In part four of our series Out into the Open, track cyclist Holly Edmondston is at a crossroads in her career after her Olympic experience wasn’t what she envisaged. But the wisdom of other athletes, past and present, has given her new perspective.
The Tokyo Olympics weren’t the grand spectacle and career highpoint Holly Edmondston had dreamed of. Far from it.
A World Cup track cycling champion, Edmondston was the last New Zealand athlete to compete in Tokyo, finishing the gruelling four-event omnium just before the closing ceremony in a respectable 10th place.
On our TV screens she was knackered, yet proud to have given it her all.
“My goal this campaign was to be able to look back on my performance with pride and to be able to rewatch our videos we get done for us. I think I can safely say, yes, I am happy to re-watch those videos,” she said.
But three months down the track, Edmondston has had time to process the Olympics and her five-year effort to get there. “The whole bloody thing has been way too hard,” she says.
“The Olympics didn’t feel real. It just felt like I ticked it off my list of things to do.
“I had a rough time up to the Games, during the Games and now after the Games. I’m glad to say I’ve been and done it, but it wasn’t an enjoyable experience.”
She’s not ready to climb back up on the horse yet, either. But listening to other Kiwi athletes talk about their similar issues in a forum called Crossroads has helped Edmondston to understand she’s not alone.
For 24-year-old Edmondston, who grew up in the South Canterbury town of Waimate, just getting to the start-line in the Izu Velodrome south of Tokyo had been a challenging, and pain-ridden, campaign.
A bulging disc in her lower back kept her out of the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. She’d just recovered from that injury, and returned to the top of her game, when she underwent surgery for endometriosis – an insidious painful disease which can go for years undetected.
But in between those serious health issues, Edmondston had the international season of her career. In 2019, she won a world championship bronze with the New Zealand team pursuit in Poland, and a handful of World Cup medals, including gold in the scratch race, silver in the team pursuit and bronze in the omnium.
To ride at the 2020 Olympics was Edmondston’s dream. And then the opportunity was whipped out from under her with a 12-month postponement.
That extra year was tough, but it gave her body, and her mind, time to mend. Without racing to build to, she had to learn to be consistent in training, to avoid burning out or getting injured again.
But when Edmonston finally reached Tokyo – with no family, no crowds, and the New Zealand cycling team living outside the Olympic village at a golf resort – her experience wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
“It feels like I’ve done five years’ hard work for a massive event that, in the end, wasn’t that massive,” she says.
Then there was the disappointment of the women’s team pursuit, ranked third in the world going into the Olympics, finishing eighth of eight nations. But Edmondston’s gutsy omnium effort gave her some satisfaction.
At the airport ready to fly home from Tokyo to spend a fortnight in MIQ, Edmondston was told of the death of fellow Kiwi cyclist Olivia Podmore. They’d been friends since their early teens; she and her team-mates were devastated.
“I haven’t been able to grieve for her yet. I still can’t believe it,” she says.
Once out of lockdown, Edmondston and her partner, Mark, have been travelling round the Level 2 countryside, riding mountain bikes and giving her body time to “level itself”.
“It’s been really hard for my head, too. In 2020, we were meant to have Tokyo and go overseas on a massive holiday afterwards. When you build up all your plans and dreams over five years of your life, and they suddenly get cut away…” she says.
“I need drive to want to do more miles on my bike again. I don’t want to get to 2024 and have the same experience.”
Edmondston’s track endurance team-mates have also found themselves at the crossroads: Kirstie James revealed facing similar challenges on Instagram, and three-time Olympian Rushlee Buchanan, 33, brought down the curtain on a glittering track and road career last week.
Chris Arthur can totally relate to Edmondston’s time in Tokyo.
A two-time Olympian with the Black Sticks, Arthur is now head of Athlete Life at High Performance Sport NZ. A few weeks ago, Arthur and her team ran the Crossroads forum – an online event, thanks to Covid – inviting athletes who’d been on the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games long-lists to share their stories at this pivotal time in their careers.
