It’s been a daunting process for Rushlee Buchanan, making a new career after retiring from professional cycling. She’s now discovered a love of coaching, which has its own challenges, she tells Suzanne McFadden.
She’s a three-time Olympian, and four-time world championship medallist, who claimed silver on the cycling track at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
So why has Rushlee Buchanan been suffering from imposter syndrome?
One of New Zealand’s most celebrated track and road cyclists when she retired after the Tokyo Olympics, Buchanan admits she’s struggled with the transition from two decades as a professional athlete to a nine-to-five working life.
She left cycling “wanting nothing to do with coaching”, and needing a break from the sport that had consumed her for so long.
When her husband, American Olympic cyclist Adrian Hegyvary, would come home each day from his new job, coaching the New Zealand men’s endurance track team, Buchanan wouldn’t want to talk shop. It was all too hard.
* Mystics coach leaves for the sake of women’s sport
“When I retired, I had a lot to learn about life, and to figure out what I really wanted,” the 35-year-old Buchanan says.
“One of my biggest struggles was belonging and purpose. Every single day, I had that with a cycling team, and it was something I’d taken for granted.
“So when I didn’t have that I was pretty lost. But I decided to take my time to navigate through that – and I’m pretty grateful I did.”
Eighteen months later, and Buchanan has found her new path – as a cycling coach. She works fulltime at St Peter’s School in Cambridge, where she was once a student, and now is convenor of track, road and mountain bike cycling for the school known for its strong sporting culture.
She’s also part of a select band of coaches in Te Hāpaitanga, an 18-month programme designed to enable more Kiwi women to pursue a career in high performance coaching.
And even that’s been a challenge for Buchanan – who felt “a huge sense of imposter syndrome” when she first met the 14 other emerging coaches from 12 different sports.
Yet it’s already boosted her confidence: “Elite level coaching is 100 percent a goal of mine now, which I wouldn’t have confidently said six months ago”.
Buchanan hasn’t had to move far in her new career. She was among the first female riders in Cycling NZ’s high performance programme to be based fulltime at the Cambridge velodrome, which is right next door to St Peter’s.
She takes her young riders to the track a couple of times a week.
Having spent more than a decade racing on professional road cycling teams overseas, mostly in the United States, it’s no surprise Buchanan is drawn to coaching offshore in the future.
When she retired in October 2021, Buchanan turned to focus on completing her Master’s degree in sports management; she could see a future involved in athlete wellbeing and governance.
For her Masters, she carried out an independent review of the BMX programme in Cycling NZ.
“I’m a little embarrassed to admit I was a cyclist for 20 years or so and I knew very little about BMX,” Buchanan says. “I learned about this whole other community right here in Cambridge, and it opened my eyes to the journeys of these awesome athletes. Now I go to the BMX track and I follow them with interest.”
Buchanan is grateful her professor, Sarah Leberman – renowned for her work in women in sport leadership – challenged her academically.
Wanting to give more back to cycling, Buchanan started riding with kids at St Peter’s a few days a week after school. It was a brief taste of coaching, but she immediately loved it.
“It was so rewarding, and I could see instant feedback – making a difference in someone’s day,” she says. “I realised coaching could actually be quite cool, because you can have a huge impact on people’s enjoyment of the sport.
“It also gave me the confidence to think coaching was something I really could do.” So when the fulltime role came up as head of cycling at her old school, she leapt at the chance.
While she’s happy in her work, leaving the office to hit the road with the students, Buchanan still wishes her journey from athlete to employee had been a lot smoother.
“I’ve talked to other recently retired athletes who say the transition is something that’s not talked about enough,” she says. “It’s definitely an area sports could work on, but I understand everyone has their own journey and leaves sport at a different time. There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to follow.”
Buchanan had a strong support team around her, including an athlete life advisor. “Did I use all of it? Probably not… I was an independent athlete who thought I could do it myself,” she says.
“But I’m really glad I took my time going through it rather than rushing into work. I understand why people live for the weekends now.”
Buchanan admits she was “pretty hesitant” applying for the Te Hāpaitanga programme, run by High Performance Sport NZ.
“I still wasn’t convinced I was going to be any good as a coach. But I had some good people in my corner supporting me,” the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games team pursuit silver medallist says.
When Buchanan met with the other coaches in the programme in their first of five residentials (the opener was in Cambridge), she was “extremely nervous”.
“I’m still very young in coaching years, though not in a high performance sense. I was very aware of all the things I didn’t know. But I was obviously excited for the opportunity to be with these amazing women for the next 18 months and learn from them,” she says.
Te Hāpaitanga programme lead, Jody Cameron, recognises what Buchanan was going through.
“I’ve been an athlete who transitioned into coaching, and it took me a good 10 to 15 years to feel like I knew what I was talking about,” the former Tall Fern and Tauihi national league basketball coach says. “If Rushlee was an athlete starting out, she would be a novice at the beginning of her journey. It’s the same with coaching.
“She may have felt imposter syndrome because suddenly she feels she has to deliver. And if athletes are true to this journey, they suddenly realise how important the coach is, just how much work they do, and how clear the communication has to be.
“So the next step as a novice coach is to ask what do I know, and where are the gaps? They’re not meant to come out of Te Hāpaitanga as the best coach ever.”
The fledgling coaches also met three former elite coaches – Helene Wilson, who coached the Mystics to ANZ Premiership glory, Flying Fijians rugby coach Darryl Gibson and former New Zealand cycling head coach Craig Palmer. “Here are some real people who have performed on the highest stages and won. They know what it looks like,” Cameron says.
Buchanan found that first residential challenging, but in a different way than she’d anticipated. “I thought my coaching philosophies would be challenged, and I was excited about that,” she says.
“But it challenged me in a more personal sense. Some of the women were able to articulate their thoughts and speak confidently straight away, but I felt very overwhelmed.
“It was a big challenge to come out of my shell in the three days, so I had to push myself out of my comfort zone, which was good.”
Rushlee Buchanan and husband Adrian Hegyvary
It also made Buchanan realise she has a huge amount of high performance knowledge from her athlete days and her academic study. “I need more confidence to use it, and a better understanding of when and why I should use it,” she says.
She’d also like to extend her knowledge to coaching other sports. “I walk into a velodrome and it’s my home. But I need to go to Wanaka and work with snowboarding or work alongside the Magic netball team,” Buchanan says.
“I have the confidence now to want to work with the New Zealand cycling team, but I’d like to think I could work with a different sport, or go overseas and work and just have a bigger knowledge and experience base, not necessarily just in cycling.”
Now Buchanan is “super-interested” to talk to her husband of nine years when they’re home from work. “When we were athletes, we’d just talk about training, but now we talk about different coaching philosophies and periodisation training plans, and bounce ideas off each other,” she says.
“Sometimes it’s gets a bit much, so we have to say ‘stop’ and watch Married at First Sight.”
* Te Hāpaitanga’s third cohort: Janey Charlton and Anna Delong (rowing), Victoria Grant (rugby), Sara McGlashan (cricket), Ellie Tressider (snowboarding), Aimee Woodhead (swimming), Rushlee Buchanan (cycling), Nuree Greenhalgh (athletics), Alison Rowland (equestrian), Annalie Longo (football), Megan Thompson (water polo), Justine Reed (basketball), Anna Tasola-Andrews and Tia Winikerei (netball), Gabrielle Peach (weightlifting).