each other more", Ally says.
Now they’re all back under one roof at Mum and Dad's house. Claudia is still finishing her degree in sports science at AUT in Auckland, and spends half the week working for Cycling NZ in Cambridge.
Both of her sisters are studying at the University of Waikato – Nina is at the honours stage of her degree in management studies, and keen on entrepreneurship; Ally is in her first year of law.
And both are Sir Edmund Hillary scholars – the programme helps students pursue their passions in sport or the arts. They’ve both found it important to strike a balance between their academic and sporting lives.
“We strive for good grades at uni, we’re not there to fluff around,” says Nina. “I find it really good to have study to distract me while I’m away, so I don’t think about cycling all the time.”
“In high performance sport,” says Ally, “you get told over and over you need a back-up plan. So now we both have something else to fall back on.”
And should their cycling careers continue to climb, they may not be needing it for a while.