Story written by Sophie Smith - SBS, Cycling Central. Twitter: @SophieSmith86
Grace Sulzberger was so frail two years ago she physically couldn’t get on a bike let alone ride one.
I had an eating disorder, I was bulimic, and losing all that weight I physically could not ride the bike anymore. - Grace Sulzberger
“I remember my mum walking into the hospital room and that’s when I realised, ‘What am I doing to myself?’
“When I saw her look at me that was the breaking point; I thought I either get better now or I’m going to die from this. I decided I wanted to get better and recover,” Sulzberger said.
The 22-year-old is speaking to Cycling Central from the Mars Australian national road championships launch in Melbourne and means business when she says she’s going to Buninyong, Victoria next month to win.
In her first year back on the road after a hiatus Sulzberger won the women’s National Road Series (NRS) and as of next year will compete in Europe as part of the AIS team.
The Tasmanian was one of three (from 17) women to make the cut and earn a scholarship following a gruelling two-week selection camp in Adelaide last month - the program for which was based on an SAS model.
Sulzberger says her life-threatening fight with bulimia is something she has to live with as she aspires toward Olympic Games and world championships selection next season and, one day, success at the Giro Donne.
Cycling is in Sulzberger’s blood with her older brothers Wesley and Bernard both professionals for GreenEDGE and Raleigh, respectively.
Sulzberger’s love for cycling has been a motivating factor for her success throughout the season but it was also her involvement with the sport that helped instigate a health battle, which at its lowest point saw her weigh in at less than 40kg.
“Definitely when I went to hospital that was my lowest point,” Sulzberger said.
“I was pretty much on my death bed. It took a long time to recover from that just building my body back up and my muscles.
“I had an eating disorder, I was bulimic, and losing all that weight I physically could not ride the bike anymore.
“I went down the wrong path. I think it was from a coach’s comment it sort of started. I had a break and put on a couple of kilos, as you do as a cyclist, and I lost that weight and just kept going with it. It is a mental disease; it became an obsession and something I had to overcome.
“It was very hard but I feel now I’m so much physically and mentally stronger. I think it’s something I’m going to have to live with for the rest of my life and obviously it’s in the back of my mind but I feel like I’m strong enough now and it’s not going to overcome me again.”
However, it’s not that memory that has made Sulzberger so fierce on the road this year with the Pure Tasmania and Deloitte TIS outfit with whom she won the Canberra Women’s Tour.
In the lead-up to the 2011 season and after being back on the bike for a month, maybe less, Sulzberger went on a 150km training ride from Launceston to Greens Beach with her brothers and Tasmanian Milan – San Remo champion Matt Goss.
“I think that’s what got me going – training with them,” she said.
“There was quite a big hill coming up and I was counting down how many hills we had to go home. I remember Bernard looking back at me and saying, ‘Do not drop that wheel. You will not drop that wheel’.
“I was struggling all the way but I stayed on and then he looked back at me and he’s like, ‘Oh My God, she stayed on’. He said to me, ‘We were going to wait if you dropped off’.
“I was very determined. I think going through that, I had that always in the back of my mind. If I had any pain I thought back to that thought – never drop the wheel, never drop the wheel. I pushed myself all year.”
Sulzberger showed selectors her potential at the recent AIS selection camp, which, despite all she has been through, she says is the hardest mental and physical challenge she has undertaken.
The camp started with four consecutive days of lab testing before the first cut and later a 170km bike race, which saw Sulzberger put about two minutes into four breakaway companions to win.
“The next day we had motor pacing, racing and then another cut so another five left and then it was down to team racing. We had a 100km team time trial the next day.
“I found it really hard they didn’t give us any feedback either after the racing, it was just silent treatment. We also went through some pretty hectic testing – questionnaires about ourselves pretty much just drilling us to see our personalities and if we’d fit in with the team members.
“It got down to the last day and there was five of us left and we still didn’t know if we had a spot. We left the camp still not knowing and then I got the call the next day.”
Next season will see Sulzberger work on her sprint with the London Games a focus as well as working with the fledgling GreenEDGE women’s outfit.
“I haven’t got much of a sprint at the moment but in the past I have so it’s something I’m trying to work on now and trying to get back,” she said.
“The AIS – it is a separate team but we’ll be working with the GreenEDGE girls as well so I might go race with them or they might drop down and race with us and mix in. We’ve got a full season in Europe (next) year.”
Sulzberger resumes full training this week after her successful AIS selection campaign and with the 102km Australian women’s road race on January 7 in her sights.
“That’s my goal, I’m going there to win,” the self-proclaimed all-rounder said.
“I love hill-climbing. I’m looking forward to the nationals. I’m going to have a really big dig there. It takes me a while to warm in to the race – maybe 40-50km – then I’m in to the race.”
And as she has proven this year, she is capable of achieving anything she puts her mind to.
“I think the more success I had the better I went. I thrived off that and trained harder and just wanted more success,” she said.
"I've been through the works and come out the other side. I'm just so lucky. A lot of people don't talk about it and it's so common these days, you don't realise how many people have eating disorders. A lot of people hide it when they have recovered but I feel like I want to talk about it because I want to show people that you can get better and bring success to yourself.
"The passion for cycling - I just love it. It's amazing to be back. It feels like I've just started again. It's all new and exciting and I'm really loving it."
Sulzberger will begin the new season at the Jayco Bay Cycling Classic.