Episode 4 - Donna Rae-Szalinski

 

  

Today in the podcast, we talk to Donna Rae-Szalinski, a former elite cyclist who raced the Women’s Tour de France. She has also coached for various teams including the National Juniors, Women’s Senior Development, and the Victorian institute of Sport for 2 decent stints - the first for 11 years and a subsequent 7 years. She also directed the Women’s Wiggle High 5 Pro Team as Directeur Sportif.

Donna has a UCI Accreditation as Directeur Sportif for cycling and is also an accredited coach for Triathlons.

 

In this episode we cover:

  • Donna’s journey from running marathons to cycling.
  • Her diversified cycling sport background.
  • Her Ergo fitness training.
  • How John Hein’s teaching and coaching has helped Donna in her cycling career.
  • The requirements of the UCI Accreditation as Directeur Sportif.
  • Her personal and individual approach to coaching both triathletes and cyclists.
  • How preparation has changed over time from when she was cycling to now.
  • The qualities a cyclist needs to make it in cycling today.
  • Where an athlete’s motivation should come from and why it is important.
  • Donna’s induction to the Victorian Cycling Hall of Fame.

 

Links

Email: Cycleedge@iinet.net.au

 

Transcript

FELICITY:

This is episode four. Welcome to the ‘All Torque’ podcast where each episode we interview an inspiring person to share their story with you. I’m your host, Felicity Dales, managing director of Body Torque. Let me welcome today’s guest, Donna Rae-Szalinski.


Hi Donna and welcome to our podcast. You’re not only a former elite cyclist even racing in the Tour De France when there was a women’s category, but you have covered every facet of coaching from the National juniors and women’s National senior development. To the Victorian Institute of Sport in two decent stints for eleven years and then a subsequent seven years. You’re also a Cycling Australia coach educator and to directing the Women’s Wiggle High 5 Pro Team as their Directeur Sportif!  


That’s a fascinating journey, tell us about your journey and how did it all begin?


DONNA:

Well Felicity, my journey actually began when I got stress fractures in both feet after running the Gold Coast marathon. I think that was 1984. So I couldn’t run and I was at the time, riding just a little bit because I didn’t have a car. I was riding on a friend’s borrowed bicycle, which was a minimum of one to two sizes too big for me. Ironically, I remember I did my first bike race on it and I didn’t even know how to go onto the big chain ring. But that’s another story.


FELICITY:

(laughs)


DONNA:

So, as a result of not being able to run, I rode the bike. Which was permissible from an injury perspective and when my stress fractures healed, I had madly in love with cycling and never returned to competitive running. I then became a cyclist, I was so fortunate to have a training partner by the name of Liz Hepple who actually placed third in the Women’s Tour de France, one of the three years that we raced it as a team.


And I was surrounded by an amazing group of people up in Brisbane, where I was at Queensland University embarking on my PhD and it was, yeah, an incredible journey to become a cyclist.


FELICITY:

Wow and the team that you went over to the Tour de France with, where did they come from? Were they Australian or were they from other countries as well?


DONNA:

No, in that, at that point in time it was all the teams were National teams that raced in the Tour de France. That raced the whole season, to be honest. So I had, I was within the Australian National team with a total of six riders.


FELICITY:

Wow and did you also always stay in road cycling or did you cross over into mountain biking as well?


DONNA:

I actually represented Australia on the track, a few times in the late 1980s. Once in Montreal and once in LA, so I was a track endurance rider, did some points racing, point score and individual pursuiting.


FELICITY:

Wow, so you really have had a varied cycling history. You know a cycling, wow! I can’t think of the word but you’ve just really done it all, haven’t you?


DONNA:

Not quite everything, I haven’t tried Cyclocross yet. Which I think would be really cool, that might be on my to do list for the near future. I did, because I coached a number of elite mountain bikers namely Dan McConnell and Dallas Frankie or married name, Dallas Star. They dragged me out on a mountain bike on occasion, that was quite a bit of fun too.


FELICITY:

Yeah, well it gives you, I guess, cross training. Did you ever, do you do that with your coaching at all?


DONNA:

From my point of view nowadays, I do mostly ride on the road. I like to do a little bit of gym as well for cross training and when my time is on the road with a team, there’s very little time. Your days are generally like a 15 hour working day, so I don’t get to ride my bike when I’m away with a team. On those days, I will do a little bit of running for cross training. Just because it’s a really good way to get your thoughts together, is to have a small pocket of your day where you’re on your own, away from the team, away from everything. Just to clarify what’s going to happen that day.


FELICITY:

Right, so you’re riding is really more going out on your own rather than joining them, at any time.

DONNA:

Oh no, no, no. I would, I do ride with the team because that’s an important part, I believe of connecting with them and seeing the way they function. I do, do that but what I’m referring to is if I’m actually at a competition, it’s very difficult to find the time to ride on the bike. It’s more you have, if you’re lucky a half an hour early in the morning where you can sneak out for a little run. So that’s what I do.


