When New Zealand track cyclist Natasha Hansen rides the boards of the Olympic velodrome in London in a few weeks' time she will be doing it to honour the memory of her best friend.
Nicola Stock, a highly regarded teacher at Invercargill's Aurora College and the sister of Hansen's Invercargill-based coach Jerard Stock, died just over a week ago after a five-month fight with cancer.
Since Hansen shifted to Invercargill from Christchurch two years ago she and Nicola had become close friends and confidantes, Nicola providing a strong foundation as Hansen rediscovered her love of cycling and rode her way from relative obscurity to qualify for the Olympic Games.
It says much about Nicola's selflessness that she hid the severity of her illness from Hansen because she did not want to distract from her Olympic preparation, but there was no question in Hansen's mind that she would fly home from Europe last week in the middle of her Olympic buildup when she heard her mate had died.
"Losing somebody so close to me has been pretty traumatic and Nicola was obviously one of the reasons I'm going to the Olympics.
"She was a very significant part of my life over the past two years and when I found out the devastating news overseas there wasn't a single part of me that wanted to stay there," Hansen said.
"Wholeheartedly, I wanted to come home. When a life is taken away, everything gets put into perspective, and at the time I just thought to myself, although I'm going to the Olympics it is only one race and I needed to take the time over the past week to deal with my grief with my friends and family and then refocus."Hansen flies out of Invercargill this afternoon to rejoin the New Zealand sprint squad in Germany for one of the final shakedowns before the London Games.
"All Nic wanted for me was to be the best athlete I could be and go to the Olympics; I owe it to her to keep pushing through my training and keep being strong for her," she said.
"Before I went away and before I knew just how seriously ill she was I'd decided to dedicate my Olympic campaign to Nicola, so obviously now I've got even more motivation to keep pushing to be the best.
"I know that she is with me more than ever and I feel stronger having her presence with me. Going back I'll definitely be a stronger person and a stronger rider, far more motivated to make her proud."
Hansen said the reaction from BikeNZ management, including New Zealand sprint coaches Stu MacDonald and Justin Grace, and high performance manager Mark Elliott, had been phenomenal at such a difficult time.
"I was pretty surprised and taken aback just how supportive they were at the time," she said. "I honestly feel they went over and above to make sure I felt supported and to organise my flights for me to come back home.
"I explained my reasons for coming home and said if I didn't come home I'd regret if for the rest of my life, and when I said that they supported my decision.
"I'm so grateful to BikeNZ for allowing me to do this. They saw the bigger picture that for me to be the best I could be in London, this was what I needed. It showed me a different side, that they care for the things outside of cycling."
Article by Nathan Burdon, courtesy of The Southland Times