By Laura Brown, 2016 Olympic medalist & Assistant NextGen Track Coach
It was a mother’s intuition that pushed Laura Brown to cycle. Little did she know that the days practicing at the Calgary velodrome would result in Brown becoming a Rio 2016 Olympic medalist and a NextGen coach.
Picking up cycling at 14 years old, Brown’s mother signed her up for the “Fast and the Curious” program at the Glenmore Velodrome to get kids to try out cycling. But, it wasn’t love at first ride.
“I was really terrible at it,” explains Brown. “It was just a bunch of boys and I really didn’t like it at first. But my mom, bless her heart, just made me go. And then I fell in love with it, and that was over 20 years ago.”
After a successful career, including several world cup and world championships medals, Brown crossed the finish line for the last time in 2018. Just a year after her retirement, she began coaching full time. The transition came with its difficulties – struggling with imposter syndrome despite her expertise and obvious knowledge of the sport. “I was fully backed and supported by Cycling Canada, yet I felt like I didn’t really know my place,” Brown explains.
Brown, who previously was a gymnast, realized how male dominated cycling was when she started. She says she witnessed and experienced gender discrimination as both an athlete and a coach. Initially coming from a sport like gymnastics — which is predominately female — and being surrounded by Olympic legends like Cindy Klassen and Catriona Le May Doan growing up, she says the switch to cycling and the lack of women within it was unfamiliar and uncomfortable.
“When I was a rider, [coaching] was an intimidating profession. From the outside looking in, it didn’t appear that women had a place trackside,” Brown says. “You can’t be what you can’t see.”
Recounting her first World Cup in 2019 in Minsk as the lead coach, Brown noticed the stark lack of women at the manager’s meeting.
“It was a room of 50 men and me. I had questions because there’s a lot of information, and it was my first one, but I didn’t ask them,” says Brown. “I was like, ‘I don’t feel like I belong here’ I felt like I was going to be judged.”
She explains that the meeting wasn’t the only instance where she felt intimidated. Both her and NexGen Lead Coach, Jenny Trew, received odd glances and comments belittling their abilities as coaches, in a profession and sport dominated by men.
“Jenny and I were in Switzerland, and people were commenting things like, ‘This isn’t a job for women,’ or ‘Where is the head coach?’ because they assume they’re male. And I know we are competent coaches.”
After a few years in the role, Brown is recognizing that being a coach doesn’t change her extensive background, knowledge and qualifications.
“[I am] trying not to see myself as a ‘female coach’ but rather a good coach and owning that space. I feel I have a unique history and can offer a different point of view and approach.”
As Brown navigates through this new world, she also wants to serve as a role model and source of inspiration for younger cyclists, just like what she ha growing up. According to a Canadian Women in Sport study, one in three girls drop out of sport by the time they’re 16 years old.
Brown has witnessed this statistic first-hand and wants to help change that by supporting and encouraging young girls and women.
“I couldn’t imagine a life without sport, and I know some people don’t have the opportunity to do sports, or they drop out prematurely and it breaks my heart, because it’s changed my life. As an athlete and now as a coach, it’s what I do, and I love riding my bike.
Even as a coach, the appreciation for the sport hasn’t changed, as she creates new goals for herself and witnesses her athletes’ accomplishments. Her fondest memory to date was coaching at the Track World Cup in Milton and seeing her athletes perform on the world stage.
“Coaching that bronze medal ride last January in Milton was so special. That team was a NextGen team and went so fast on home soil. I got to compete at the Pan Am Games in Toronto, and to race for a medal on your home track is so rare. So, to see those young men get to experience that; and being a part of it from the other side as a coach was extraordinary. I know the way they felt when they crossed that line and saw they had won a medal.”
With more memories and goals to be conquered, Brown hopes the sport will see more diversity and equality, knowing women need more opportunities as athletes and professionals, not only in cycling but in sports across the board. “[We need to] have more women in senior management positions; have more women on the board of sports clubs and organizations.”
She hopes that more women move into the cycling space and that we can get to a place where nobody questions why they are in the room. “Being a woman in coaching is hard because there’s not a lot of us. So, hopefully people like Jenny and myself can inspire other female athletes and coaches.”
Special contribution in celebration of International Women’s Day.