FELICITY:

Yeah and do you compliment your training as well with Ergo?

DONNA:

I do, do Ergo because I think it’s, probably as silly as this sounds, it’s a lot of fun. I think doing an hour of power is a really good way of developing and maintaining fitness. I have a crazy group of friends that I do these Ergo sessions with. We used to, ironically, do the sessions at five am, hence the name the ‘five am crazies’ but now we’ve all grown up and realised it’s a really silly hour of the morning to be on an Ergo, so we’ve deflected to a seven thirty am start. Which is much, much more social.


FELICITY:

Well as long as you’re doing it, it doesn’t matter really. Does it? As long as you’re putting the work in.


DONNA:

Exactly.


FELICITY:

And getting the training in and then you’re a happy camper because you feel good that you’ve done it.


DONNA:

Yeah, absolutely. It feels, you get a really good return for your hour. And we throw in a bit of social interaction in the breaks between efforts and catch up with what’s going on in everyone’s lives. So it’s a double whammy, it’s physical training as well as a bit of socializing.


FELICITY:

Bit like the coffee stop on an Ergo.


DONNA:

Exactly.


FELICITY:

So, you had John Hine as your coach?


DONNA:

Yes.


FELICITY:

And how many years did he coach you for?


DONNA:

I think basically for my entire career, bearing in mind that there are periods of time when we were with the National team and we had to follow the instruction of the National coach. So, John would pick it up when I came back home in between National team visits and things like that.


FELICITY:

Yeah, so that’s right. It was quite a long relationship wasn’t it?


DONNA:

It was and to this day, I still get phone calls from John where he will offer some ongoing advice which I think is absolutely gorgeous.


FELICITY:

Has his advice remained timeless?


DONNA:

John was well ahead of his time, in his knowledge of cycling and it’s possible that cycling might just be catching up with him now.


FELICITY:

Wow!


DONNA:

But he was doing things that and teaching me things that after I’d been in, for example, a National team for a couple of years. They would say, “Hey, we’re introducing this new concept about training.” And I would have a little smile to myself, because John had had me doing that already for several years.


FELICITY:

Yep.


DONNA:

John was an extremely innovative thinker about cycling, so I was the very lucky recipient of his knowledge.


FELICITY:

That’s wonderful, that’s great to hear. And so Donna, what is required, because you have got UCI accreditation, what is required to get that?


DONNA:

To receive your UCI accreditation, as a Directeur Sportif, you must go to the UCI headquarters in Agile, Switzerland. It is a minimum of a three and a half day course or you can do the seven day course, which offers further instruction. Which is what I chose to do, two years ago and you must pass an exam at the end of the course. Which is probably one of the more harrowing experiences of my life. The exam, that is, not the course.


Then you need to pass, which fortunately I did and received my accreditation as a UCI Sports Director. At this point in time, it is not a requirement to have that accreditation to run a women’s team, a women’s UCI team. However, that point in time is drawing close. As it stands, you must have that accreditation to work in the men’s propeloton as I understand.


FELICITY:

And has that been a requirement for how long?


DONNA:

For the men, I’m not sure how long it’s been a requirement. To be honest, sorry.


FELICITY:

No, that’s okay. It’s just one of those obligations that they need to have.

DONNA:

Yeah and it’s a good thing as well, because it is quite a considerable responsibility and for the team owners, it is assuring or reassuring for them to know that the staff they have hired have been trained by the world’s governing body for cycling.


FELICITY:

Yeah, absolutely. And along with that, you’re also accredited in triathlon. Do you coach those athletes any differently?


DONNA:

I have had my coaching accreditation for both cycling and triathlon for a long time, because I have helped a number of triathletes predominantly with their cycling training. But having been a runner myself, I have also offered a little bit of advice but I also respect that my knowledge in that area is not the same as my knowledge of cycling.


Do I coach them differently? Basically, the way I coach anybody is to the demands of their sport. So you coach, I get asked often is it different coaching a male to a female? Is it different coaching a mountain biker to a road rider? The bottom line to me is, the difference is what are the demands of their event? And then you figure out the demands of their event and you coach accordingly. I’m not sure if that makes sense but..  


FELICITY:

Oh absolutely.


DONNA:

That’s the way I run things.


FELICITY:

Yeah, I mean it’s a bespoke service when you’re doing one on one coaching so you want to cater to their needs and for it to be as precise as possible. In relation to their demands, as you say.


DONNA:

Yes, exactly and that also applies if you’re running a team. In that you could be getting a group of six riders ready for the same event but to me, the best way to do it is not necessarily to have six riders all on the same program. Because each rider is an individual, they have their unique physiology, their strengths and weaknesses. So I try always to individualise to meet each person’s demands, as well as a reflection of their event demands.


FELICITY:

Yeah and they’re all different personalities, so that would take a bit of managing as well. Just, we all sleep differently, we all like different foods, we have different habits. So there’s a lot to take in, isn’t there and prepare for?


