Australian track cycling great Anna Meares usually leaves scorch marks on velodrome boards. On Monday she just left a trail of tears as her glittering Olympic career almost certainly ended in “brutal” fashion. Meares won her sixth Olympic medal in Saturday’s keirin final, a bronze, making her the first Australian to win an individual medal at four Games.
But the dismay at finishing a lowly 10th in the sprint, having not even qualified for Tuesday’s medal rounds, was all too evident as she walked around the media mixed zone.
While she has yet to officially announce that Rio will be her last Olympics, the body language of the 32-year-old daughter of a Queensland coalminer gave the game away.
Tears streamed down her face as she was consoled by her great career sprint rival, Britain’s now retired Victoria Pendleton who was also choked up.
At one point a volunteer rushed over with a box of tissues.
“It’s hard to go out in the 9th-12th places,” a red-eyed Meares told reporters. “I must admit, to finish 10th is pretty brutal. I knew my sprinting was going to be the hardest part for me in these Games, but I didn’t expect to be that far out.
“There is no one who will criticise me more than me. The perfectionist within me makes it hard to comprehend this result.
“For the first time in 22 years, I just couldn’t get anything more out.”
Meares won her first Olympic gold in 2004 in Athens, the 500m time trial, and has claimed 11 world titles across the various track cycling sprint disciplines.
So it was uncomfortable watching almost certainly her last Olympic ride end in defeat by New Zealand’s Natasha Hansen.
“Every time I’ve put these colours on I’ve ridden hard. Every time I’ve raced I’ve gone out to win,” Australia’s flagbearer at the Rio opening ceremony, said as the tears welled up again. “I am extremely proud of what I did in the Olympics.”
Meares said she had been spurred on in her career by twice Olympic champion and nine-times world champion Pendleton who was in Rio commentating for the BBC.
“I wouldn’t have been as good as I was if it wasn’t for Vicky,” she said. “The amount of times I woke up in the morning picturing her in bed asleep at midnight going, ‘I’ve got to get as much into the day as I can. By the time she wakes up she’s got to play catch up.'”
Pendleton, who beat Meares to sprint gold in Beijing 2008 before the order was reversed in London 2012, returned the compliment and said she understood her rival’s pain.
“I know how it feels like to be your last Olympic race and not to be the result you want,” Pendleton told Reuters.
“It’s the end of an era in many ways and I have a huge amount of respect for Anna Meares. We have a lot in common.
“It was hard to see her struggling.”
Meares said she would cheer herself with a little indulgence now the hard yards are over.
“A holiday, chocolate, and a mighty strong glass of rum,” she said, adding that she would take some time away from the “environment” before deciding when to hang up the race bike.