Becky James received numerous plaudits for her bronze medal in the women’s keirin on day two of the Track Cycling World Championships in London this week. She herself said the result was “unbelievable” and that it had come at the end of a surreal day.
The 24-year-old from Abergavenny had endured a torrid time since winning world titles in the sprint and keirin at the 2013 World Championships in Belarus, and her race to make it to Rio looked like one she might easily lose.
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When she competed at the New Zealand round of the track World Cup last December it was her first international competition in 21 months and the first time she had pulled on a GB jersey since the 2014 World Championships in Colombia.
“It’s was a long time coming,” she told Cycling Weekly when we interviewed her back in December. “It’s only been in the last few weeks that I’ve actually felt like a cyclist again. It has been a massive bonus for me to actually feel like that.”
An operation in April 2014 to remove potentially cancerous cells — flagged up in a routine smear test — was followed by keyhole surgery on a chronic shoulder injury in October that year and then by four months of rehab for a long-term knee injury at the National Sports Centre at Bisham Abbey, Berkshire.
Only since last September’s National Championships has James been able to resume consistent training at a level close to where she was before her injuries. “When I look back at what I was doing this time last year, I would never have thought I would be back in this position [by now],” she added.
James had maintained her fitness throughout her injuries thanks to hours in the swimming pool — “it was aqua jogging that I was doing; it wasn’t very fun” — and strict self-discipline when it comes to her favourite hobby: baking cakes. “I usually save a slice or a cupcake and then I get rid of it out of the house!” she explained.
She added that overcoming the psychological challenge of a cancer scare and the career-threatening knee injury has helped her find a new appreciation for riding. “I’m absolutely loving it, I’m really appreciating how good it is to be back in the team, and just to be part of everything again,” she said.
James quickly slotted back into the routine of competition this winter and worked with British Cycling’s new psychologist Ruth Anderson with the aim of preparing herself mentally for racing. With time she hopes she can return to the dominant rider who won two rainbow jerseys in 2013, but for now she knows not to expect too much too soon.
“I know the rest of the world will have moved on a lot and I’ll be playing catch-up again for the moment,” she said. “I’m not putting too much pressure on myself.
As for earning enough qualification points for the 2016 Olympic Games and then earning her place as one of a maximum two sprint riders to race at Rio, James, who didn’t compete at London 2012, is taking things one step at a time.
“Things are going in the right direction now. I hope they just carry on in the right direction,” she said. “I don’t want to jinx myself at all. Fingers crossed that each week I can tick off the list is closer for me to being back to my best.”