World Gold Kiwi Cyclist didn’t know she had won
Changing room – Paralympics
New Zealand’s last World Cup champion, para-cyclist Nicole Murray, had a long and uncomfortable wait to find out she could step onto the stage for the first time, she tells Merryn Anderson .
After the ride of her life, Nicole Murray couldn’t find out if she had just won World Cup gold.
When the Kiwi cyclist completed the C5 individual time trial at the UCI Para-cycling Road World Cup in Elzach, Germany last month, she wasn’t sure where she was sitting on the field once she had crossed the line. There was no cell phone reception at the top of the hill to help her.
Then she was suddenly whisked away from the racetrack, taken to another town for a post-race drug test. Sitting in a room waiting to take her drug test, without her team around her, Murray was still unsure whether or not she had made the World Cup podium for the first time.
Then New Zealand team manager Ryan Hollows came in and whispered in his ear. Murray broke down in tears.
The Otorohanga-born former cave guide had just won her first World Cup title on the road.
“It was so good,” she said. “I always knew I was strong enough to be among the top in my ranking, and in those particular races like the pursuit and the time trial, where it’s just pure strength,” she says. .
“But I had been limited with my technical skills in corners and things like that, so it was really great to be able to follow a course where you’re just able to put your head down and go hard.”
Once guiding people through the Waitomo Caves, Murray, 29, is now a full-time athlete. The world title was her first time on the podium in a cycling road race.
Murray, who had her left hand amputated below her wrist after an accident as a child, got her first taste of international competition at the 2018 track world championships in Rio – where she won a silver medal. She has since continued her ascent in both disciplines, making her Paralympic debut in Tokyo last year.
At the Paralympic Games, she almost won a medal. She finished fourth in her first track event, the 3,000m individual pursuit, but admits to being a bit disappointed with her performance.
“My racing nerves have taken over a bit, unfortunately, and that’s something I continue to work on a lot,” Murray said.
The New Zealand team had been training in thermal chambers to prepare for the Tokyo heat, but then the rain came for the road race – Murray describing the road surface as a river.
“I had to take my glasses off because I couldn’t see, then I had to close one eye because the rain was like needles in my eyeballs. So I was racing with one eye open half the time,” she says.
“I was happy with what I did because I was never able to stay with the leading pack after the breakaway for a whole road race, and I managed to hang on until almost the very end.”
She finished with a personal best sixth in the road race and achieved the same placing in the individual time trial and the 500m track time trial. “I really did my best and I was able to come away proud of what I had done,” she says.
Murray started his 2022 international campaign strong, finishing fourth and sixth respectively in the time trial and road race at the first round of the Para-cycling Road World Cup in Belgium.
Traveling direct to Germany with the Kiwi Para cycling team, Murray was quietly confident in the time trial at Elzach, where conditions were similar to New Zealand on a cool, misty day. And the uphill course was no different from the Waikato hills she trains on.
“The course itself played very well with my strengths,” Murray recalled.
“It just started at the bottom of a hill and ended up at the top. It wasn’t very technical, you didn’t have to think too much about which line to take, you basically didn’t have to braking at all the whole race was just putting your head down and going hard.
With the drug tests complete and she knew she had a gold medal to win, Murray returned to her team to celebrate.
Murray has always been an active kid – “almost a bit hyperactive to be honest” – she jokes.
She represented Hamilton Girls’ High School in cross country and was on the school’s first XI football team from grade 9 until graduation.
Her first contact with cycling came after attending a conference for young adults living as amputees, with attendees having the chance to do outdoor activities, such as rock climbing and sailing.
Murray’s athleticism was spotted by Hadleigh Pierson, a Para swimmer who represented New Zealand at two Paralympic Games. Pierson works for Paralympics New Zealand to identify and support future para-sport talent, and saw the promise in Murray.
“He put us in touch with the respective coaches of the sports he thought we would do well in,” says Murray. “So he put me in touch with the para-cycling coach at the time, Jono Hailstone.
“I came to Cambridge and tried the track and absolutely loved it.”
Murray’s left arm is amputated at the wrist and she rides with some adaptations on her bike in the C5 category. Cyclists in the C1-C5 classification ride a conventional and standard bike, with physical disabilities ranging from severe in C1 to mild in C5.
“For the most part, I race with people with similar disabilities to mine,” says Murray.
“A lot of them are congenital or traumatic hand amputations, like me. But I think most of them have more of a palm and a wrist, whereas I’m amputated at the wrist so I can bend a bit the end of my arm but not much.
While preparing for the Tokyo Paralympic Games, Murray broke his hand six weeks before his qualifying event in Invercargill.
With a six to eight week turnaround time for a broken bone to heal, Murray and coach Damian Wiseman had a tight schedule.
“I had to get a little more creative and work on other areas to compensate for the fact that I couldn’t pull too hard on the starting gates off the track,” Murray explained.
“But my coach is really good at being flexible and thinking outside the box and creative. It’s very valuable for para, because we can’t just follow a normal training plan that you would give to any athlete, like able-bodied people can.
“Our handicaps mean you have to be individualized, so that’s something he’s done really well for me, being able to roll with shots like that. It was really stressful, but I managed to qualify. , which was amazing.
Murray spends much of her time training alone on the road, the nature of being a para-athlete making training with others more difficult. “It’s a bit of an exercise in mental toughness, being on the road for hours at a time,” she says.
She fondly recalls a training camp in Mallorca, Spain, where the locals supported their road training – well, most of them.
“I felt really safe cycling on these roads, the locals were really respectful and understood what it’s like to be a cyclist on the road – apart from the goats,” she laughs.
“Goats don’t move, so you turn a blind corner and a goat just stands there and you have to go around the goat.”
His self-motivation on the streets of Waikato comes in handy in events like time trials, where an athlete must rely on his own physical and mental strength to finish strong.
But Murray says she always had a strong team behind her.
His family and work families have always supported his path to success. From her community at Waitomo Caves, where she spent seven years working (the company only allowing her to work one day a week during training), to Black Water Rafting, which ran raffles and contributed funds for overseas travel and accommodation.
With funding being one of the biggest hurdles to an athletic career, Murray is extremely grateful for their support.
“It’s a hurdle that’s stopping a lot of potentially amazing athletes from getting into the sport, because it’s just a very difficult problem to solve to get to a point where you’re funded,” she says.
“If you don’t have a supportive workplace or job, it’s next to impossible. There’s no way you can get the training you need to make a name for yourself and support yourself.
Everyone Murray works with directly has been very supportive of being a woman in sport, with Murray saying her coach goes above and beyond.
However, there are other spaces where women are not celebrated, she says. Including the gym, where some machines don’t fit in a frame small enough to fit someone like Murray, even at an average height.
Or at the Oceania Championships in April, where Murray won two gold medals, but the winner’s jersey to go with the medal didn’t fit – it was in men’s sizes.
“It’s always little structural things,” she says. “It’s the uniform and the kit, stuff like that. But I’ve never been made to feel different from the people I work with because I’m a woman.”
Murray will travel to Canada in August for the next road World Cup and then the world championships. But for now, it’s back to brave the New Zealand winter alone on her bike.