LARA Gillespie is definitely a ‘glass half-full’ person.

As one of the 15 individual recipients of OFI Paris Olympic Scholarships she recently got the chance to do a photo-shoot, posing in her Irish skin suit, in front of the Eiffel Tower in the city where she hopes to fulfil her track cycling dreams in 2024.

“That was very cool and and an opportunity that came out of me being sick because I wasn’t racing at the time, so you have to be grateful for that,” she says of emerging from two difficult years.

Dealing with injury and illness is tough for any athlete but must have been even harder for one as precociously talented and successful as the 21-year-old from Enniskerry.

She’s the first to admit that, when she finally decided to concentrate on cycling after success in multiple sports before she left school, cycling came naturally to her.
A European Youth Olympic Festival silver (Time Trial) in 2017 was followed a year later by a European junior title (Points) and silver medal (Pursuit) on the track.

In 2019 she won Pursuit bronze at the World Juniors and three silvers at European Juniors.

Yet her Irish senior Road and Scratch (track) titles in 2020 and a European U23 medal last season came against the odds, while she was struggling with serious health issues.

“I had this rare gynae (gynaecological) condition that I was born with. It only started causing issues when I was 15 and came back really badly in late 2020. It was only diagnosed in January 2021 and rushed for an operation.

“I never healed properly from that. I ended up fighting through it and going abroad and then tearing my hamstring. I got some good results in 2021 – silver at Euro U23s, gold (team pursuit) and bronze (omnium) in a senior World Cup which was a big step up – but, after the U23s, the pain was so severe that I just had to stop.

“I did a lot of rehab, tried to get back training but just I was so fatigued and then was diagnosed with glandular fever last December.”

She couldn’t train again until May. Throw in all the COVID lockdowns and chaos and it is clear she has come through a hellish two years when her tightknit family support has never been so important.

“I never like relying on people, but I had to ask for help and try and find other things that made me feel happy and grounded,” she reveals.

Living in rural Wicklow with her grandparents, her mum Suzanne (an international in orienteering) and her younger sister Bobbi, where she’s been running, cycling, climbing mountains and sea swimming since her childhood, proved central to recovery.

“Spending time at home, being around my family, my grandparents, my boyfriend and in nature, that’s what got me through. I was able to turn it around and appreciate that time because I kinda feel I’ll never have it again.”

Probably not given the peripatetic life of Irish track cyclists.

She returned in time for the recent European U23s and is currently in Mallorca, preparing for the European Seniors (Munich, August 11-21).

Having just graduated with a degree in Health and Performance Science from UCD in May, she has been accepted for a Masters but may yet defer it.

“I’m not sure if I’ll do it or hold off because I really want to go full force for Paris, especially after two years of a lot of setbacks. I’m just really hoping for a clear run now.

“The Olympic scholarship really helps. Like being able to get flights without stress and being able to pay my coach and (for) equipment I’ve never had before, like those aero handlebars that everyone else has.”

Gillespie is, literally, back on track now, though faced with the challenge of transitioning from U23 to international senior.

“I got three fifth places at the European U23s but I was fighting for medals and, off such little training, that’s made me excited. I know there’s so much more in me and really want to use all the potential I have.

“I’m also lucky that I’ve had a good experience of racing in elites already. I went straight from racing juniors to senior World Cups and didn’t even realise how big a step that was at the time. I’ll just keep working hard.”

The dream?

“Obviously to be Olympic and World and European champion and to keep having fun! What’s fun is the process, the whole journey. I’m looking forward to having fun on the journey.”

Lara gillespie, cycling
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