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The quiet achiever triumphs every day

Date

Chris Wilson

Sue Powell before winning the ACT Athlete of the Year award. Click for more photos

Sensational Sue Powell

Highlights from Sue Powell's rise to become the ACT's best athlete. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

A flat white on the coffee table in front of her, a walking stick to her right, the 45-year-old environmental scientist with the short, sensible haircut, tortoiseshell spectacles and a brace supporting her limp right leg is contemplating questions coming at her from left field.

Who is Sue Powell and how does a female, middle-aged, Paralympic cyclist get crowned ACT Sport's Athlete of the Year, for two years running? Furthermore, how does she really feel about that?

''To be honest, I'm in two minds about it,'' Powell, Australia's first gold medallist at this year's London Paralympics, admits.

''I'm sort of humbled that people put me up on that pedestal, but I don't know if that sits entirely comfortably.''

Before meeting Powell, I'd been told to expect a deep thinker. A person who doesn't say much, but analyses everything.

She is a doctor of philosophy and researcher who uses computer simulation to try to solve problems with the Murray-Darling Basin from her University of Canberra office. Powell is also a Paralympic cyclist and single, independent woman who deals best with life's problems when she's alone on her bike or walking her two-year-old Welsh springer spaniel.

''I don't know if I'm a loner, but I enjoy time out on the bike out in the mountains and I enjoy working away quietly in the office,'' Powell says.

And so, even as accolades are bestowed upon her, you start to get a sense of why Powell can't quite make sense of her true place among Canberra's sporting elite.

She doesn't carry the public profile of Raiders fullback Josh Dugan or Brumbies star Christian Lealiifano, or get asked to carry the Australian flag an opening ceremonies like basketball superstar Lauren Jackson.

Powell didn't immediately fit into the Paralympic world either. Until she was 40, she was just a talented sports all-rounder, hardly a star.

In her teens she turned down a sports scholarship as a cross-country snow skier to concentrate on her studies.

As a state level hockey goalkeeper, she moved from Canberra to Perth to try to make it into the national team, only to be told by Australian selectors that at 24 she was too old.

She dabbled in golf as a hobby and got her handicap down to six.

But she continued playing Canberra club hockey beyond her 40th birthday, then suffered the spinal chord injury that eventually destroyed the nerves delivering 50 per cent of power to her right leg.

Powell never considered the Paralympics, didn't think she was disabled enough. Only this year, five years on from her injury, has she begun using a crutch.

''It's taken me a long time to accept it and cope with it,'' Powell says of her disability.

''I walked around for a few years without any aids at all and things got a little bit worse, the back pain got a bit worse. Just recently I was encouraged to use crutches and stuff to get around. Understanding all that and now looking after myself a bit better, I think that was pivotal to the success in London.''

Asked why she had had been reluctant to use a crutch, Powell responds without fuss: ''I don't need it, I can cope without it. But as I've now discovered, I can actually do a lot more things if I just accept some of those limitations.''

Powell knows how to suffer. She embraces pain. It's a trait that makes her a special athlete.

ACT Academy of Sport cycling coach Glenn Doney, who has worked with some of Australia's premier cyclists, says Powell recovers from sapping training sessions as well as any professional cyclists he's worked with. He marvels at what he calls her ''mongrel factor'', or single-minded determination.

Powell's injury tells the story better.

Keeping in goals for Wests in club hockey in 2007, she came out to shut down a short corner and twisted awkwardly. She got up, stretched her back and thought she was fine. She played on.

''I went home and thought maybe I've torn my hamstring,'' Powell recalls. ''I went out and played the next week and my calf was really sore, it was really strange. By that stage it felt like I'd completely torn my calf and my hammy, but I'll be right, I thought.

''That went on for two or three weeks, getting worse and worse, by that stage my foot had started flopping around a bit.'' Two months later, after an MRI discovered a major disc herniation, Powell had surgery. It was too late.

''If you can have that decompression surgery fairly quickly, often the nerve can recover again but over time the blood supply starts to shut down and the nerve starts to die basically,'' Powell says. ''You can't go back in time. It hasn't turned out all bad.''

There's another story, more personal. Powell's father, Les, 81, travelled to London to watch his only daughter win gold in the women's individual pursuit and silver in the time trial. After the Games, father and daughter talked of her mother, Sally. ''My mum passed away in 2001, she was probably a bigger influence on me. It was quite a long time ago but I still miss her,'' Powell says, tears in her eyes.

''It was a long-drawn-out cancer. When you see someone go through that, stuff like this [her disability] is really quite minor. It doesn't stop me doing much, I can get on with life.''

After her injury, the bike was Powell's respite. She remembers the first ride back, strapping her all but paralysed right ankle with half a roll of tape so that it wouldn't flop off the pedal.

Soon after she met Sian Mullholland, a former elite cyclist and ACTAS coach, who took her to the Narrabundah velodrome in late 2008. At her first attempt, on the outdoor, concrete track, Powell went within seconds of the indoor world record for 500 metres. On the second attempt she went even faster.

''It was just a sense of watching her on the bike,'' Mullholland says. ''I may have commented to her at one stage, there's a lot of cyclists who are very fortunate she didn't find cycling when she was uninjured.''

Doney, who has taken over her coaching in the past 12 months, describes Powell as a ''genetic freak''. ''I would love to see what she'd be like if you take 20 years off her and she didn't have a disability. With her physical characteristics and mental toughness I have no doubt whatsoever that she would have been right up there in [able-bodied] elite cycling.''

Powell's eventual success in London was almost derailed by her stubborn reluctance to accept her limitations. It was after poor performances at the world championships in February that she decided to start using a crutch.

''I was having a few problems with my good leg and a few pain issues I was just muscling up to and trying to ignore,'' Powell says.

Powell's spine has continued to degenerate. Surgeons have recommended she have surgery to fuse two vertebrae and have an artificial disc inserted into her lumbar spine.

Powell is reluctant. She was to defend her titles in the road race and time trial at the world championships in Canada in August.

''The neurosurgeon's comment was 'You need to have surgery' but I need to have a think about that bit more,'' Powell says. ''I have to wait, anyway, with health insurance issues. I think at this stage I'll just continue to compete and train and if everything goes fine I'll keep putting it off until I actually feel like I need to have it.''

''It's quite major surgery, a couple of weeks in hospital and rehab. Realistically at my age I'm not that confident I'd come back from that to continue. It might make me better, but it's a long haul. I'm not in horrendous pain.''

Powell will be 49 if and when she decides to defend her Paralympic title in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

''Possibly, but I'm cagey with that answer,'' she says. ''It's a while off and it depends how the back holds up, whether I decide to have surgery and if I do, how well I come back from that. There's no point dreaming of Rio if I'm not going to be competitive.''

Powell hasn't picked up a single sponsor since London. She gets her bikes cost price from Trek, while On the Rivet Cycles in Tuggeranong helps with maintenance costs.

The gold from her London Paralympics medal is fading too, but in a good way.

''I've been visiting two or three schools a week, talking to kids. It's been through about a thousand sets of hands and some of the gold is rubbing off. It's gold-plated 97 per cent silver I think, but I sort of joke that some of that is rubbing off on the Canberra kids for the future.''

It helps answer that opening questions, about how Sue Powell really should feel about being crowned ACT Sport's Athlete of the Year, for two years running.

''In most states they give an athlete-with-a-disability award and it's almost like 'that covers their award, now we can look after the real sportsman','' Powell says. ''I think it's really nice for the ACT that we don't differentiate.''

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