Episode 46 - Bridie O’Donnell

May 01, 2019 16 min read

Episode 46 - Bridie O’Donnell

   

  

Bridie O’Donnell, Head of the Office for Women in Sport and Recreation, joins us in this episode of the All Torque podcast to talk about her career as a cyclist; the advances, problems and opportunities in the space of women in sport in Australia; and her memoir on her life as a pro cyclist.

Bridie is a medical doctor who has a passion for sports and pursued careers in rowing, triathlon and cycling. She is a 2016 world-record breaker who has set a mark in the Women's UCI Hour Record Book. She is also the author of “Life and Death: A Cycling Memoir” which is her story of triumph and hard work to achieve her dreams.

In this episode we cover: 

  • Bridie’s journey from practising her profession as a doctor and as a national rower,  to becoming a pro cyclist.
  • How her background as a medical doctor helped in her pro cycling career.
  • Physical and psychological differences in her sports in relation to her mindset.
  • Exciting things about the Victorian government providing funding for women in sport to encourage greater participation.
  • Problems and barriers in sport for women.
  • The participation of women in the coaching and management of sport in Australia and other countries.
  • The opportunities that Bridie sees evolving and her thoughts on the support of other states for prioritizing funding.
  • The story behind what prompted her to write her Book “Life and Death: A Cycling Memoir”

Links

Transcript:

FELICITY:

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.

This is Episode 46. I have here today Bridie O'Donnell, Head in Office for Women in Sport and Recreation. Bridie O'Donnell is the definition of a unique Australian sporting hero. A medical doctor who spent her 20s pursuing sideline sporting careers in rowing and Ironman triathlon; it wasn't until she reached her mid-30s that Bridie then found her true calling as a professional cyclist. Intensely driven and a true believer that sporting greatness was still possible – at a time of life when most of us have long given up on our dreams. Bridie became a world record-breaker in 2016 when she set a new mark in the Women's UCI Hour Record Book.

Bridie wrote a book called Life and Death: a cycling memoir; the story of that triumph is also the tale of the backbreaking hard work it took to get there. The audacity of Bridie's late arrival in a brutally tough sport, the physical grind of training and the mind games of team selection, the rejections,  the disappointments, the sorrows and the personal upheavals it took for Bridie to win. A trailblazing athlete and doctor, Bridie O'Donnell is now the head of Victoria's newly-established Office for Women in Sport and a regular guest on the Network television show The Project, as a medical expert. 

Welcome, Bridie.

BRIDIE:

Thank you. Great to be here.

FELICITY:

Thank you. Your background includes being a Medical Doctor with your interest in Sports and Exercise Medicine; awarded the JRS Lahz Prize for Most Outstanding Intern at Mater Hospitals Brisbane; a freelance writer and blogger and unofficial sports commentator; a 7-time national rowing champion; Finisher of the Hawaiian Ironman triathlon; 2008  Australian Time Trial Champion; 2008 and 2009 Oceania Time Trial Champion; and 2009 and 2010 Victorian Cyclist of the Year; 2010 Oceania Road Champion; Ambassador for Melbourne in 2010 Road World Championships; and 2nd both at Oceania TT and Road Championships in 2011. Tell us about your journey, Bridie. We'd love to hear about how the transition from a being a doctor and accomplished national rower to a pro cyclist.

BRIDIE:

From my perspective, it was just a bit about finding the right sport or the right event for me. And I had been a good triathlete and a good rower, but I've not represented my country at the Olympics and I've not performed as well at Ironman events as I’d liked.

FELICITY:

Right.

BRIDIE:

And I was just really motivated to find a sport that I could excel in and hoped to go to Olympics or world championships and I was part of a talent transfer program that this transport commission now called Sport Australia, ran in 2006. After I set a national record for the bike leg at the Busselton Ironman in the road for 48 for 180k, I applied for this time transferred program, and that really kicked off, becoming familiar with what road cycling is and time trialling specifically. So whilst I’ve done time trialling in Ironman, and other triathlons, I hadn’t done that does a road event; it’s quite different. The equipment’s a little bit different, and the way that you race, it’s often very, very hilly; the intentional time trials. And then it kind of opened for me an opportunity to be domestic on the road; so to ride in service of other athletes in the team, they were either great sprinters or climbers, and had potential to win races because cycling is a team sport and everyone’s role is there to support the person, the woman who is most likely to win.

FELICITY:

Yes. And there isn’t really the same opportunity in rowing or triathlon like that, is there?

BRIDIE:

No. And also, if the team does well in rowing your role on the party and rose; in cycling, the team well does their job, and one person is on the party.

FELICITY:

Yes. That’s right. It’s quite different. And so you weren’t able to get to the level that you wanted to in rowing and triathlon but you actually found that in cycling; so you had that opportunity.

