Fairfax cycling writer NATHAN BURDON talked with former New Zealand track star Gary Anderson about heart defects, putting out fires and those 1990 Commonwealth Games, when the whole country was covered in New Zealand flags.
Wanganui-based Gary Anderson helped create a track cycling legacy in New Zealand which is only now starting to be fully recognised. During a brilliant career he won three gold medals at the Auckland Commonwealth Games - in the individual pursuit, team pursuit and 10-mile scratch race. He also won silver in the 1000m time trial. Two years later, he claimed this country's first track-cycling medal at an Olympics when he claimed bronze in the individual pursuit in Barcelona.
Q. You were diagnosed with a heart defect when you were five and raced most of your career with it. How did it affect you?
A. I was supposed to take medication which blocked an extra electrical pathway, which is what they termed it as. Every now and again it would flip out of rhythm and beat really quickly. I wasn't very good at taking [the medication]. I was supposed to take it all the time and I'd only take it when I was racing. At one stage I had a couple of bad flareups and they said I had to take it all the time. Eventually I had an operation to get rid of it. They developed the operation in the early 1990s and then fine-tuned it in the mid-1990s, and that's when I had my one. It was significantly better after that. The good thing about being an endurance athlete is that your heart is strong, so when it did go out of kilter it might have handled it a bit better than someone who was already a bit short of breath, maybe.
Q. You won four medals, including three golds, at the 1990 Commonwealth Games in Auckland. What are your abiding memories?
A. It's fading a bit, I'm getting on. One of the things I remember most about that is that Auckland, and New Zealand as a whole, was an incredibly patriotic place. There were stacks of New Zealand flags, lots of Games stuff, the city was really dressed up as a Games city. Every games is cooler than the one before. I'd been to Edinburgh in 86, been to Seoul in 88 and that was pretty cool and Auckland seemed to be cooler again. I had great form, we planned my entire year around being in good form for those games, skipped the world championships in 1989. I really started to hit my straps three or four weeks before those games and I arrived in Auckland super-motivated to do well and grasp the opportunity to race in front of home crowds. I'm glad that I got to go to games overseas, because there's something really special about going to another country and seeing that culture, but there's also something just as cool about being able to compete on home turf. It adds pressure, but it can also bolster support.
Q. You won bronze in the individual pursuit at the Barcelona Olympics two years later. It was New Zealand's first Olympic track cycling medal, but did you realise the importance at the time?
A. I don't know if I focused too much on the importance for everybody else. First and foremost it was important for me. I thought if I could just keep pushing I'd be knocking on the door of a medal at the Olympics. That couple of years from 1990 to 92 was just huge in terms of training and motivation - I pushed really hard and pissed a lot of people off. I was like a bear with a sore head a lot of the time. You lived, ate and breathed it 24/7, like any elite athlete. [The medal] was great, it was cool and I'm proud of it, certainly looking back now when you are living off your laurels. At the time, me and the guys I was riding with were trying to cover ground which had never been covered by Kiwis before. We were a bit unlucky in Barcelona not to come away with a medal in the teams pursuit. We had the form - as much as my story was about the individual pursuit going exceptionally well - the teams pursuit is probably one of those stories about having everything there; the form was great, but things just fell apart on the day and we ended up seventh.
Q. New Zealand has gone on to do very well in the individual and team pursuits, both in the men's and women's competition. Is that something you are proud to be a part of?
A. It's quite cool that we've had a good record in those two events. Much to many people's disgust, the individual pursuit has been taken out of the Olympic programme. I'd love to see it back. Everyone who has ever ridden a decent IP would love to see it on the Olympic programme, and I think just people who like watching cycling would like it too. It seems very odd that it's dropped out, being a blue ribbon event and one New Zealand has done very well in. I guess some of these other events have got their place, but some of them seem to be so reliant on judging and points. I'm a bit of a purist.
Q. Are you excited about the rise of New Zealand track cycling?
A. Absolutely. One of the neat things at the moment is the sprint programme. New Zealand has had reasonable results over a long time in endurance track cycling, and it's stepped up over the last couple of Olympic cycles with [Hayden] Roulston in the IP and the guys in the TP. It wasn't unexpected, but it's a pleasant surprise to see the sprint programme going so well. There's some dedicated athletes and some dedicated staff as well - and the right sort of money.
Q. How involved in cycling are you these days?
A. I'm there or thereabouts. I coach a few riders here and there; it's always in a state of flux with them coming and going. I don't coach anyone at open elite level, but I've been coaching and mentoring a small number of under-19 riders, which is pretty cool for me, because at that age group there's just a hell of a lot of stuff to learn about being a bike rider, as well as training. Once they've learnt that stuff they can become elite riders. I'm involved a little bit [in] riding with masters riders and I've done the odd event here and there. My cycling motivation goes up and down like a yo-yo these days. Coffee riders are always happening.
Q. You've been part of the Fire Service for 10 years now, how does that compare with cycling?
A. I suppose if you want to draw a comparison, there's lots of training, and then an event happens really quickly and you rip in and do it. A three-bedroom house fire, the hard part is done in 20 minutes. It's all team work, we don't do anything alone. There's times when you rely on the other person as your eyes. It's a neat occupation, I've enjoyed my time the last 10 years, and I don't have any intentions of going anywhere else at the moment.
- The Southland Times