Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 21 September 2014

Wendy Houvenaghel on road to glory

Houvenaghel is back working as a dentist, but she's still getting her teeth into training for Commonwealth joy

Hot wheels: Wendy Houvenaghel has shown no signs of slowing down
Hot wheels: Wendy Houvenaghel has shown no signs of slowing down

Wendy Houvenaghel is one determined lady. After experiencing good times and bad in the ruthless world of cycling, you might think at the age of 39 that she would want to hang her bike up in the garage and get back to living what the rest of us would consider a normal life.

Not a bit of it.

Desire, ambition and an intensity still burns inside the woman from Upperlands in county Londonderry.

That's why she is riding around the roads off the coast of Cornwall at breakneck speed, putting her body through the pain barrier and her soul into achieving more success in international competition.

She might be in her 40th year, but the three-time world champion will tell you age is no barrier, believing she has more to give to her sport – and her country.

When the Commonwealth Games take place in Glasgow in the summer, Wendy will be there, as proud as punch, wearing the Northern Ireland vest.

The spotlight will shine on her once again... and unlike the last time she was the focus of media attention, Houvenaghel will actually get to race.

You may recall her despair, anger and frustration when what was supposed to be an Olympic dream turned into a nightmare at the London 2012 Games.

Back then, despite impressing and posting outstanding times in training and feeling very much part of a four woman team in the build up to the greatest show on earth, Houvenaghel was stunned when she was left out of ALL three races in the Team Pursuit event.

The younger Dani King, Laura Trott and Joanna Rowsell were chosen to ride every time inside the atmospheric Velodrome. They raced to stardom and a memorable victory in the final in a world record time on what became known as 'Super Saturday' at the Olympics.

'Super' it may have been for King, Trott and Rowsell, as well as Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah, who later that evening claimed gold in the Olympic stadium a few hundred yards away, but that Saturday was heartbreaking for Houvenaghel, so desperate to better the silver medal she had won four years previously in Beijing.

What made it so tough to take was that she genuinely felt Team GB cycling chiefs were going to select her for the semi-final or decider. There had been no doubt in her mind.

The rules of the competition stated that only those who competed were entitled to medals... so Northern Ireland's greatest female cyclist was left out in the cold and without the gold she craved.

Speaking to an emotional and furious Houvenaghel in the aftermath, she hit out at the coaches who made the decision and the attitude of her team-mates.

The story made the front page of this newspaper as well as the back.

Today, during our latest interview, those coaches and ex-team-mates are not in her thoughts. She is only concentrating on doing herself justice in Glasgow.

Wendy's always been very much her own woman. Having trained as a dentist, she served in the Dental Branch of the Royal Air Force for six years becoming a Squadron Leader.

It was during that period she met her husband Ian and took up cycling at the age of 27, soon realising that she had a natural talent for the sport.

It wasn't long before she was selected by the British team and fast tracked on to the Olympic Podium Programme, becoming a professional cyclist in 2006.

The career highlights include World Championship glory in the Team Pursuit in 2008, 2009 and 2011 and silver medals from the Individual Pursuit at the 2008 Olympics and 2010 Commonwealth Games.

Those memorable moments came on the track. In Glasgow, Wendy will be racing on the road in the Time Trial.

"The road Time Trial is when you race against the clock over a distance of 20 miles," she explains.

"I'm very close to the coast where I live in Cornwall so there is lots of nice undulating terrain for me to train on and lots of exposed roads which will prove useful for the Commonwealth Games. It's hard work, but come Glasgow it will have been worthwhile.

"I have good pedigree road racing against the clock. My 2012 results show that. I beat the Olympic bronze medallist twice in 2012 on the road, so by really focusing my energies on training specifically for an event like the Time Trial I feel I can do well at the Commonwealth Games. My aim is to win a medal for Northern Ireland.

"Given the results I had been producing in 2012, I could have won a medal in London had I been racing in the event, so I do feel good about my chances."

There was a sense after the Olympics that Wendy would start to wind down. The thought of competing in Glasgow, however, always appealed.

"After having so many busy years with international competition, 2013 was quite a quiet year for me though I was still competing at domestic level," she states.

"The 2014 Commonwealth Games was something that had been on my mind for a long time and given where I was at with my racing domestically last year, that made me think I could actually do it.

"Considering I wasn't in full time training and I was only a few percent away from the speed I would normally be generating, I sat down with my husband and we talked about it and what it would take to get a medal in the Commonwealth Games.

"We then put a plan together and now we are taking it one day at a time."

The plan had to account for Wendy's move back into dentistry. Ever since opting out of the profession she studied for at the University of Dundee, the idea was to return once her cycling career at top level was over.

Now though, Houvenaghel is combining both. It is a challenge, but one she is confident can be overcome.

While other sports stars might shirk at the prospect of a nine to five occupation, it is refreshing to hear how much Wendy is enjoying it.

"It's good to be back in dentistry. I've missed my profession. I really enjoy dentistry, seeing the patients and the interaction with the staff.

"I'm very lucky to be working at a very pleasant practice close to where I live in Cornwall with some really excellent practitioners and support staff.

"I'm working three days a week, so out of a seven day week I train four of them and in two of the days that I work I do a smaller volume of training and then I have a day off.

"It is working out quite well with regards to getting everything done, but I have to be very mindful of my time management.

"I'm not getting the same amount of rest as before but I have plans to take two full months off prior to the Commonwealth Games so that I can fine tune everything in the lead up to the competition.

"Going by what my numbers are showing at present, that two months will be very important for me to really pull things together and produce a great effort in Glasgow."

I feel bad bringing it up, but it's a question that has to be posed.

"So, Wendy, in the Commonwealth Games will any of your old London 2012 team-mates will be up against you and if so what are your thoughts?"

She doesn't bat an eyelid and changes sports for a second from cycling to cricket to bat it away, saying: "I'm not sure if they will be up against me.I really don't know what they are up to at the moment as I've been so busy concentrating on what I've been doing myself. That's the way it will be now until the Games."

There's a pause, before she adds: "I wouldn't be doing all this work if I didn't think I could go to the Commonwealth Games and win a medal."

I've met many sports stars over the years. Without question Wendy is one of the most focused. She takes her interviews as seriously as her sport.

So will Glasgow be her swansong? The last major event before our finest female on two wheels finally rides into the sunset?

I'm taken aback a little when the reply suggests maybe not.

"At this moment I'm still keeping my options open," says Wendy.

"I haven't made a decision on that. Certainly I'll give the Commonwealth Games Time Trial 100% and review how that went and the circumstances of me working and see what could be possible and we'll take it from there."

Another Olympics in 2016? Time will tell.

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