When ex-professional cyclists Ben Kersten and Matt Wilson retired from their professional careers, they were surprised by the difficulties they faced in making the transition from the world of professional sport to that of a more ‘normal’ existence. Their combined experiences, coupled with the difficulties they witnessed their former colleagues facing, was the main catalyst for the two starting the Australian Cycling Academy (ACA), the Sunshine Coast-based cycling development program which focuses on holistic athlete development.
“When you are a professional athlete, your whole world is your sport. You have to be extremely focused, driven and even single-minded in order to reach your goals,” explains Wilson.
“When that ends, which it invariably does for all athletes, whether through injury or retirement, it can feel like you’ve stepped off a cliff. There can be very dark times, where you may struggle for motivation and purpose. Many athletes struggle with their mental health in this period, and it can go on for many years,” said Wilson.
“Ben and I witnessed many friends and colleagues suffering through this process. We even had several former cycling friends take their own lives. It was just devastating, and we really felt that the system wasn’t working for the athletes, it needed to change.”
At the heart of the ACA’s ethos is a desire to help athletes to navigate these difficulties differently, from very early on. Athletes are encouraged to study or work, often undertaking degrees at the team’s University of the Sunshine Coast base, but it may be through any university or even in the form of professional mentoring and work experience.
“We have seen this year, more than ever, the importance of this type of system. COVID has forced the cancellation of almost the entire year of racing. The goals that these young athletes had worked so hard towards were suddenly gone; there were no races, no World Championships, no Olympic Games. It was a huge blow, but it’s very similar to the end of your career. And what we noticed was that having their studies to focus on really helped them to cope, and they actually achieved better Uni results than ever before, which was a real silver lining,” said Wilson.
In order to continue their work in this space, the ACA has announced their first official charity partnership, aligning with the athlete welfare organisation Crossing the Line, which supports athletes in their transition from professional sport and aims to tackle the rising problem of post-athletic depression.
“We are thrilled to announce this partnership, with Crossing the Line becoming the official charity partner of the ACA. Crossing the Line is an amazing organisation and the core principles that underpin both the ACA and CTL are fundamentally aligned,” said Wilson.
“Through this partnership we have big ambitions and believe it will offer our athletes unprecedented access to career guidance as well as mental health and wellbeing support. It also enables us to continue to promote awareness of the importance of positive mental health in athletes, and to support Crossing the Line in their fundraising for this cause.”
Crossing the Line founder and CEO, three-time Olympian and former World Champion rower Gearoid Towey said the organisation will support ACA riders from the very early phases of their careers, to reach better outcomes when that time of transition comes.
“We are delighted to be partnering with the Australian Cycling Academy for 2021,” said Towey.
“Our belief is that preparation for transition must begin at the beginning of an athletes’ career and the ACA share this philosophy. We look forward to supporting riders throughout the year and helping them to achieve great things off the bike that will support their performance and ultimately their transition to life beyond sport.”