Four years ago Laura Heywood walked into a velodrome for the first time. Next month she'll take on the world in Korea. NATHAN BURDON explains.
Laura Heywood had tried nearly every sport going before getting her first taste of track cycling four years ago.
''I was playing every sport under the sun, it was absolutely horrific and I don't know how Mum and Dad were managing to support me.
"They probably had their heads in their hands because my sister [Katie] was a superstar in netball and basketball. It was like her ... and then me at the bottom,'' Heywood said.
''I came into the sport sort of sideways. [Girls' High teacher] Dave Beadle had these track sessions and I used to go to them. Usually people get into it through their families, but I just progressed and progressed.''
The initial signs weren't great, however.
Heywood struggled to make the transition from the comfort of the flat grey strip at the base of the velodrome to the intimidating steepness of the banked corners.
''When I got onto the track it was such a thrill. The adrenaline was pumping and all that kind of thing,'' Heywood, who was coached for the first couple of years by Mike Cooper, said.
''It's such an overwhelming feeling. I started riding and racing and I could foot it with the guys that had been riding for a while. It just grew from there.''
Next month Heywood will be one of three Southland riders included in a 14-strong BikeNZ team for the junior world track championships in Korea.
The August 8-12 championships will be preceded by a 2 1/2-week camp at the BikeNZ base in Cambridge
''It's a chance to show myself on the world stage. I get very excited when I think about it. Even talking about it now I've got a big smile on my face.''
Heywood's family have previously billeted top New Zealand cyclists during their stays in Invercargill and she was a medal girl when the junior world championships were staged in Invercargill in 2012.
For five days it was her job to hand over every silver medal at those championships and she'd love to be on the receiving end in Korea.
Most of all, though, Heywood just loves to race.
''Even Tuesday night racing, I just love racing. It's the thrill and the unknown - the buildup and then those two minutes or 20 minutes where all your training pays off and you get the result.''
BikeNZ junior coach Ross Machejefski first spotted Heywood in that Girls' High school group as part of his talent identification role.
''She's quite a good all-rounder, she's probably the best bunch racer in the group, which gives her plenty of options. I remember watching her ride the IP at the under-17 nationals with a broken arm in a cast - and still winning that, so she's pretty tough.''
Pushed into describing herself as a rider, Heywood focuses on the mental side of the sport she has worked on with Academy Southland manager Jason McKenzie.
''I'd say I'm very determined, and positive. I do everything to the best of my ability and try to get what I want. I always work hard.''
There have been sacrifices on the way to Korea for Heywood, who has had to overcome cold and stomach bugs during her training this year.
Many of her friends are into their first year at university, while Heywood has remained in Invercargill to focus on her training, along with a part-time job at Allan White Sports.
''I work about 20 hours a week, it keeps me busy and it means it's not all cycling, or all work. [Cycling] can consume your whole life if you let it and a lot of people burn out. You have to balance it.
"Lots of my friends are at uni this year and it's really exciting to see them in the holidays. My sister is at uni so I hear about what it's like - you've just got to understand that this is your path and not get taken away by someone else's lifestyle.''
Photo and article courtesy The Southland Times