The most successful female track cyclist in the history of the UCI World Championships, Anna Meares is also Australia’s most decorated cycling Olympian, with six medals to her name. The only Australian athlete to have won individual medals at four consecutive Olympic Games, she rounded off her brilliant career with keirin bronze at Rio 2016.
The youngest of four children, Anna Meares grew up in Middlemount, Queensland (AUS), and played a number of sports, including karate, BMX, triathlon and swimming. Her interest in cycling was stirred at the age of 11, when she and her elder sister Kerrie watched Kathy Watt, Australia’s 1992 Olympic road race champion, compete at the 1994 Commonwealth Games. “We were most interested in track cycling and in the speed of the velodrome,” she explained.
Their father promptly found them a club. The only snag was that it was located 300km away, in Mackay. “He drove us in one weekend; we fell in love with the sport,” recalled Meares. “So for two years, mum and dad would pick Kerrie and me up from school on a Friday afternoon, drive the 300km for us to race Friday night and Sunday morning, before driving home in time for school on Monday morning.” The family then made the decision to move to the town of Rockhampton, which had its own velodrome, giving Anna and Kerrie the opportunity to practice daily.
A 500m world junior champion in 2001, the up-and-coming Anna then won individual sprint bronze at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester (GBR), where Kerrie took gold in the 500m time trial. At the age of 19, Meares joined the Australian Institute of Sport in Adelaide, continuing her studies while enjoying great success in the international arena.
After winning 500m time trial gold at the worlds in Melbourne in 2004, she went on to claim Olympic glory in Athens in the same event, posting a new world record of 33.952 and becoming the first female rider to dip under the 34-second mark. Having qualified with the fastest time in the sprint event, she made up for the disappointment of losing to Canada’s Lori-Ann Muenzer in the semi-final by beating Russia’s Svetlana Grankovskaya in the bronze medal race.
In 2007, the Australian claimed a second 500m world title in Palma (ESP). When her favourite event was removed from the Olympic programme, Meares chose to take part in the sprint at Beijing 2008, reaching the final, where she lost 2-0 to her British rival Victoria Pendleton.
Meares went on to win gold medals in every track cycling speed event (500m time trial, keirin, sprint and team sprint) at the three world championships held between 2009 and 2011, a feat unprecedented in the sport.
The Australian faced Pendleton once more in the London 2012 sprint final. The British rider, who was keen to cap her career with a gold medal on home soil, was disqualified in the first race, with the resilient Meares then winning the second in front of a vociferous crowd to claim the Olympic title.
“Racing in front of that crowd was something unique,” she said after the final. “The decibel measure that was taken was about 114 and 95 per cent of that was aimed towards Victoria. I was very nervous and I'm glad I dyed my hair before the competition because otherwise I would have gone grey!”
Meares’ long-held dream of surpassing Félicia Ballanger’s World Championship gold medal total of 10 finally became reality in February 2015, when the 31-year-old Australian made it world title number 11 in the keirin in Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines (FRA). Her next goal was to add to her collection of Olympic medals at Rio 2016.
The Opening Ceremony in Rio saw Meares become only the second cyclist to have the honour of carrying Australia’s flag, after Dunc Gray at Berlin 1936. Entering three events in total, the two-time Olympic champion made her first bid for a medal in the team sprint, where she and team-mate Stephanie Morton were just beaten to the bronze by Germany’s Kristina Vogel and Miriam Welte.
Meares had higher hopes of success in the keirin the following day. Fifth in the event at London 2012, she went two better on this occasion, finishing a tyre-width behind Great Britain’s Rebecca James, with the gold going to Elis Ligtlee of the Netherlands. “Unfortunately I stepped into the bend three wide coming into the finish line and that cost me a little bit of speed,” said the Australian speedster afterwards. “But at the same time I had to go, so I'm really pleased. This was the main motivating force to keep riding from London, to better my result from this event.”
That bronze, her sixth Olympic medal, made her Australia’s most decorated cycling Olympian and the first athlete from the country to win individual medals at four consecutive Games. “All my goals were for this event [the keirin], so tomorrow I'm just going to go out there and have fun,” she said ahead of her sprint title defence, which would end in the second round, with Meares eventually taking tenth place in the competition.Two months later, on 16 October 2016, the greatest Australian cyclist of them all announced her retirement from the sport at the age of 33, stating: “I didn't get a fairy tale ending [to these Olympics] but I had a good ending.”
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