It was a January 2008 day in Los Angeles when Anna Meares’ life was tipped upside down – literally.
Meares, then just 24, was already a gold medallist at the Olympic and Commonwealth Games, a cycling world champion and had been given an Order of Australia.
She was set to be the lynchpin of Australia’s cycling team at the Beijing Games of that year when disaster struck at a World Cup meet, as Meares, travelling at 65 kilometres an hour, hit the back wheel of an opponent and went flying off her bike.
The Queenslander broke her neck and dislocated her shoulder in the horrific fall and later said she was “very lucky” to survive the accident.
Another two millimetres and Meares would have been “at best, paralysed from the chin down”, and she later arrived back home in a neck brace and a wheelchair.
The wheelchair didn’t last but 10 frustrating weeks in a neck brace did, as Meares began to contemplate an unlikely and audacious comeback.
She started riding small distances on an exercise bike that used a rig to keep her as vertical as possible – she was not able to support the weight of her head – while Meares had her dislocated shoulder resting on a self-adjustable, portable clothes rack.
It was far from orthodox but it worked and, somehow, Meares made it to the Games.
And she didn’t just make up the numbers, either.
Meares made it to the semi-finals and sent home favourite Guo Shuang packing, only to lose to long-time rival Victoria Pendleton of Great Britain in the decider.
She had to settle for silver – the only medal the Australian cycling team won in Beijing – but her effort just to make the Games will be told for decades and continues to inspire athletes.
In the eight years since, it is fair to say Meares has never slowed.
She added another Olympic gold medal to her swag of honours at London in 2012, turning the tables on Pendleton in the sprint.
She has won a further four Commonwealth Games gold medals (three in 2010, one in 2014) and added a staggering nine more world championship success.
Meares is now an 11-time world champion and in 2011, became the first cyclist to become a world champion in every track cycling discipline.
‘Anna is such a great person and a great role model’
Shane Kelly knows what it takes to continually get yourself up for an Olympic Games campaign, with the cyclist – an ex-teammate of Meares – going to five.
And he told The New Daily that Meares is someone that all Australians can look up to.
“As Anna has come out and said, leading Australia at the opening ceremony will be the highlight of her career” said Kelly, who is an ambassador for charity cycling event ‘Ride With Me For Mental Health’.
“And when you’ve achieved as much as Anna has in her career, well, that comment is really saying something.
“It’s a hugely deserved honour for Anna.
“Yes, she’s an 11-time world champion, has Olympic records, world records, gold medals, world championship medals – the list goes on.
“But Anna is also a normal person who does something extremely well.
“She’s very humble and is a credit to her sport.
“Anna is such a great person and a great role model, not just for cycling and not just for sport, but for all women’s sport too.”
Kelly said he would not bet against Meares winning a third Olympic gold medal of her career in Rio de Janeiro.
The 32-year-old will contest the keirin, individual sprint and team sprint in Brazil over the next fortnight.
Her best chance of winning gold appears to be in the keirin event.
“Anna is not just going to Brazil to ride around. She’s going there to win,” Kelly added.
“To potentially get a gold at her fourth Olympics – it would be just another stunning achievement in her career.
“I went to five Olympic Games and I know how hard it is to maintain your hunger and persistence for the big events.
“But Anna’s won gold before and she can do it again.”
‘Ride With Me For Mental Health’ is a two-day cycling event across Victoria in October that will see riders cover 332km to raise awareness and much-needed funds for youth-focused mental health organisation, Love Me Love You.