I meet Kaarle McCulloch in the middle of a busy lunch session in the Bathurst dining hall. Plates clatter, people are screaming and laughing; there is a sense of chaos not dissimilar to that of a crowd at a sporting match.
Kaarle McCulloch, 29, is a champion track cyclist who began her cycling career at 17 and has competed in the Olympics and on the international stage. She is also part of Charles Sturt University’s Elite Athlete program and is currently completing a Bachelor of Education (Health and Physical Education) with CSU in what she calls an act of, “keeping the legacy going,” following in the footsteps of her family who are also teachers.
When Kaarle began her degree she aimed to be a teacher, however that has changed. She knows though that having a degree in teaching can “open a lot of doors” which will ultimately help when her cycling career ends. As she says, “I’ll probably go to the next Olympics [Tokyo, 2020] and then retire.” For Kaarle, with her retirement looming in the near future, the ability to study while still actively participating in her cycling is an “incredible opportunity”.
“I’m at that point in my career now where you have to look at life after sports,” she said.
Kaarle had attended three universities prior to her journey with CSU. She doesn’t have a disparaging word to say about them but admits that other universities placed a stronger emphasis on her academic career without acknowledging her position as an elite athlete with strong commitments to her continuing career.
“I wouldn’t say they didn’t respect that I was an elite athlete, they just didn’t understand it,” she explained.
She believes that CSU, through the Elite Athlete Program, has been the most accommodating of the universities she has attended and has allowed her to focus on her cycling commitments while still working towards her degree.
“I feel that Charles Sturt recognises that what I’m doing in my life is really important right now, but also getting that degree is important to me in the long run,” Kaarle said.
Kaarle is an advocate for young athletes to pursue a degree as well as their career. As she says, “it could all be over in an instant, the lifespan of an athlete is so short,” and she should know.
Three years ago Kaarle was dropped from the Australian team due to an injury that hampered her cycling career, before working her way back into the team. Knowing the career dangers first hand, Kaarle is vocal in her opinion that aspiring athletes continue their studies and would recommend the CSU Elite Athlete program to up-and-coming cyclists, but she admits that the pressures of the sports world on young people can are not always conducive to an academic career as well. This is where the elite athlete program has come into play, allowing flexibility in study options. “It’s working both ways and it’s working really well.”
“…There’s still a lot of athletes coming out of school just wanting to be a sportsperson. They get injured at 20 and then they don’t have anything else. I’m certainly a big advocate and a big ambassador for tertiary education in young sportspeople,” she said.
Kaarle says that having a university degree to focus on along with her cycling career has helped to alleviate some of the stresses that come with the high pressure environment of competitive sport.
“I think it just re-energises you and you can think more clearly which will obviously help your mental health.”
Outside of her cycling and academic work that takes up most of her time, Kaarle enjoys spending time on the family farm. She believes it’s important to have what she calls “the normal life,” one separate from both her professional and academic careers, and an opportunity to remove herself from the pressures of both worlds she is currently a part of.
She reflects upon her current life: “It’s a juggling act and you’ve got to learn how to balance it, but it is possible.”