23 May 2024

Olivia Podmore's best mate, Shaane Fulton to race at Paris Olympics in track cycling sprint team

7:02 am on 23 May 2024

Shaane Fulton could never have seen herself here two-and-a-half years ago.

Standing atop a stage at the infield of Cambridge's Velodrome, dwarfed by the track that had once been the scene of her torment, being named in her first Olympic team.

As she looked out to the crowd of family, friends and Cycling NZ support staff that had gathered for the announcement, Fulton's thoughts turned to who wasn't there. Liv.

It was the day after the closing ceremony of the Tokyo Games - day one of the Paris Olympic cycle - that Fulton's world began to unravel.

Olivia Podmore, her teammate, mentor and best friend, died in a suspected suicide.

Olivia Podmore competed at the 2016 Rio Olympics and died in August.

Olivia Podmore Photo: Photosport

Bereft and heartbroken at the shocking loss, Fulton's body soon gave in as well. The young sprinter suffered a serious hip injury, requiring a risky surgery that could have spelt the end of her cycling career.

"A lot has unravelled over the last few years, and just making it here today is really special," an emotional Fulton told RNZ at Wednesday's announcement.

"Liv is one of my best mates and [her passing] was really hard to process, and after that I went through a potentially career-ending injury with my hip, and that coincided all within a few months.

"So I experienced a pretty big moment of loss, and wasn't really sure I would be here today."

While Fulton's grief was plain for everyone to see, elsewhere in the velodrome there were unspoken reminders of the tragedy that rocked cycling and high performance sport nearly three years ago.

Among the crowd were former New Zealand Olympic Committee boss Kereyn Smith, and Kit Toogood KC, who were tasked with leading the transformation of Cycling NZ in the wake of a damning inquiry following Podmore's death. That inquiry found Cycling NZ's high performance programme had a "lack of consideration" for the needs of women athletes.

There was a raft of new faces among the coaching and support staff headed to Paris, following an almost complete clear-out in the wake of the tragedy. Some were moved on, others, deeply affected by Podmore's passing, left of their own accord.

There was a tragic irony too in that the women's sprint team is thriving under new leadership and considered among New Zealand's top medal hopes in Paris.

The team, led by Tokyo silver medallist Ellesse Andrews, are young in years and experience, but have achieved a lot in a short space of time.

Fulton says Podmore is a key part of the legacy the women's sprint team is trying to build in Paris.

"It stings a lot that she is not here now, she should have been up there with us," she says.

"It's so hard to put into words. It is definitely a much nicer place to be here now, and I am lucky that I have had a great support crew.

"[Olivia] has taught us all so much and she is with us every single day."

Shaane Fulton has a tattoo in tribute to her best friend Olivia Podmore

Shaane Fulton has a tattoo in tribute to her best friend Olivia Podmore Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Podmore is with Fulton in a physical sense every day as well. She has a tattoo on the inside of her left arm of a stylised outline of one of her favourite photos with Podmore. Below it are the words: "Live every day like it's your last."

There are other reminders of her journey Fulton carries with her.

Inside the helmet bag that goes with her to every event is a container of screws that once fixed her hip to her pelvis. There are five of them in total, the longest one 11cm.

"It's so weird to look at. At one point these were in me, and I couldn't do this sport, and now they are here in front of me and I can remind myself of where I've come from. It just makes me really grateful for where I am."

In October 2021, just months after Podmore's sudden passing, Fulton suffered a serious hip injury.It started with a loss of mobility. Fulton was doing squats in the gym one day and found she could not get full range without experiencing pain. Within weeks, "it got to the point where I couldn't walk anymore".

A genetic condition, combined with a sport that places extremely high forces through the hips, had caused serious damage to the joint. Radical surgical intervention, known as a periacetablular osteotomy, or PAO, was required.

Even then, there were no guarantees Fulton would ever compete at the top level again.

"They went in and cut around my hip socket, basically just broke my pelvis and moved it and screwed it back together and then we crossed our fingers basically," she says.

"It's pretty hard to come back from, and there's been a few that haven't come back from it. You just never know. You just have to put in the work and if you make it, you make it, and if you don't then you've tried your best."

Tissot UCI Track Nations Cup - Round 1: Adelaide - Women's Sprint Qualifying - Shaane Fulton, New Zealand.

Fulton on the track in Australia earlier this year Photo: Photosport / Zac Williams / SWpix.com

The road back to full fitness has been brutal. It was nine months before Fulton was back on a bike at the track. Then another year of "full on hiccups and setbacks" before she was ready to compete again.

The 23 year-old says she was "lucky" to be selected in last year's UCI World Championships in Glasgow, where the women's sprint team of Andrews, Fulton and Rebecca Petch finished fifth - a massive improvement on their ranking of 15th heading into the event.

"Four years ago we were a scattered bunch, we were all over the place and did not really have a lot of direction. We're an established team now, and we're not just trying to pull something together," she says.

"Like we are building something that is really, really special."

Fulton will be in Christchurch tomorrow to mark what would have been Podmore's 27th birthday with her family.

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