Tim de Waele/Getty Images
Rushlee Buchanan and Jessie Hodges compete in the women’s madison at the Tokyo Olympics.
Rushlee Buchanan wanted to become an Olympic track cyclist, ever since Sarah Ulmer wrote her back in 2000.
The 33-year-old from Te Awamutu said she still remembered the exact moment her dream was born, 21 years ago.
After doing a school project on track cycling at the Sydney Olympics, Buchanan decided she would write a letter to Ulmer and tell her how much she had inspired her.
Not only did her hero respond, but she sent Buchanan some kit from one of her races as well.
* World championships form finishes boost New Zealand cycling’s hopes for Paris Olympics
* Aaron Gate scores world cycling silver medal after Olympic crash disappointment
* ‘I can’t stop crying’: Cyclist Ellesse Andrews in shock after winning silver medal
Buchanan said it changed her life. She became “obsessed” with cycling from that day onwards.
“I can remember it so vividly. I was sitting at home watching and all of a sudden track cycling came on and I had never even heard of this thing before, and then I watched Sarah and I just loved all the emotion she gave to it,” she said.
“Somehow, weirdly, I found her email address or something and contacted her and she of course was lovely and wrote back straight away and gave me a kit of hers, and that was the start of it.
“She was the catalyst for the cycling.”
Buchanan announced her retirement from elite sport on Thursday, two months after competing at the Tokyo Olympics, after representing New Zealand as a cyclist on the track and on the road for 12 years.
After watching Ulmer as a young girl, she went on to fulfil her dream by competing at three Olympic Games and three Commonwealth Games, winning a silver medal as a member of the team pursuit in 2018.
Buchanan won four medals at the Track Cycling World Championships between 2010 and 2019, and bagged a slew of national titles, including a New Zealand record four wins in the elite women’s road race.
Although she has spoken publicly in the past about her mental struggles as a high performance athlete, Buchanan said she was just ready for a new challenge and looked back on her distinguished career with mainly fond memories.
“I’ve been doing it for quite a long time and everything comes to an end,” she said.
“I’ve loved every minute of it, even the hard minutes, and I just recognise the time and energy it takes and feel I’m at a space in my life where I want to give that energy to something else, I’m just not sure what yet.”
While the death of New Zealand track cyclist Olivia Podmore did not influence her decision to retire, Buchanan said it had changed the way she viewed her disappointment after being dissatisfied with her 11th place finish in the madison at the Tokyo Olympics.
Buchanan was at the airport preparing to fly back to New Zealand when she learned of Podmore’s death.
“Liv’s passing was tragic and extremely sad,” she said.
“It was a surreal time to experience, we were all in the Tokyo Airport when we found out.
“That moment in time taught me the importance of recognising your whole journey, and that one moment in time does not define who you are.
“Her passing didn’t shape my decision to retire, but that moment encouraged me to see through my disappointment of the games and to recognise what I really value in life.”
Although the Olympics had always been her big goal, Buchanan actually rated the bronze medal she won in the omnium at the World Championships in 2018 as her greatest achievement as a cyclist.
She also cherished many of the experiences the sport provided, like travelling the world and competing in Tokyo with her American husband Adrian Hegyvary, who is also retiring from elite competition.
“The things I’m most proud of don’t have ‘Games’ in the title. It’s not any of the Games that I’ve been to.
“I’ve been to three Olympics and three Commonwealth Games, and they were amazing experiences, but my personal highlight was when I won the bronze medal in the omnium, as I’m the only female from New Zealand to have won a world championships omnium medal.”
Buchanan is finishing off her Masters in sports management and hoped to continue working within sport in the future, as she wanted to give back to the next generation, just like Ulmer did all those years ago.
“Sarah was such a mentor to me and if I can help anybody else in sport then that would be awesome.”