Anna Meares was fearless in the velodrome, scrutinised by thousands of people and under pressure to pull off a gold-medal ride.
But in a small Adelaide art studio, surrounded by eight other beginners and staring at a blank canvas?
“I couldn’t start it,” Meares said.
“The teacher came over and asked if I was okay, and I just handed her the paintbrush and said, ‘Can you just make the first mark, just get me started?’
“She wobbled something on the canvas … and I’m like, ‘Great, now I can work with that’.”
Pushing the comfort zone
After decades of strict training routines, meal plans and working with coaches, Meares was frozen by the endless possibilities.
The beginners’ painting class came a few months after her retirement from elite-level cycling in 2016.
It was a chance to revisit a hobby that had rivalled Meares’s love of sport when she was a teenager, growing up in Rockhampton in central Queensland.
Meares has since returned to elite sport as part of the leadership team at the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games and will be Australia’s chef de mission for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.
But that first class was a turning point in Meares’s personal life post-sport, the catalyst for new friendships and renewed self-confidence.
“It was hard to start something new because I had expectations – and believed that everyone else had expectations – that I was going to do anything again at the same level I had done in sport,” she said.
“It’s learning skills from the base level, it’s having conversations and asking for help, it’s having a go making mistakes so that you can actually learn and progress yourself further forward.
“We tend to fall into habits of comfort … and the fear of being uncomfortable can sometimes stop us from even trying something new.
“I think it’s really nice in safe ways, and creative ways, to push the boundaries again.”
Imperfections give pieces character
A few months later Meares decided to try pottery with friend and neighbour Carol Coffey.
“The first thing they said is, ‘Look, we’re having no Ghost moments in this class’,” Meares said.
“My first [piece] was a bit wonky and I had a few that just fell over.
“The first one that I did make really fell apart [when I was] trying to get it off [the wheel].”
Despite these first hiccups, Meares finished the beginners’ course with four or five pieces she still uses now.
“The hard part is when you go through sport, and you get to a really high-performance level like I did, where everything was clicking after 22 years, to then go and start a completely new set of skills and hobbies from scratch, was really frustrating and patience is not my best virtue,” Meares said.
“So, it taught me more patience and mindfulness.
“It’s just the ability to turn my head off to really get into a creative space to just sit, be present, and focus on trying to make something.”
The shed in Meares’s backyard soon became an art studio.
“In the end, I liked [pottery] so much that I sold my sauna – which I had as an athlete – to buy myself my own wheel,” Meares said.
She and Carol quickly established a weekly pottery night, giving them both a break from the evening parenting routine and letting them hone their skills.
“I just feel proud of myself that I was able to do it and able to make it,” Meares said.
“I can get creative for my family and the more that I do that, the more confidence I get.
“And funnily enough, people aren’t after perfect pieces, they’re after wonky pieces because they have character.
“I think that’s actually quite powerful for not just what we have in our lives, but who we have in our lives: we don’t look for perfection, we look for character.”
Finding a new pottery community
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Meares and her family moved to New Zealand earlier this year, but the new adventure came with a caveat – the at-home pottery studio had to be re-created.
Pottery is also proving to be a great way to make new friends, with Meares’s neighbours eager to give the wheel a go.
“I think mine might be a ‘come and try’ shed,” she joked.
“Like our pottery nights back in Adelaide I will have a red wine or white wine, and water bubbles, for people to just relax and have some nibbles as well.
“You know, sometimes when you make new friends it’s hard to have a new conversation because you just don’t know them.
“It might sound silly, but sometimes it just takes one thing to get a foot in the door and then you know, a great friendship can blossom from there.”