The ballerina who found her strong bike legs

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Changing room series

In Part 2 of Out into the Open, a LockerRoom series on the well-being of female athletes, professional cyclist Olivia Ray seeks to shatter the myths surrounding body image in cycling – and in sport.

There is a certain perception of the appearance of a particular athlete in a given sport. And elite cyclists aren’t immune to body image expectations.

So when Kiwi pro cyclist Olivia Ray spoke openly about athlete body image positivity, she didn’t really realize the impact her message had on the global cycling community – and beyond.

“The emphasis is on being as light as possible as a rider to climb hills faster,” says Ray, 22, based in Atlanta with the Rally Cycling team. “There is a fine line, however, when you stop being powerful and your weight becomes detrimental to performance.

“I didn’t know it would resonate so much with people – not just cyclists but so many different athletes.”

Speaking on body image in sports, Ray put a stake in the ground: athletes should use their body type to their advantage in their sport – not starve or binge to get ahead. .

“No matter what you’re structurally made of, no matter what your body type is, work with it rather than against it.”

Olivia Ray has just signed for two more years with America’s best pro team Rally Cycling. Photo: Cyclist rally.

Find your sporty style

A dancer from the age of three to 16, Ray knew her muscular figure and strong legs were not the same body type as elite ballerinas.

“I really wanted to be smaller in my life,” she says. “My genetics allow me to gain muscle very easily and for me it feels good to feel strong in my body.

“I had in mind this nice, delicate little ideal of what I should look like, but I always knew I didn’t look like the prima ballerina.”

Her “strong legs” offered by her mother were actually more suited to the power of her pedals on the bike she fell in love with after watching her older brother ride for his Auckland Grammar High School team.

Ray is now in the final stages of a degree in advertising from Savannah College of Art and Design, and next year she will be discontinuing her studies, having signed on for two more years of professional racing with Rally Cycling.

Her team applied to compete in the UCI Women’s WorldTour – the highest level of competition that will allow them to be invited to the biggest races on the world calendar.

She specializes in the criterium, or ‘crit’ – it’s a faster, shorter and more aggressive cycling event. “It’s my style and it suits my body,” she said.

The crit is a street race involving laps around a tight circuit and involving a lot of sprinting action – it’s fast and physical. And Ray is very skilled at it, winning the 2020 national championships here and garnering a streak of podium finishes on the US Tour.

Ray also races on the track, winning the 10k scratch race at this year’s National Track Championships on a return trip from the United States.

Olivia Ray leads the field on her way to victory at the New Zealand Criterium Championships through the streets of Christchurch. Photo: CMGSport Action Pictures

As more professional cycling teams begin to take a more holistic approach to the mental health and performance of their riders, Ray volunteered to participate in his rally team’s discussion on cycling awareness. mental health and body positivity in cycling.

The body positivity movement celebrates the fact that regardless of shape, size, and athletic prowess, all bodies should be celebrated.

This is where the tension lies in elite sport, where measures like power-to-weight ratio are essential for performance – but crossing the line can lead to eating disorders and relative energy deficiency syndrome. (or RED-S).

Weight and body fat measurements are an integral part of high performance sport.

Fortunately, says Ray, measuring herself is not something she prioritizes personally, choosing instead to focus on other training metrics to give an indication of her physical situation.

Send the right message

Growing up with two brothers, Ray had a healthy childhood where she ate well for the active life she led. However, attending a high school for girls only, Ray constantly compared himself to others.

“It’s really hard to uplift each other in this constant state of comparison,” she says.

Social networks don’t help: “Instagram is hard on your brain”.

Ray says the key is to educate athletes to understand the individual importance of refueling for performance.

With the Paris 2024 Olympics in sight, Ray knows she needs to keep refueling to make her sporting dream come true. Photo: Cyclist rally.

This is a message that Joanne Kiesanowski, director of the rally’s women’s team and compatriot Kiwi, is clear with her team.

“Everyone fills up, trains and recovers differently,” explains Olympian Kiesanowski, stressing that everyone’s body shape is therefore ultimately different.

“I think it’s essential in sports to realize that your body doesn’t have to look a certain way to perform and exude strength.”

Making sure the language and message for coaches and parents is clear about the importance of refueling is an important part of the equation.

“Coaches need to promote this idea of ​​being a nutritionally healthy athlete,” says Kiesanowski.

“Before you work out you refuel, while you stay hydrated and when you’re done you have all the macronutrients to recover and perform the next day.”

Looking back, Ray remembers long days dancing often without lunch breaks, then rushing out of the studio to buy some sugar to keep going.

In contrast, she remembers playing touch rugby with her classmates in her early years in high school and after training, her touch rugby coach telling the group of young girls to come home, drink some water and to eat a good steak for protein and iron. to better recover.

“This message was powerful and then it got stronger seeing Sarah Ulmer and the rowing [Evers-Swindell] the twins are in front of the beef and lamb commercials, ”says Ray. “This is an extremely important message for young women who are afraid to eat more.”

Olivia Ray won two titles at the Cambridge 3 Day Champs in the Avantidrome. Photo: Cullen Browne

As she matures, says Ray, her body is accepted and she is grateful that she can change her diet to get the most out of her body safely.

“I’ve never had major eating problems like an eating disorder, which is all too common in sports,” she says. “When I have negative thoughts, most of the time I am able to say that I realize these thoughts and that I have things I can do to calm them down.

“For me, I know what things are good for me [mentally and physically] – ride a bike and exercise.

With the Paris 2024 Olympic Games in her sights, Ray knows she must continue to refuel her childhood sporting dream to come true: to use her body in the sport for which it is adapted.

Kiesanowski says Ray’s vulnerability demonstrated throughout this campaign has helped others understand the reality of body image in sports.

“Olivia’s honesty showcased her mental and physical strength,” she says. She is a “champion of well-being”.

On the Rally Cycling website, Ray was asked what she sees in the mirror – a good day.

“I see the growth of years ago from where I was to where I am. I see things that I would love to work on, but I think subconsciously – and I like to keep that stuff to myself, like I wouldn’t say it on the team bus, or in an Instagram caption – but I see the strength, so I get a little cheeky and I’m like “Damn, I can’t wait to prove it!”


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