Tara Whitten, '07 BSc, winner of a gold and three bronze medals at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in India, takes a break from training for the 2011 Track Cycling World Cup to talk with third-year student and fellow athlete Paula Findlay.
You’ve had lots of successes in cycling, but this is actually a relatively new sport to you. When did you start competing seriously?
I first got on a track bike in 2005, but I was still cross-country skiing competitively, so it wasn’t until July of 2007 that I started doing it seriously.
What made you switch?
I had some success in skiing, but I wasn’t consistently successful on the international team, and I felt like I was still a ways from that point. So I started cycling just for fun, and everything moved really quickly.
What do you like so much about cycling?
It has a bit of everything. You need a lot of speed and power and endurance, but you also need to be smart and have tactical sense. And things happen quickly so you have to have fast reactions. It’s exciting.
Is there anything you don’t like about it?
There can be crashes. I don’t like crashes.
Have you had many?
No, I’ve been lucky. But I’ve seen some nasty ones, and it’s a little bit scary.
Do you have any regrets about leaving cross-country skiing, especially after seeing the Vancouver 2010 Olympics?
Well, I do miss skiing and I miss winter because right now I spend my winters training in Los Angeles. But I was just really excited to see the people I knew doing so well, and I feel like I’m in the right sport. I know I’ll be more competitive in London than I might have been had I qualified for Vancouver.
Did you participate in a lot of different sports growing up?
I was very active when I was young. My family is very active. My dad actually competed in mountain biking when I was growing up, and we followed him to races around the province. We did a lot of mountain biking as a family, we went on canoe trips and ski trips, but cross-country skiing was the first thing that I did competitively.
Were you training on the cross-country national team while an undergrad at the U of A?
Yes, on and off. The first few years of my undergrad I was on the junior national team, so I would miss quite a bit of school for competitions, but it was manageable. When I made the transition to being a senior skier I decided to move to Canmore and train full-time, so I took four years off school. Then one year I didn’t make the national team, so I came back to Edmonton and continued to ski and finish my undergrad.
How did you balance the demanding training schedule with a heavy school load?
There were certain semesters that I knew would be more of a challenge, so I would take maybe three or four courses instead of a full load.
Was there any way in which your education contributed to your sporting career?
Oh, I think so. Because I was doing both school and sport I learned how to be very efficient, which I think has helped me as an athlete and in everything that I do. And, on top of that, being a scientist influences the way I think about training. I’m very analytical about my training. I always want to understand why I’m doing something, and I think that’s really helped me to define my training and to be very methodical about how I approach it.
You’re currently in the middle of a PhD at the U of A. What are you studying?
I’m studying neuroscience in an electrophysiology lab in the psychology department with Dr. Clayton Dickson. I’m looking at rhythmic electrical activity in a particular area of the brain — the hippocampus — during sleep-like states. But I’m putting it on hold for two years as I prepare for the London Olympics.
Why is L.A. your training base for the Olympics?
Because track cycling internationally is held on indoor 250-metre wood tracks, and we don’t have any of those in Canada at the moment — although Edmonton is trying very hard to get one. For now, L.A. has the only international-standard velodrome in North America.
What does a typical training day look like for you leading up to a big competition?
Maybe two-to-three weeks out I’ll be training twice a day with high intensity workouts, mostly on the track, just trying to overload a little bit. Then I’ll taper down in the last 10 days or so leading up to the competition.
Does cross-country skiing still play into your training schedule?
I don’t do a lot of cross-training, actually. When I go back home, I ski a little bit, but not a lot.
What do you do in your down time? Do you ever just hop on your bike and go for a ride?
Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of down time. When I do I try to just rest and recover and do normal things like go out for dinner and see movies with my friends, maybe go camping or something. I don’t do much biking in my free time. Last summer, I went mountain biking with my parents in Moab, Utah, and I broke my elbow.
You’re primarily a track cyclist, but you recently won a gold medal in the road time trial at the Commonwealth Games. Is there a big difference between racing on the track and on the road? Which do you prefer?
I prefer the track, but I really enjoy the time trial on the road as well because it’s actually really similar to the kind of racing I was used to as a skier. The time trial for women usually lasts 30-45 minutes, which is right in the range of the typical event in cross-country skiing. And it’s just you and your bike on the road, which is something I like. But because road racing and track racing are different seasons, I am able to do both.
What are your plans for after London 2012?
Well, I have about two years left in my PhD, so I’d really like to go back and finish it.
Would you try to compete in Rio in 2016? Or maybe you’d like to try a different sport?
At a certain point there are other things I want to do in my life, but at the same time I love competing and training, so it’s hard to say.
Interviewer Paula Findlay is working on her undergraduate degree in science at the U of A and hopes to pursue a career in medicine. She is a Canadian national team triathlete, who recently won back-to-back World Championship Series races in London and Kitzbühel, Austria, and is currently ranked fifth in the world. Next up on her schedule is a World Cup race in Australia in March.