DONNA:

There certainly is.


FELICITY:

To manage. So, how has preparation changed over time from when you were racing to now?


DONNA:

Back in the middle ages when I was racing, I remember the introduction of heart rate monitors. So prior to that, there’d only been a bike computer which had speed and cadence on it. The first heart rate monitor that I wore was the size of a small brick..


FELICITY:

(laughs)


DONNA:

.. and we had to download manually the data.


FELICITY:

Wow!


DONNA:

I can remember my first year with the National program in 1986, yes sitting down after each race and manually downloading what my heart rate had been for that race. So, that now, is such, obviously you can download your heart rate so easily now, you have glass you have training software, you have power information. The spectrum of information that is at your avail is incredible. As well as the software programs for you as a coach to be able to track your athlete’s progress, their day to day training, everything. It’s just made it.


FELICITY:

Well we have watts now, don’t we? It’s just so much more..


DONNA:

Yeah, exactly. Having power data along with heart rate, along with speed, along with cadence, it presents to you a fairly comprehensive picture. It’s not the same as talking day to day or being with your athlete, so I will say that all of the available information is a wonderful tool but to me the essential ingredient is to actually have contact with your athlete. That to me, adds the extra bit.


It’s not to say, certainly there are a lot of businesses that do remote coaching. I do some myself, and it’s certainly a very good service. However, I really thrive and love the ability to communicate with someone to see them at training, to read the body language that you can’t see when you’re just looking at data on a computer.


FELICITY:

Good point. So what does it take, to make it in cycling today, Donna?


DONNA:

I think, it doesn’t take anything any different through the ages. The bottom line is, you need to have good physiology, you need to have a good understanding of your sport, the tactics involved. You need to have good skills, you need to be resilient because it’s not a linear progression, you will. For every success that you have, you will have failures. If you go into a bike race and there’s a hundred people racing, and if you’re only monitor for success, is whether you win or not, there’s always going to be ninety-nine disappointed people.


So, you need to learn how to be resilient in the face of that and you also need to be resourceful to look inward for your answers on how you can be a better cyclist, on how you can achieve your goals. But also then, having said that, it’s building a good team around you of people who understand your journey, who can assist you, who can be there for you to help you.


My mantra is, for any athlete that I work with, is ‘I will put as much into their career as they do’. That they need to want it and to work for it, it’s they are the driving force and I am there to help them but I can’t want it more than they do.


FELICITY:

No, that needs to come from them.


DONNA:

Yep, it does. People, that’s a question I often get asked about, “How do you motivate your athletes?” I actually don’t motivate my athletes, if they’re not intrinsically motivated then the journey is not going to be a successful one.


FELICITY:

Absolutely, cycling is such a sport with so many ups and downs. I think that you have to have that fire in your belly yourself, you can’t rely on anyone else.


DONNA:

Yes, exactly. I mean extrinsic motivation can play a factor, every now and then. For example, if you go to a race and there’s extra prize money put up then that can increase your overall motivation, for sure. But the thing that has to get you out of bed when it’s dark and cold in winter, or to get you out riding when it’s raining or miserable or you’re tired, that has to be your intrinsic drive. Your motivation, your desire to be a cyclist.


FELICITY:

Yes, it has to be sustainable. You really need that intrinsic drive yourself.


DONNA:

Yes.


FELICITY:

Absolutely. Well on top of all that, on top of your wonderful experiences being a coach and accolades as being a cyclist yourself, you’re also being inducted into the Hall of Fame. I’d like to congratulate on that, that’s wonderful news and a great achievement and recognition of your contribution.


DONNA:

Oh thank you, Felicity. I am honoured that I will be inducted into the Victorian Cycling Hall of Fame in March. Obviously it’s a wonderful honour and an aspect that makes the journey even more special to me, is the fact that I am being inducted as alongside Dave Sanders, who I worked with at the Victorian Institute of Sport for over twenty years, who I was a National junior coach for many, many years. He is a very dear friend and he is someone who also taught me an incredible amount about cycling, so that makes it an extra special night or extra special situation.


FELICITY:

It does, it’s a double celebration.


DONNA:

Yep, exactly.


FELICITY:

That’s wonderful. Well I’d really like to thank you for being our guest here on the podcast and for anyone who’s interested in following up with Donna, she does Ergo classes at her Cycle Edge business in Geelong. You can contact Donna on the email cycleedge@iinet.net.au so she would love to hear from you. I actually do her classes myself and can totally recommend them. I really appreciate you being part of our first podcast Donna and to your success.


DONNA:

Thank you very much, Felicity.


FELICITY:

Thank you. Bye.


Thanks for joining us today, if you enjoyed Donna’s story, please take a moment to share it with your friends and family who you think would benefit from her inspirational story. I’m Felicity Dales, see you next episode for another story of inspiration and motivation.

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