Rebecca Petch, who’s taken over from Sarah Walker as our BMX Olympic medal hope, has made a huge jump ahead in power thanks to her strength and conditioning coach, Shaun Paterson, as Sarah Cowley Ross discovers in our Olympic Bonds series.
It’s the first five pedal strokes that make the difference. And that’s something Olympic-bound BMX rider Rebecca Petch, and those around her, are acutely aware of.
“If you’re strong and powerful out of the gate in BMX you get yourself out of the traffic early,” she says.
“So, I wouldn’t be good if I didn’t go to the gym to be strong and powerful. I wouldn’t be as good if I didn’t have Shaun.”
She’s talking about Shaun Paterson, her long-term strength and conditioning coach. They’re sitting alongside each other in the café at the Avantidrome in Cambridge, where they crank out demanding training sessions in the gym most days.
Working alongside Petch’s BMX coach, former elite rider Matt Cameron, Paterson’s role is to help the 23-year-old be explosive, with the priority on “making Bec as strong as humanly possible in the first five pedal strokes.”
Together they’ve been working on her strength in the gym, which has progressed to the point where she is able to nearly dead-lift three times her bodyweight; the 63kg rider’s current best is 173kg.
“Bec is one of the better athletes in New Zealand. She’s a weapon,” says Paterson.
“If we can get Bec to the front, out of the traffic, into the first turn into the lead… there’s every chance she can maintain that position.”
But the building of the three-time national BMX champion’s power and optimal cadence (a measure of high speed power) hasn’t been all she’s developed. The mental muscle Petch has grown, says Paterson, has been “significant”.
“For a long time we’ve talked about Bec having more swagger simply because we believe in her and we want her to believe in herself more,” he says.
Petch, who’s been racing since she was three, backs that up. “Last year, if I was scared of jumping a jump at the track I would almost break down in tears. Whereas now ‘I’m like stuff it, we have to do this’,” she admits.
It’s the kindness Paterson has shown to her – both as an athlete and as a person – that Petch says makes their bond so special.
Paterson, who works for High Performance Sport New Zealand (HPSNZ), reckons working with Petch has been so rewarding because of her work ethic and her thoughtfulness to thinking about training – why each exercise matters.
“It’s a real privilege to work with someone so humble and hard working as Bec,” he says. “We have to rein her in at times because she wants to train hard all the time.
“That’s where Matt and I work together to make sure she’s not going to get too cooked.
“It’s my role to take the lead from Matt depending on what phase Bec is in her training to develop her athleticism on the bike.”
For the last five years, Petch and Paterson have ground away in the Avantidrome gym developing her from a Pathway to Podium junior rider to an elite rider off to her first Olympic Games in Tokyo.
In 2008, BMX debuted at the Olympic Games in Beijing and a young Petch vividly remembers watching New Zealand’s BMX legend (and future Olympic silver medallist) Sarah Walker and thinking: “I want to be there one day.”
“I still remember that day in Room 2 at Pekerau Primary School in Te Awamutu – I was in awe of the Olympics,” she says.
It’s been a challenging ride to selection for the current national champion, who was officially named as New Zealand’s sole female rider in Tokyo on Thursday – taking on the mantle from Walker.
Paterson says the past few months have been tough on Petch because of the uncertainty around whether she’d be selected. But the words of her strength and conditioning coach have helped her get through.
“Shaun has really reassured me that everyday we’re training for what we want,” says Petch. “He’s positive all the time.”
“That’s why I try to tell Bec and all my athletes – be brave, the opportunity is here and now” – Shaun Paterson
Paterson is Scottish-Sri Lankan and grew up in rural New South Wales, Australia, before coming to New Zealand in 2014. He’s worked at HPSNZ since 2015.
His own sporting journey as a track and field sprinter shaped his career and ultimately his thirst for wanting athletes to fulfil their potential.
“As an athlete I wasn’t able to take a courageous step forward in a competition. I let my insecurities take over,” he says.
“That’s why I try to tell Bec and all my athletes – be brave, the opportunity is here and now.”
That unwavering support combined with the environment at the HPSNZ training facility has allowed Petch to lift her game, she says. Being surrounded by other strong female athletes pushing for success in Tokyo has not only been a benefit to her physical preparation but also her mental strength.
“I’ve never really been a confident person, but the environment has made me more confident,” she says.
“Shaun’s a massive part of that and having other female athletes in the gym with me, all shouting at me as I go for a personal best, it’s awesome.”
Athletes like javelin thrower Tori Peeters, hammer thrower Julia Ratcliffe, four-time Olympic rower Emma Twigg and cyclist Olivia Podmore. “We’re from different sports but we’re all about being better,” Petch says.
The BMX track in Tokyo’s Ariake Urban Sports Park is 10-15 seconds longer than a normal World Cup track, so training under increased fatigue has been a focus of Petch’s preparation, both on the track and complimented in the weight room.
“We need to make sure I can still technically execute at the end of the race,” says Petch.
That’s where the postponement of these Olympics has been a blessing in disguise, Petch admits. “I’ve had an extra year to train and I’ve hit some personal bests lately which show me it’s all coming together.”
What’s also special about Petch, Paterson says, is that she doesn’t have all her eggs in one basket. It’s also her goal to join the police force.
“Bec is going to make a great policewoman – it’s a tough job but she’ll be a big asset to the police,” he says.
Petch hasn’t raced in 16 months internationally – in her last events she made the semi-finals at two World Cups in Australia – so she’s excited about the prospect of lining up in Tokyo.
Right now, she’s training in the Wintec heat chamber in her full BMX race kit, with the climate set at Tokyo heat and humidity conditions.
She’s also visualising different possibilities that may play out in Tokyo – including if her coach Cameron, who will travel to Tokyo, is exposed to Covid-19.
“I’m visualising being by myself at the track and still executing how I want to race,” she says.
Even if she finds herself alone, she’ll know she has the support of her team at home behind her – including Paterson back in Cambridge, watching the race on TV.