An unassuming para-cycle champ

Coffee addict. Photo Margaret Francis.
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Alistair Donohoe’s road to elite athlete was anything but smooth sailing. Margaret Francis reports.

Soft-spoken and unassuming, Alistair Donohoe looks exactly the part of the Melbourne hipster. Cycling spandex donned, dark blonde hair cut into a mullet to rival the best ’80s tribute band and mustache to boot, you’d be forgiven if you missed him among locals in Brunswick.

A cursory google of his name will give you the basic details on Alistair’s career. Twenty-four years-old from Nhulunbuy, Northern Territory, seven times world para-cycling champion, two times Paralympic silver medallist in Rio 2016 and, most recently, gold medal winner in the Men’s Time Trial C5 at the World Para-cycling Championships in the Netherlands. By all accounts, he’s a pretty impressive 20-something. When asking his coach, he’s “the best para-cyclist in the world”.

But any pre-conceived ideas you may have about Alistair’s ego are out the window the second you see him talking to those around him. A genuine smile and no air of self-importance, is with him wherever he goes, including the local coffee shop. A self-professed coffee addict, it’s no surprise he’s struck up a good friendship with the baristas, greeting them like old friends with genuine smiles and handshakes all around.

He’s been back in Australia for a week since the World Champs and he’s already itching to get back overseas for the next competition, something he cites as potentially one of his biggest weaknesses. A sporadic job that requires a lot of travelling means maintaining relationships is difficult, especially with a work ethic like his. He’s working on trying to switch off from cycling. “Cycling can be an all-consuming sport, but it doesn’t have to be,” he says.

Training ride. Photo Margaret Francis.

Alistair and coach Nick Owen are in agreement when it comes to this. The thing that initially set him apart from the crowd and made him a great cyclist, is now what hinders further progress. Not only is cycling a physically draining sport, it’s also mentally taxing. “There are parts of the year where it’s really hard to be a normal person,” he says. With stringent diet plans and tactical training schedules, it’s hard to switch off even during a social family dinner. Even everyday activities like walking the dog have to be carefully considered; more time on your feet means you’re more tired and less productive for training the next day. However, despite its cons, “when I’m sitting there [at] some lake’s edge in Italy, this is pretty amazing that I can call this work”.

Alistair’s progression into professional cycling could be seen as inevitable. “I did everything under the sun when I was a kid – athletics, gymnastics, rugby [but] settled into triathlon through my parents”. Never a fan of the swimming side, cycling drew Alistair in, participating in all forms including BMX and mountain biking, though it wasn’t until he was older that he started focusing on velodrome and road cycling.

His perseverance was clear from a young age, despite suffering a major injury to his right arm, ripping through 90 percent of his triceps and 70 percent of his bicep – causing major radial nerve damage – at age fourteen. Thankfully his young age gave his nerves a chance to re-pattern themselves as he grew, but even while having no movement in his hand, he didn’t let that stop him living his active teenage life. “It’s just an injury […] As soon as my hand started working again, I was back on the bike”.

Outside of cycling, helping people is one of Alistair’s biggest passions; a testament to his upbringing. He talks about his mother with evident admiration and love. After the death of his father his mum “pretty much single-handedly raised five kids”. A seemingly incredible woman; CEO of a not-for-profit organisation – a rooming house for disadvantaged people – it’s clear to understand why she’s his biggest inspiration (besides Cadel Evans) and where he gets his true desire to help people. If he ends up being even half as good as his mother is, he says, he’ll be happy.

The loss of his father through a freak electrocution accident when Alistair was only 11 also gives him his incredible drive in his cycling. Although he doesn’t think he understood the significance of the loss at the time, it spurred him forward with his training and especially through Rio 2016 where he says he did most of his handling of the grief. Now, “It’s a joy of my dad that’s probably driving me forwards [to Tokyo]”.

Alistair’s buzzing with excitement at the prospect of another Paralympic Games. Rio was overwhelmingly difficult, feeling lost in the Olympic Village after one of his close friends tested positive to drugs in his system, so he has no idea what Tokyo will be like. Of course he’s gunning for the gold, but winning the medal isn’t for him; it’s all about what he can do for others.  “The most important thing to me is, what do I do with the results I get? If I win at Tokyo, how can I use that in a positive way? How can I use that to help people?”