Elite sprinter convinced best yet to come

High performance physiotherapist Rone Thompson helps Hansen off the track after she was concussed...
High performance physiotherapist Rone Thompson helps Hansen off the track after she was concussed in a crash during last year’s track nationals. PHOTOS: MARISA TWENTYMAN/DIANNE MANSON
Champion cyclist Natasha Hansen is, like so many other top-level athletes, facing a career put on hold and her dreams of Olympic glory this year dashed. However, the delay of the Games may be a positive,  as she has used the time to reflect on issues larger than cycling. Sports correspondent Tony Love reports.

At least once the postponed Tokyo Olympics take place next year, it will then be only three years until the 2024 Paris Olympics.

That’s the way elite New Zealand track sprinter Natasha Hansen views the future of her international career. The Christchurch-born former Southland rider, who has just returned to Auckland to be with friends and train after going through the Covid-19 lockdown and Level 3 and Level 2 restrictions in Hamilton, is confident that at age 30 her best years are still to come and is targeting the next two Olympics.

 Top New Zealand track cyclist Natasha Hansen trains on rollers on the front porch at home during...
Top New Zealand track cyclist Natasha Hansen trains on rollers on the front porch at home during her time in lockdown.
After suffering chronic back pain in 2017 which left her future in the sport in doubt, she recovered in 2018 to claim two silver medals and a bronze at that year’s Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. That was followed by a personal-best time on the Tokyo Olympic track straight after the Games, a time which was at that point the second-fastest in the world.

Although obviously frustrated by not being able to compete and having no idea when she may be able to resume her career, Hansen is able to put her situation in perspective.

“The whole world is kind of in turmoil ... it doesn’t feel as disappointing that everything (for me) has to be delayed. It’s a lot easier to accept.’’

In fact, Hansen concedes there may be a sliver lining to it it all. Leading into last year’s world championships in Poland in February, she suffered a severe concussion when she crashed at the nationals after riding over two competitors who had come down in front of her.

At the end of the year, she fractured three ribs just when she felt she was really coming into her own as an athlete and “that really affected’’ her campaign at this year’s world track championships in Berlin in February.

She now has a chance to be injury-free and at her peak for next year, providing the limbo in which she finds herself eventually rights itself.

Assuming the Olympics do go ahead next year, Hansen is going to feel right at home, having spent much time in Tokyo competing.

“I’’d really love to be able to race at the Olympics, especially since I’ve raced so many times on the track.”

Lockdown was not a completely new experience for the part-Polynesian athlete. She had found herself in a similar situation in her years riding on the keirin circuit in Japan.

To prevent any suggestion of match-fixing, the riders are locked in hotel facilities on the velodromes without phones or internet access.

Staying with friends during the restrictions was “heaps of fun, absolutely an enjoyable experience,” she said.

“It was great being a cyclist and being able to go out on my bike ... great to see so many people on their bikes”.

Having so much time away from competition has given Hansen time to reflect on what else is happening in the world. Black Lives Matter resonated with her, especially given her background, she said.

Many sports were having to acknowledge that while there might not be any overt discrimination there was an unconscious bias.

Hansen is proud to be a New Zealander because she believes sport is this country is so diverse, although for a long time she has been the only Polynesian on the track team.

She finds it a challenge being in a minority ethnicity and among a white culture, but believes it is encouraging that the world is now having the conversation and starting to acknowledge the situation.

That is another another reason she loves competing for New Zealand at the Olympics or Commonwealth Games.

“When I’m on the Olympic team or Commonwealth Games team, it’s so great as a Polynesian athlete, or part-Polynesian myself, to see other ethnic athletes.”

On the other hand, having some Norwegian blood on her father’s side came in handy during her time in Invercargill, a city she loves and whose velodrome she credits for helping make her the rider she is.

The fact she has turned 30 holds no fears for Hansen.

“For me, between now and my mid-30s would be an optimal time for me to perform.

“I physically feel like my body is really not even at its peak,” pointing out female sprinters have won Olympic medals up until their late 30s.

The pandemic has also dealt a body blow to Hansen’s other career. Although she put her occupation as an air traffic controller on hold in 2018, she had always planned to return to it but now considers it unlikely given the state of the aviation industry.

She is now looking at studying alongside her riding career with a view to following another career after her time on the bike is over. Hopefully, with an Olympic medal or two to savour.

 

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