For the first time since she was 15 years old, Caroline Buchanan is sitting outside the top 50 in the World BMX rankings.
After being cleared to return to full competition after complications with a sternum injury, Caroline has this week started the climb back in a bid to qualify for next year’s Tokyo Olympics.
She is in unfamiliar territory, having been the reigning world champion and the number one ranked rider in the world in the lead up to the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games.
To suggest the past 18-month period has been frustrating for her is a serious understatement, following life-threatening injuries sustained in an off-road crash near Cooma in late 2017.
Since then, Caroline has undergone surgery three times alone on her sternum. She concedes she returned too early after the first surgery.
There were complications with bolts after the second, and it’s been more than eight months since the third surgery. And finally, it would appear she is ready to train and compete without restrictions.
Caroline says it’s been an agonising wait as she witnesses her ranking fall.
“It’s like watching paint dry,” she says.
But the long wait is over. Following a post surgery scan on her sternum, which was cracked in the off-road accident in 2017, Caroline has received the all-clear.
By now Caroline feels that the injuries are behind her. “I can’t do any more damage, it is effectively a clearance to crash.” Such is the strength of her sternum now; no more damage can be done to that part of her body.
And there’s plenty of crashing in her sport as athletes push themselves to the limit. Her crash at the Rio Olympics is evidence enough. Anyone who witnessed her final ride in Rio would have it firmly etched on his or her mind. It was not for the faint-hearted.
Now back to full training, which involves repeating the same routines over and over, she is grateful to be surrounded by a great support team, which includes sponsors such as Rubik3 as well as her coaches and advisors.
The aim is to get her body back into the shape required to be competing in the most dynamic of sports.
But she feels she’s ready, “You’re body adapts, I have a new body,” she says confidently.
That new body includes a titanium plate in her chest plus ten screws and wire cables holding it together, but Caroline only jokes about her add-on body parts – “It sets the airport security alarm off every time.”
There will be plenty of airport alarms being sounded between now and the Olympics as she travels the world in a bid to secure a berth at the Games as well as gaining the maximum allocation for Australia.
To do this she needs to secure as many points in allocated races in the next 11 or so months before the Olympics in as fewer competitions as possible.
First up, it’s the Olympic test event in Tokyo in October. This is not a points race but an important visualisation for the road ahead. The big points races start in Asia later this year with five-points rounds in three weeks.
Crunch time will come in the Olympic qualifiers in January and February next year in Bathurst and Shepparton. Caroline says she is excited by the prospect of the qualifiers being staged in Australia.
The eight-time world champion is mindful of what her body is capable of after a frustrating 18 months and her training has been tailored as such.
“I’m not the same athlete as I used to be,” she says, but time away from competition has also provided her with a different perspective of her sport.
“My appreciation of the sport is far greater, I also have a greater appreciation for my natural talent which at times I have taken for granted.”
What she isn’t taking for granted is the mountain she is about to climb to get back to her best as she pounds her body through relentless training in 38-degree heat at her base in California. Until she reaches the summit where she was once perched for so long, there will be some who will question whether it’s possible after so much time away from the sport.
For Caroline, self-belief is a driving force. “I believe I can get back to being a contender for the Olympics,” she says.
And when she gets there the satisfaction will be palpable.
See Caroline’s Return to Two Wheels story here.