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“In order to go fast you have to hit the floor fast.”

By Seb Kemp
I’m sat in the Red Bull house, high on the slopes of Queenstown Hill, having a cup of tea with the three Athertons. From the balcony we can look down upon the cobalt blue Lake Wakatipu and gain some perspective of the giant mass of mountain-locked water which reaches away from us many kilometres out of view and descends deeply beyond the surface. Likewise, from their winter training nest I am attempting to get some perspective and depth upon the most successful and intriguing bloodline, not just in mountain biking, but perhaps all modern sports.

Although these interviews started out as attempted insights into the recovery of Dan Atherton in his long, hard-fought battle to make it back to the war fields of the World Cup, along the way the perspective of the other family members has been invaluable for getting a deeper understanding of the whole family unit.
     Last November I met with Dan and sister Rachel while they attempted to recover from their injuries in California. Dan was fighting to recover a semblance of normality in his life after a horrific neck injury that almost disabled him and very nearly took his life. Rachel had months prior been for yet another shoulder surgery after a series of ongoing injuries had plagued her past two seasons. In many peoples’ eyes she is perhaps the most dominant female downhill mountain biker in recent times. Even though she has stamped her mark on the circuit and has a trophy collection to prove it - including World Champion stripes - there seems to be a niggling feeling that she has much more potential for greatness but her injuries are holding her back.
Photographs courtesy of Atherton Racing / by Sven MartinAlso with us this time is Gee, whose fate has been far more golden than the other two siblings in recent years. Six months prior he had been crowded World Cup Series Champion in the most closely fought battle ever in series history. Gee has been training hard in the gym, on the trails and getting adjusted to the new Commencal downhill sled in order to defend his crown.
     It is apparent that things have moved on hugely since I last  last sat down to talk with Dan in November. This time he is looking as fit and healthy as at anytime before his accident. He has also had to get his sea legs back and get back up to speed on a mountain bike. The day before I sat down with them Dan had been dirt jumping for the first time since his accident; something that four months prior he said he may never be able to do. There is something different about his mental outlook this time. Whereas back in November Dan was perhaps weighted with the emotional and physical burden of his recovery, now he seems upbeat and confident again. He tells me early on that he is slightly reluctant to talk more about the injury because he has simply moved on from it and is now just looking forward. He is not just focused on the next step, but he is leaping from his recovery period and into what he hopes will be a far more successful chapter in the story of his life. There are still hints at lurking hesitations though. Injuries always incur more than physical damage and they can act as fractures in the psyche. To be able to cope mentally with the physical abuse is perhaps a greater challenge than healing the body, as doubt, hesitation and lowered confidence can creep in like rising damp. I get the feeling that perhaps there is an undertone of this in both Dan and Rachel’s answers.
     In this first of two parts we talk about a little about the practicalities of recovery, getting back into the swing of being one-third of Atherton Racing again, and Rachel offers some telling and poignant insights into the life choices of a professional athlete and the sacrifices that must be taken to achieve the goals that they have clearly set for themselves.
Seb - When I saw you last in California you were barely able to move your neck; you looked like a skinny zombie with your neck bolted on. Then what happened?

Dan - I went back to the UK for Christmas and moved house. It was pretty gnarly because it was cold and I had no massage work on it, so it definitely stiffened up. Then in the new year we went back to California and continued on the same program again: soft tissue and gym work. January was a huge month because I made huge gains. I got loads of movement and strength back. I think everything kind of came to a head in January. The doctor gave me the all clear to ride downhill again and then I just started to get back to normal life really. Normal life being in the gym trying to get my neck back to normal.
     It was definitely a pretty intense time trying to get it strong again and it is still really weak even now. For example, sometimes when I go into a corner or flat land a jump [laughs] I can’t hold it up. There is a lot of work to do. I feel like I could race the first World Cup race in South Africa in a few weeks time but it would be a stupid thing for me to do. You know, my confidence and the strength of my neck isn’t there. I think it is better to bide my time and wait till Fort William [the second round of the World Cup Series which will be held on the first weekend of June].

Seb - Last November we talked about the vulnerability you had felt. Even back then you said the thoughts and memories of the worst times felt distance. How about now?

Dan - I still feel vulnerable. The injury is still at the forefront of my mind. Whenever I ride I’m thinking about getting injured but thats a good thing for at least the near future because thats what keeps you timid. The last thing I want is to get injured again. So many riders come back from injury, go too hard too fast too soon and end up getting hurt because their hand eye coordination isn’t up to scratch yet. It’s hard with Gee and Rach because they are pinning it and I want to keep up to that. Also when Gee is hitting big jumps I feel like a wuss because I’m not manning up and doing them as well.
    I think I have definitely come out of that period when I retreated into my own head but I still listen to music a lot more than ever before; I’m just having my own thoughts.

Seb - What about you Rachel? Has your own recovery changed anything in your mindset?

Rachel - I’ve learnt that to be a professional athlete, in the sport you really enjoy doing, it is really hard to not just do the sport. I have no trouble riding and going fast, I have no trouble with that side of it. I love it. It’s the rest of it that is hard to do, you know, like not riding so much so you can go to the gym to get stronger and eventually you can go faster. I’ve always been about the riding and not the gym work, which is silly really. It has taken me a while to realize that in order to go fast you have to hit the floor fast.