BRIDIE:

Exactly.

FELICITY:

Yes. Fantastic. Being a medical doctor, did that serve you and when you were pro cyclist, you’re managing your health?

BRIDIE:

Undoubtedly, but I think most athlete who, particularly professional female athletes have actually quite a reasonable understanding of physiology even if they haven’t been formally educated in it and they often are well informed about diet. That said, you also are often around people with very maladaptive behaviour and unhealthy practices around diet and weight control or training method. So it’s the techniques of the types of athletes; I would have to say that generally Australian, New Zealand and American athletes are really well informed about those things and that I was racing in Italian teams with young women who were 19 or 20. And their understanding of a healthy diet or healthy weight was sometimes pretty troubling. So being a doctor was helpful for me. But it was actually a real challenge to be around people who might be eating disordered or have a significant overtraining syndrome, and yet they would, they’re highly ambitious and motivated and didn’t want my advice.

FELICITY:

Yes. Right. That’s what I was going to ask you actually. Were you asked for any advice from your teammates? I guess that’s a fine line, isn’t it?

BRIDIE:

Well, no. This is like the general community. People want free medical advice when it aligned with their theories. And they don’t want; they reject free medical advice when it tells them to stop smoking.

FELICITY:

That’s right.

BRIDIE:

Or even hopefully, stop drinking coke every day. So that’s a normal behaviour that a certain athlete would say, “Don’t tell me what to eat,” when she’s trying to be 40 kilos. But then, when she’s injured, she would happily take your free medical advice to help her recover quickly.

FELICITY:

Yes, right. So having such a strong mindset as you have in achieving what you’ve done across multiple sporting disciplines, was there any difference between the sports in relation to mindset for you?

BRIDIE:

Yes. But, I probably don’t have a couple of hours to explain the difference, but yes. I mean they complement each other. Certainly, rowing and cycling complement each other physically and they definitely help you with pacing strategies and in thinking about how to have a race plan. But, and Ironman and rowing complement each other because of most of the variables being within; you control the distances, the timeframes etc. So as an athlete, you psychologically can prepare the things with information and kind of psychologically make choices about when you’re, you might change your pace, or when you might move with the movements of another athlete, for example.

Road cycling as a road racing is actually incredibly unpredictable and dangerous and really difficult because there are 150 to 190 women on a road together, where you might be able to make some assumptions about the motivations of the other riders. But you don’t know what they’re going to do. People crash all the time. People go in brakes and attack and change their pace. Sometimes you’re riding along a thing that feels too slow and other times you’re desperately trying to hang on. And so, that’s what makes cycling so much an enormously popular sport internationally, is because of the unpredictability. And you can put in ideas around who you think might perform well in an event, but so many things can happen within a course of 3 to 4 hours that may not; you need to have a plan B, C, D, and E, and you need to also somehow communicate that to your certain teammates.

FELICITY:

Absolutely. There’s so many levels to it. You’ve got your own team plan, say your own individual plan, and then perhaps, well every team’s got their plan, so then as you say, it’s so dynamic really.

BRIDIE:

Yes.

FELICITY:

It’s just very tactical and then a lot of things can happen along the way as you say. Well, the Victorian government is leading the way with funding for Women in Sport to encourage greater participation. What’s exciting for you in relation to that?

BRIDIE:

We’re very fortunate that we’ve been working a state that is very progressive and has modern views about the value and capability of women and the contributions that they make to sport. And so whilst we still feel like there’s a long way to go, particularly around the lack of women in leadership positions in sport and active recreation, we do know that this government and so many of my colleagues within the department and then all the people who work in the sector of sport and active recreation, they are motivated as well to see some change. So for example, if we think of the number of women that are coaches, umpires, referees, administers, etc. it’s still on average, less than one quarter of all visible leadership positions in sports and active recreation.

FELICITY:

Okay.

BRIDIE:

And in some sports, it's zero; there are still no AFLW Coaches that are women, for example. There are less than 10% to zeros of women in national sporting organizations. So in Australia, broadly, we still have a problem with women being leaders. We still have a very narrow view of what our leader looks like. They’re generally a white men in his 40s, who’s formerly been an athlete and brings with him a good experience of cricket, or football or hockey or tennis. Instead of, perhaps, a great communicator or a savvy business person, or a marketing guru, or a fundraising guru; you know so it’s also part of the process that we had to undergo is, educating the sector that leadership can look different. Young people can lead. Older people can lead. Those who have never played a game can be a coach in that game.

FELICITY:

Right.

BRIDIE:

And changing that mindset around some of those sports is very challenging.

FELICITY:

Yes. But definitely, I can see what you’re saying, that they definitely, you have to play, you have played the sport to actually, let’s say coach the sport, or be involved. It’s very insular, like that.

