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'I've got over my disappointment at missing out on 2012 Olympics... I'm now brushing up on dentistry'

Published 05/08/2016

Wendy Houvenaghel
Wendy Houvenaghel
Close ties: Wendy with her sister, Janice McGeagh
New path: Wendy enjoying life with her husband Ian

With a name like hers, if you weren't aware of her from cycling, you'd never guess Wendy Houvenaghel comes from the sleepy linen mill hamlet of Upperlands, near Maghera.

But although she has lived in Cornwall for many years with her husband Ian - who's of Dutch ancestry - the triple world cycling champion and Olympic silver medallist retains the distinctive south Londonderry lilt in her speaking voice.

"Oh yes, I never lost my accent - I come home two or three times a year," she says. "Mum and dad, May and Philip McLean, are still there. Dad's a mechanic and he has four vintage cars. He and mum have a great time going to the vintage rallies."

Now retired from the sport, Wendy's looking forward to tuning in to see Northern Ireland cyclists compete in the Olympics in Rio. However, these days, her studies come first.

A former dentist with the Royal Air Force, she's currently attending a one-year course at Cambridge, studying dental implanting, and is considering setting up her own practice one day.

"I'll see how it goes - I need to get a bit more experience. Age is no barrier in dentistry," she says, pointedly.

"Going back to the situation in 2012, that was something that stopped me achieving my goals. The experience that comes with age is an advantage in dentistry."

She's referring to her grievance at being an unused reserve at London 2012, after a decade working with British Cycling, which robbed her of a chance of a gold medal.

"Personally, I felt at the London Olympic Games I was at my peak fitness, my results from the season proved that and it was just a great disappointment for both my family and my friends.

"I didn't get to take part in the competition on that day and of course the implications were great. There wasn't anything I could have done about it. To have been in any better shape and to have been a better team player, and to have done my bit and played my role to the best of my abilities - there was nothing I could have done any better.

"The decision lay with the team head coach at the time, and I couldn't do anything to change his mind. Our team went on to win, which was great, but the aftermath of that was quite a tough time for me to have to deal with."

Wendy remains indebted to the support given to her at the time by family and friends. "They were there for me, they just helped me through that difficult patch. And life goes on. When you put everything into perspective, it was only a competition and one that I could have done.

"I know, just from training times, that I was more than capable of fulfilling my role within the team, but I had to move forward and move on with my life and make the most of all the opportunities that did come along after the London 2012 Games for me."

Unsurprisingly, she welcomed the recent decision of British Cycling technical director Shane Sutton (58) to resign amid claims of sexism and discrimination towards elite competitors, claiming she was "verbally abused" by him.

Controversial Sutton was forced to leave the sport after being suspended while the cycling body investigated allegations he had called para-cyclists in the British squad "gimps" and "wobblies".

He'd previously earned a backlash after Wendy's former teammate Jess Varnish claimed that he had told her to "move on and go and have a baby" after ending her Olympic dream and that he said her "ass" was "too big" to ride certain roles on the team. Wendy says: "I think the sexism and discrimination issues are being addressed now. It's the only way to move forward, for things to improve."

Although she felt the sharp edge of the Australian cycling chief's tongue at times, Wendy was never told by him to go and have a baby. She retired at 40, and with the huge increase in women giving birth in their forties, is motherhood on her horizon?

"Not at the moment - I'm more career orientated," she says. "I like spending time with my brothers' and sisters' children, but having them myself is not something I'm focused on. The dental implants course is taking up most of my time now."

The eldest of four, Wendy's younger brother is a dentist. Her two sisters are accountants but one of them has set up a childminding business, having had children of her own.

Wendy sees them as often as she can and the rest of her free time is spent hill walking with her husband and their two dogs, Axel and Odin, named after the Norse god.

She met Ian while studying dentistry in Dundee. She's reluctant to specify what he does for a living - "it's more about me" - but enthuses about their travels together.

"Ian's family have lived in England for years but they're originally from Holland," she explains. "We went there recently and I loved it. Great for cycling, of course."

Lithe and tall, at 5ft 10ins, and fine featured, Wendy looks much younger than her 42 years. She puts it down to cycling, which she took up late, at 26. After graduating from university, she became a dentist in the Royal Air Force and commissioned as a Flight Lieutenant on a Short Service Commission in August 1998.

She was promoted to Squadron Leader in August 2003 and after completing her commission in August 2004, she took up a part-time post at a local dental surgery to help fund her ambitions as a cyclist. She was then fast-tracked on to the Olympic Podium Plan by the British Cycling Federation in June 2006, with the aim of winning a medal at the Beijing Olympic Games in August 2008.

She says: "Cycling kept me youthful. I had a very healthy lifestyle for 10 years. I had good nutrition and I never went out, and had all the benefits of leading a healthy life.

"I've relaxed that a bit now and I see family and friends more often now. I'm just enjoying life and taking one day at a time."

She still cycles when the weather's good, but has no plans, as has been suggested to her, to start her own bike range.

"My cycling career was special in many ways," she recalls. "I worked so hard for those medals and I was lucky, after all the work I put in, not to have had any lasting injuries. I did sustain a back injury, which meant I couldn't compete in the Commonwealth Games.

"After that injury, training became tricky and I became more prone to injuries. It was the right time to move on."

Wendy is hoping to see a Velodrome built in Northern Ireland in the near future.

"Cycling has grown a lot as a sport in Northern Ireland in the last 10 years," she concludes. "It would be great to have a Velodrome there; it would make cycling so much easier to access and it would be very beneficial for the young and old. It's great exercise for all ages and if you feel you've got a natural talent for cycling and if you have big aspirations, then you should really try and achieve them, don't let anyone put you off or try to distract you in any way from what you can be capable of.

"That's what I would fundamentally advise; if it's realistic, if you think you can make it, you must go for it. I'm out walking now as much as I'm on my bike, but I'll never lose my interest in the sport. I'll be watching the Northern Ireland cyclists at the Olympics on TV and supporting them all the way."

Wendy's tips for beginner cyclists

  • Make sure your bike is comfortable and well maintained
  • Don't venture out without a puncture repair kit
  • Make sure you've plenty to drink for hydration when you're cycling
  • Avoid going out in bad weather until you're more experienced
  • Always use sun protection, whatever the weather

Belfast Telegraph

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