Seb - So you have always wanted the fun but sometimes being a professional takes the fun out?

Rachel - Yes, it is hard sometimes, like when the boys went riding the other day but I didn’t go because I knew in the long run it would be more beneficial for me to go to the gym and do my upper body workout. It sucks but I suppose everyone has that.

Seb - So missing out of the fun - not being on top of a mountain, riding with your brothers and your mates doing something you enjoy - just so you can get those rainbow stripes?

Rachel - Yeah if you want to race professionally then you have to sacrifice. Everyone thinks being a professional mountain biker is a blast - riding your bike twenty four seven - but its not like that at all. You have to ride less to be able to do it as a career.
PhotoSeb - Does it all feel like a sacrifice?

Rachel - I think the only way to be a champion or a winner is to make huge sacrifices. I think that is the difference between champions and someone who has bags of talent but doesn’t want to make that sacrifice.

Gee - That is why it is so important to want it so much. If you want it so much that you will do anything then it doesn’t seem like a sacrifice, but if you aren’t that bothered then everything seems like a big sacrifice and it becomes hard to do.

Seb - So what other sacrifices have you made to achieve your goals?

Rachel - The cats get sick every winter because no one feeds them.

Dan - So people see some things as a sacrifice.We have been here in Queenstown for two months and I have been out once or twice. I’m sure a lot of people would want to go out every night because of the kind of place it is, so it would be a sacrifice for them. But I don’t see it as a sacrifice because it is the kind of person I am and I know where I want to be. So it depends whose eyes you are looking at it through.

Rachel - You have to miss out on the fun stuff. What pisses me off is when you aren’t in the season and you aren’t specifically training but at the end of the day you know that everything you do will have a knock on effect. Every physical thing has an effect further down the line.

Seb - A lot of the sacrifices you have talked about, other than the cats, has been a physical thing: having to think about your body. What you do today has an effect on the next twelve months or perhaps your whole career, but what about the other side of things, for example relationships with other people?

Rachel - Like girlfriends?

Seb - Is that a confession you would like to make? [laughter] Yes, that is what I mean, relationships with other people, be it friends or family or whatever.

Rachel - I struggle with the family relationships when we are away from home or at home all the time. With my mum when I’m at home we hang out all the time, and then we go away I see the affect it has on her and me. We are always in transition; settling back down into life then disappearing again. It is hard for everyone but at the end of the day its a small sacrifice compared to what some people make. I can’t imagine what it is like for Peaty. Imagine how hard it must be for him going away and leaving his kids at home. Or you can look at it the other way; he had the kids and then he seemed to really step it up and he won World Champs. Maybe if you have to do things like leaving your family to go overseas to race then you are going to make it count. No messing around; make it worth it.

Seb - You guys are pretty fortunate to have each other because you aren’t always away from family totally.

Dan - I guess we make our life wherever we are, then when we move on we rarely keep touch with those people. So it’s a rather shallow life really but we have each other, so thats something solid.

Rachel - Yeah, imagine doing this on your own or with people you don’t know?

Dan - It is funny, at the start of the winter I was looking at how long I had to be away for and I wondered how I would cope with it. When it comes round it is great to be moving around and being in these places, but when it comes time to move on then it can’t come a moment too soon. You mentally prepare yourself because you don’t have a choice.
Seb - So yesterday was the first time you were riding dirt jumps again after the accident, was it planned or just another thing Sven bullied you into?

Dan - My first time riding doubles was when we went up Dream Track. I hit the first one and I realized I needed to chill out and hit something a bit smaller first. My judgement was off and I could tell I was real wooden in the air. So I was at the top of the roll in and I called it. It was the first time in my life that I have called something and stepped back from it but it was definitely for the best. So we went down Gorge Road dirt jumps and I was shitting myself. I walked the line loads and planned it all out in my head and made sure I knew which lip was which. I felt so wooden. I have never ever been worried about dirt jumps. I have never hurt myself and I have never ever thought a jump was too big for me. So it was funny to feel that wooden and stiff.

Rachel - It was funny to see too.

Dan - F**k off [Laughs].

Seb - So how was it? How long did it take you to get into it?

Dan - I walked around, then rode the pump track to get used to my hardtail. Then I just rolled in and got all the way through first time. I guess once you are prepared in your head then it’s alright because you don’t forget, it is just getting to that point that is hard sometimes.

Seb - So you were cashing in a lot of your experience and skills base then?

Dan - Yeah, it didn’t feel like my skills or anything was off, it was just mental preparation that totally felt blocked. It is such a weird feeling having such a mental block. I’ve never had that in my life. It felt real weird, but it turned out OK in the end.

Seb - So no qualms riding dirt jumps?

Dan - I was definitely nervous. I’m sure when I go up there again I’ll be super chilled out. Like yesterday, as soon as I had a little mistake I stopped riding because I know my judgement is still off and I haven’t been riding long enough yet to call on that instinct to jump off and roll if I’d need to. I’m still not comfortable crashing on my head (Laughs).
Part four will follow in a week. In it we talk about the Kardashians, being a celluloid hero,  and cabin fever.


The Dan Atherton Interview Part 1
The Dan Atherton Interview Part 2

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