The once in a lifetime global sporting and social restrictions we now collectively face have not quelled the success of many individuals within the Adelaide University Sport community.
On a global stage, University of Adelaide student and elite track cyclist Maeve Plouffe achieved the extraordinary feat of qualifying for her first Olympics at just 20 years of age.
She was selected to compete in the women’s team pursuit at the now postponed Tokyo games. The 4-person event pits 2 teams head-to-head as they race to complete 16 laps of the velodrome (a total of 4 kilometres) in the fastest time possible.
Plouffe, who juggles her extensive cycling commitments with a double degree - a Bachelor of Laws and Bachelor of Science (Marine Biology) (Ecology) - says that although the games postponement is far from ideal, it was the most logical option available to the IOC.
“Obviously public safety is paramount, we want everyone to stay safe, the Olympics is a celebration of sport so we should be able to do that in a safe way,” she says.
Despite the event’s ultimate postponement, Plouffe is still rightly extremely proud of her achievement in being named in the Australian Olympic team.
“Regardless of what’s going on at the moment, Olympic qualification is still Olympic qualification, it’s something that only happens to a handful of people in Australia, so hearing that I was going to the Olympics was amazing news… and it’s something that still makes me smile,” she says.
These comments are indicative of Plouffe’s positive attitude in dealing with the varied challenges and disruptions brought about by COVID-19, which will undoubtedly hold her in good stead for what will likely prove an unusual and at times testing period over the next few months.
Rather than focusing on the inevitable challenges this will bring, she is thankful to have been selected, and says her qualification was an enormous source of pride not only for her, but also her friends and family.
“Yeah so it’s just everyone, my family, friends, coaches, everyone who’s been on that journey with me so far is just as excited as I am, I guess,” she says.
“It’s so nice to see because these people around me are the ones who have given me so much and helped me get here so I guess this qualification is just as much for them as it is for me.”
In light of the IOC announcement that the Tokyo games will not be contested until the northern summer of 2021, the status and validity of Plouffe’s qualification is, for the moment, unclear. However, she says seeking clarity on this is not currently among her top priorities.
“Yeah, we haven’t heard anything about that yet, at the moment they are just working out what we are going to do in terms of daily training,” she says.
According to Plouffe, cyclists are lucky in this regard, as there are a range of training options available to them, despite the tight societal restrictions in place for the foreseeable future.
“I’m in the fortunate position where my sport, we can train from inside, we can be on the indoor trainer, we can be on the home gym, there’s a lot of adaptations we can make to our training and at the moment we can still actually be out on the road,” she points out.
To that end, she says she empathises greatly with athletes from sports whose training requirements logistically do not conform with the extensive government regulations.
“I’m really feeling for people like swimmers and stuff like that who can’t get in the pool… I feel like I’m a lot less in the dark than other sports might be at the moment, so I guess I’m just grateful for that.”
It remains a distinct possibility that because of the IOC’s decision to reschedule, Plouffe and the rest of the cycling team may be required to re-qualify at a date closer to the competition. Should this eventuate, she feels it could, perversely, work to her advantage.
“As a young athlete I’m fortunate in that every month that goes by I’m improving, so you know, a postponement isn’t the worst thing in the world for me,” she says.
Clearly, having just experienced and ultimately succeeded in a qualification cycle, Plouffe is well placed to excel should Cycling Australia decide a fresh qualification is necessary.
Unlike some other sports, cycling does not have a singular meet that determines the Olympic team. Rather, it is named with reference to the athlete’s performance over a sustained period of time.
Plouffe’s qualification journey, which began midway through 2019, can be categorised as something of a meteoric rise - particularly when you consider the surrounding circumstances.
“The Australian cycling team had to submit a long list for the Olympics [in July last year]… that was a list of 8 girls, and my name was on that list however I wasn’t actually riding in the top Australian team at that time, I was in the junior team,” the 20 year old explains.
“I had to jump through a lot of hoops and work really hard to make it into that top Australian team because ultimately we had 8 girls on that list, and only 5 would go to the Olympics, so to be in that top 5 you had to be on the A team.”
To achieve this, she would have to produce consistently excellent results in competitions, whilst also impressing on the training track. That is exactly what Plouffe did, putting together a highly compelling body of work throughout the 2019/20 season. In that time, she won 3 Australian championships as well as an Oceania title to put herself firmly in Olympic contention.
“The Oceania championships, in October last year, I’d say that’s what opened up the door for me to make that top Australian team. After my results there, which were quite good, they gave me the opportunity to race at the Cambridge and Brisbane world cups, in November and December,” Plouffe says.
“Once I rode in those, the next hurdle I guess was world championships [held in Berlin in February this year]. So I had to be selected in that team, and that was kind of the big one because we had 6 girls names on the squad, but only 5 could be picked to race in the team pursuit at the world championships, so we knew that the 5 that would race at the world championships … would most likely be the Olympic team, as that was kind of the final step.”
Her rise is all the more remarkable when you consider that these competitions were held shortly after her successful comeback from a badly broken arm.
Whilst there is of course a distinct and unrepeatable buzz at being selected to compete in the biggest event of her career to date, she acknowledges the unique circumstance of competing for your dream spot with close teammates. For Plouffe, this is simply a reality of her chosen sport.
“I’ve was really impressed with how the Australian team has handled that, because at the end of the day the whole team just wants to go faster, so even though you are competing against each other for spots, it doesn’t really feel like that,” she says.
“You’re judged not on your individual ability to go fast, I would say, you are judged on your ability to make the team go faster, so I would say that they are picking the team based on what combination works for them and how do you help your teammates to go quicker… that makes it a lot fairer and a lot better during the qualification process.”
Plouffe has proven herself to be a versatile member of the women’s team pursuit, experimenting in performing a number of different roles as required.
“Since I’m on a relatively new team, we are still working out where I’m best suited to which is actually quite exciting because I’ve been trying out a lot of different roles, and just trying my legs in a lot of different positions and finding out what’s best for the team,” she says.
“I rode fourth wheel at the World Championships, so that meant doing one really long turn at the front and then peeling off. So usually a turn would be 2 laps, I had to do double that… moving forward, who knows I could be second wheel, I could be third, I could be first. We are still working that out.”
Whilst it remains to be seen whether the composition of the team, and individual roles within it, will be the same in 2021 as if the Olympics had been held at the original date, Plouffe’s versatility and rapid development in the last 12 months leaves her a strong contender to play a significant role in Tokyo and well beyond.
Away from the track, she is kept exceptionally busy by her double degree in law and science. Whilst it at times makes for a hectic life, Plouffe continues to enjoy the challenge of balancing her academic and sporting pursuits.
“Yeah, so I would call myself a pretty academic person, I love university,” she says.
“The university have been great, supporting me around exams and understanding my situation has been a huge thing for me and helped me stay on track with my sport but also get good grades and study which is really important to me.”
She also cites the backing of Adelaide University Sport, through scholarships and grants, as an important contributor to her success.
“The support of Adelaide University Sport allows me to cut back on my part time work significantly, and means I can spend that many more hours studying or recovering or training more, and it just alleviates so much stress for me… they are such a big help, especially when you try and juggle so many things at once,” she says.
Plouffe’s magnificent achievements to date in her still young career are a credit to her as both an athlete and person. Equally, it is not an overstatement to say that her positive outlook as she navigates through these unique challenges is inspiring and should serve an important lesson to all of us.