BRIDIE:

It is. And similarly, with commentary, we see that’s another really big barrier. And frequently if you ever bother to read comments, negative comments around women who commentates sports, the comments are usually things like, “I don’t like her voice. Her voice is high-pitched,” or, “What would she know, she’s never played that game.” And yet Bruce McAvaney, one of the greatest sporting commentators of all time in Australia has never been an elite athlete. And he certainly never played AFL.

FELICITY:

No.

BRIDIE:

So we need to check ourselves around our own conscious or even conscious bias when it comes to, I don’t know what it is, I just don’t like it. That’s the feedback you often get for a lot of women who are trying to bring their voice and their insights to professional sport. Kelli Underwood has suffered enormous scrutiny of her commentary of super netball or AFLW, yet she’s a highly skilled sports journalist and a very, very capable sports commentator.

FELICITY:

So is it more of an uptake in overseas, Bridie? Like, are we behind as Australians?

BRIDIE:

In what area? And what’s overseas? I need to know that field down a little bit.

FELICITY:

Sorry. Well in the sense of women, participating, like you’re saying, either in coaching or in management, and not necessarily being in the sport. Is there higher numbers doing that in other countries?

BRIDIE:

Again, it depends. It totally depends on the jurisdiction, the sport, or the roles that you spend picking on. So if we use the United States as a good example, since Title IX, which was 47 years ago, we’ve seen an enormous growth in women earning strong salaries in professional sport, in the performances of American women in Olympic sports, and in the number of college NCAA coaches. That said, just a couple of weeks ago, a very famous WNBA coach, Muffet McGraw, a woman in her, probably in her 40s or 50s, made an outstanding speech in the middle of a press conference about her frustrations with the lack of women who are coaching WNBA. And that as soon as the sport becomes professionalized, and has significant incomes or is attractive, they see this whole line of men lining up to say, “Yeah, I’ll coach the WNBA.” Sometimes because they can’t get a job in the NBA; and that’s what we’re seeing in the AFLW here in Australia, is that there’s a whole group of men who are saying, “Well, it’s my turn. I'm ready to be the coach of Carlton Women’s team or Freo Women’s team because I can’t get my gig yet in the AFL.” So it’s almost putting this says a high rocky of importance like, “I’ll coach the B team and then I’ll get up to the A team in 10 years when someone else moves on and so get sacked.”

So we need to look at why that’s happening and why women are still not feeling supported within the system, that their style of coaching or their level of education. And what we know broadly is that women are very well educated when it comes to coaching, but they don’t get work experience. So then when they try to go and be the head coach of a women’s professional team, someone says, “What other professional teams have you coached?” or “What mentoring have you had?” And they haven’t had any. They haven’t had opportunities to follow men around who do those jobs and say, “Okay, that’s what that looks like.”

Now, the UK has had a really significant investment through sporting and driving participation through their ‘This Girl Can’ campaign from about 4 years ago, which was an absolutely mindboggling success in getting more women more active. And obviously the reason why they have one in July since the campaign here in Australia, and that’s also helped people realized that women look all different shapes, sizes and ages and that just being tanned and really fit and a former Olympian, that’s not the only way women can and should look to be able to be active.

So I guess, in answer to your question, some countries are getting some quick winds or some easy winds in some small areas, but there’s an enormous amount of work to do. I think though, where we’re still struggling in Australia is, and we say, and these things are intrinsically linked, is a lack of respect for women in Australia, which leads to enormously devastating and high rates of violence against women and actual homicides of women by intimate partners. And now, not all lack of respect leads to violence and homicide, and not all lack of respect for women leads to trolling online. But all of those things start with a lack of respect. And until Australians, men and women, are able to think more broadly about what their leaders look like, what their coaches look like, what their voices sound like, and we actually embrace this pretty remarkable diverse multicultural community that we live in, particularly in major centres like Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane, etc., until we actually walk the talk on our ability to do that, and see what diversity in a workplace looks like, or see what equity looks like to extend opportunities to people who don’t have them; because it’s really easy to sign up for stuff, it’s really easy to say, “Yeah, yeah, I totally support women being coaches. I just haven’t met the right one yet.”

FELICITY:

Yes.

BRIDIE:

Or, “I'm okay with a woman being a boss. But we had one woman being a boss once, and she was really named.” And you think, “Right.” So that’s your one, end of one. And you had a female prime minister once, and you didn’t like her because she didn’t have any children, she wasn’t married, and she had a voice that you didn’t like. So let’s never have a female prime minister again.

