How Emily Kay found inner strength to tackle Olympics in top gear

Kay has had 30 stitches in her face, she has had far too many concussions. The physical toll is one thing but it takes someone with considerable mental strength to face that.
How Emily Kay found inner strength to tackle Olympics in top gear

‘I feel a huge amount of pride every time I get to wear the jersey,’ says Team Ireland track cyclist Emily Kay. Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Emily Kay seems to cry a lot. She cried with pride after representing Ireland for the first time. She had a good sniffle after her second race in the green jersey, in New Zealand, didn’t go to plan. And she burst into tears when phoning her dad with the news that she had been selected for the Olympic Games.

As well we know, crying does not equate to soft or weak. And Emily Kay is anything but soft or weak.

Track cyclists need nerves of steel as they whip around raised bends at ridiculous speeds, their wheels a hair’s breadth away from others. It’s inevitable that there are crashes. And the consequences that come with all that.

Kay has had 30 stitches in her face, she has had far too many concussions, and she always seems to have some sort of incident when she competes at Sundrive in Dublin. The physical toll is one thing but it takes someone with considerable mental strength to face that.

And Emily Kay has an abundance of mental strength.

Born in Coventry, she won four European Championships medals and a Commonwealth Games bronze with Great Britain before transferring allegiance to Ireland in 2019 via a maternal grandparent from Dublin.

What’s most astonishing about Kay is not the success she has had but the fact that she could even hold her own at the elite level while waging a 10-year battle with an eating disorder that was finally overcome two years ago.

“I suffered with bulimia for 10 years and, towards the end of that, depression. When you’re going through it, it’s very difficult to talk about. At the time I felt embarrassed. Now that I‘ve come out of it and am in a very mentally strong place.

People, if they feel able to, should be able to talk about it and it’s something that I’ve posted about, my struggles, a lot.

“A lot of my struggles were about not feeling the lightest or the strongest person in the peloton and actually being a stronger and bigger-build athlete and kind of feeling that I needed to conform to this endurance look. I’ve learned that’s not what sport’s about.”

Kay has opened up about this chapter in her life in the hope that it can help others suffering with similar issues. As for her, and her story as a cyclist, it begs the question as to what could be possible now that she is in such a better place.

A sport psychologist laid it out to her in the most basic of terms, telling her that she had been operating at no more than 70-80% of her potential. Imagine, he said, what you might do when you aren’t starving your body of food.

The pandemic has blunted her chance to operate at the peak of her powers but she takes to the start line along with her Madison teammate Shannon McCurley at the Izu Velodrome tomorrow in top gear and she is ready to add another page to her long and winding cycling journey.

Kay was only five years of age when she spotted a picture of Paula Pezzo in one of her father’s cycling magazines. The Italian was Olympic mountain bike champion. More important was her pink uniform. Kay loved pink.

That was the moment she targeted the Olympics.

Cycling remains her passion but she has had to re-examine her relationship with the sport and how she sees herself as a person. She took time out to find her bearings and decided she needed to see beyond the handlebars and the track.

A course combining sports science and sport psychology has helped her understand herself better and open potential avenues for life off two wheels. There was one module on athletic identity and burnout that could have been a biopic on her life.

Look at it in the greater scheme of things she has experienced and her switch from GB to Ireland in 2019 might not rank that high but it was still a step that brought its own pressures and uncertainty as to how it would be digested.

Kay knew the Irish track cyclists but couldn’t be sure that they or the wider public would accept her. She is okay with the fact that some will have an issue with it but 99% of the feedback has been positive and she is comfortable with where she is at.

“When I first raced (for Ireland) I wanted to prove that I was good enough to be in the team, that I deserved my spot and was good enough to race. I went through a period when I wanted to show that I was worthy.

“I hope I’ve done that and put results down that show I deserve my spot.

“It definitely is 100% the best decision I’ve ever made and it feels like the right place for me to be. I feel a huge amount of pride every time I am selected to race for Ireland, every time I get to wear the jersey.”

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