“I told them ‘I know an athlete who went to the Olympics, and it was the worst experience of their life,’” Arthur says. “’They came home and felt like they had let everyone down’. Then I said that athlete was me and I didn’t want any other athlete feeling the way I felt.”
Arthur has spoken to LockerRoom about her struggle after the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, where the New Zealand hockey women also finished eighth of eight. It was something she couldn’t talk about for four years.
Today, she says, there’s so much more awareness around ‘post-Games blues’.
“Part of the purpose of Crossroads is trying to normalise those feelings. And when they hear it from a retired athlete or their peers, it resonates so much more,” Arthur says.
“We want them to know this is a moment in time; we understand you’ve lost something important so you will go through a grief cycle, but you will get through this.”
These Olympics were, of course, like no other, and even those who brought home medals from Tokyo have still found it tough not being able to celebrate their success. “With MIQ then straight into lockdown, they feel a bit lost,” Arthur says.
For many athletes, this is a critical period of deciding what to do next. Do they continue life as an athlete, with next year’s Commonwealth Games and the 2024 Paris Olympics in their focus? Or do they end their sporting careers and bravely step into a new life?
“I certainly got a sense from the  athletes at Crossroads there were a lot of people still undecided,” Arthur says. “And we gave them the message that’s okay too. Don’t feel you have to rush into a decision, but if you do make one, it’s okay to change your mind. Start down a path, if it doesn’t feel right, you can pivot again.
“Paris is three years away, but there’s also the uncertainty around ‘Will we have any competition? What if we turn up undercooked?’ Yes, it’s a time of uncertainty so you can only control some things. Focus on the journey, not the destination.
“If you’re loving the life of a professional athlete, loving what you’re doing every day, why would you stop? Don’t feel like you’re hanging in there simply for the destination.”
Former athletes spoke to the current generation about lessons they wish they’d learned when they were at this stage of their careers. Then there were workshops around personal development, wellbeing and getting work ready (“Understanding they have transferable skills from sport,” Arthur says).
Many high performance athletes have Athlete Life advisors, who help them create a wellbeing plan – with career, education and other life goals outside sport.
“I hope athletes will continue to reach out and know we’re here as a great support network,” Arthur says. “We’re not going to do the work for them, but we can help them with tools on the path they want to follow.”
Edmondston, living in Matamata on her partner’s family farm, had been looking forward to Crossroads. “I missed being in that supportive environment where everyone around you has the same feelings,” she says. “It made me feel like others understood where I was at.
“I loved hearing other people’s stories about going through sport and coming out the other side. Starting their own businesses. It’s all a bit scary.”
She listened to former professional BMX rider Matt Cameron talk about quitting the sport in his early twenties, but returning to the world stage in his late twenties. “He said you don’t want to get to your fifties and regret that majorly,” Edmondston says.
“Crossroads left me energised and motivated again, and gave me perspective. But the main thing I picked up was to have trust in myself.”
The forum also challenged her to think about an alternative future to cycling. “Being something else… will it be as good as cycling? Of course it will,” she says.
“I’d focus on being something entrepreneurial, a small business owner. I always have business ideas. I feel like I have the people around me to achieve whatever I want to achieve.”
She wants to return to studying health science papers through the Southern Institute of Technology. “I did a couple of papers before the Games. But then I had to divert all my attention to one thing, and that was the Olympics,” she says.
“I love learning about the body, stress and how it affects the body.”
Edmondston has been talking with her Athlete Life coach, Christina Jacklin. “I definitely have the support there; it’s just a matter of using it. I forget to reach out sometimes,” she says.
She’s in a happier place now, she says, renovating and putting the word out to join a road racing team for 2022. But she’s still working through the process of getting back into training.
“I don’t quite have the feeling I want to get back on the horse again yet,” she says. “It’s the feeling of still getting over what’s happened.”