FELICITY:

It’s a bit like that with cyclists, we get segregated, and if something goes wrong, it’s like all cyclers; it’s not just that one cyclist. Whereas with motorists, we don’t look at motorists like that; it’s just a bad motorist, let’s say. Unfortunately, that it’s not like that, we say cyclists, or as you say with women, unfortunately, and particularly in position, so let’s say power. Yes, I think respect is a huge thing and that that goes just down the line completely, really not just in that area.

BRIDIE:

Yes.

FELICITY:

That’s a big massive task.

BRIDIE:

Yes, absolutely.

FELICITY:

And ongoing really; like it’s the base level of education, I think most likely in primary schools and throughout the community as you say.

BRIDIE:

Yes, exactly.

FELICITY:

So what opportunities do you see evolving and do you think it will be supported by other states within prioritizing funding also since Victoria is leading the way?

BRIDIE:

Well, not many of them are prioritizing funding at this stage which is difficult for the girls in the many northern states. We know that New South Wales has a Women in Sport Strategy – ‘Her Sport Her Way.’ With a lot of very hard working people at sport, New South Waleswhohave developed that strategy, but they’ve only just had their most recent election and there’s still some uncertainty for those public servants around how they’re willing to make the investment for women and girls. We know South Australia has had a similar program to us, a female-friendly facilities program around investing in infrastructure to allow more girls and women to have access towards some change rooms, regional and metro sporting pavilions, which is great. And we also have a board quota, from 1 July 2019 onwards, where funded organizations here in Victoria will need to have 40% women on their board to receive new funding. And we’ve seen now more and more states are starting to become interested in that; New Zealand as well. So Sport New Zealand and I have frequent conversations around how do we make a change in the sector; what kind of language are we using; what sort of resources and tools are we using? And in fact their office just built is really terrific; free document marketing communication guidelines for sporting clubs so that they can say, “Are we being inclusive in the way that we show images of girls and women in our sport? Do we know how to write press releases? Do we know how to use the right language on our website that means that we’re not just using him and he and pictures of men playing that sport?” So we feel really proud that that’s a resource that clubs will be able to simply and practically implement in their organizations so that parents feel safe about their sons and their daughters being part of that sport.

FELICITY:

Yes, that’s very handy. Is that that marketing guide that you were talking about the last time?

BRIDIE:

Yes.

FELICITY:

Yes, that’s right. That’s fantastic. It actually covers of in a lot of areas I think and also gives the clubs confidence because a lot of the clubs wouldn’t have that collateral to work with, so that’s a really good guide for them to use.

BRIDIE:

Yes.

FELICITY:

Tell us about writing your book, Bridie. Let’s talk about that. How did that pan out for you and what even prompted you to do that?

BRIDIE:

Well in 2017, I was having a bit of a quiet winter. I wasn’t that motivated to do a lot of training. I'd finish, after the Hour World Record, I stayed training and racing on the track, racing the 3-kilometre individual pursuit and was kind of motivated just to consider putting my hand up to be selected for the team pursuit for Tokyo Olympics; so I was really focusing on trying to improve my skills on the track bike. And I had a bit of a quite winter on the road and decided to start writing, putting together a lot of the writing that I’d done when I was overseas, and then used winter as a time different to make a lot of those stories to a more comprehensive memoir. So what I ended up with was about 80/90,000 words that was a bit of a messy, chaos of stories and experiences, because while I've been overseas, I've done a lot of writing in my diaries and of recounting of stories, and a lot of people and family and stuff had said, “You should write a book.” And people always said that it’s actually the writing of the book; so I sent that manuscript to a few publishers and I heard back from Satori about a week later and met with one of their editors, and then began the really heartbreaking process of editing that was way harder than writing.

FELICITY:

Right. Yes.

BRIDIE:

Someone critically evaluating your stories and your life and saying, “Yeah, that’s boring,” or, “No we don’t need to include that.” And I think, “No, no, no. That’s really important.”

FELICITY:

Yes. And sometimes when you write different stories you got to stand ground on certain things but give way on other things; so I think that would be really how generally it would go through particularly if it’s personal; so you’re sharing a lot of about yourself and your journey.

BRIDIE:

Yes.

FELICITY:

I understand that. Well, I'd like to thank you for joining us today. It’s been really great to connect with you and learn more about change of game and what you doing for women in sport. Our listeners can follow you or connect with you; we’ll have all the links in our show notes and our details on our website which is bodytorque.cc. So if you give me those details, I’ll get those set up so that they can either follow you or connect with you if need be.

BRIDIE:

Yes, great. Thank you so much.

FELICITY:

You’re welcome.

Thanks for listening to the All Torque podcast. We'd love it if you would leave us a rating and review on iTunes. This helps us to deliver the content you want to hear about. Please take a moment to share it with your friends and family on Instagram and Facebook. I'm Felicity Dales, see you next episode for another story of inspiration and motivation on the All Torque podcast.


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