Taking out her first Track World Championship win in 2019 in Apeldoorn in the Netherlands, Emily Petricola was on cloud nine. Accompanying this as one of the highlights of her career, was her time trial win at the Road World Championships as well as her gold medal win in the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
The past few years has been a whirlwind for para-athlete, who has been across the globe representing Australia. So it was no surprise that she was announced as AusCycling’s track para-cyclist of 2022 on Wednesday.
Petricola spoke exclusively to The Inner Sanctum about her career so far.
“[It] all was pretty satisfying all for different reasons. All highlights you know. It’s been a big journey,” Petricola told The Inner Sanctum.
It’s just one of the several accolades that Petricola has earned in recent times. In December, she was named as the Female Para-athlete of the Year award by the Australian Institute of Sport.
Petricola was “humbled” on the recognition when asked what the being nominated for the award meant to her.
“I guess like in terms of what it means to me, it’s one of these things [where] these awards are lovely to receive acknowledgement or recognition for the work that you do and the performances that you put in,” Petricola explained.
“It’s awesome. It makes you feel so loved, but it’s obviously not why I’m a part of the sport.
“Like [our] place in the sport, it’s a lovely, lovely recognition for the people who spend their whole life in sport, that what you’re doing is valued.
For Petricola, the achievement of flying the flag for the nation is something that still makes her “emotional” when she reflects on it. The vibrant para-athlete shared that in her younger years she had dreams of making the Olympic team as a rower.
But a sudden diagnosis of multiple sclerosis (MS) in 2010 disrupted the aspirations she’s had since childhood.
For Petricola, she admits that it “was a dark period” when she was first diagnosed with the disease. During the conversation, she opened up about the challenge she faced post-diagnosis. Over the span of six years, exercise was out of the question for her.
As she explained, her body would shut down at even the slightest attempt of physical activity. But a connection with Matt Ryan, made through her work with the Australian Olympic Rowing Team, that led to a shift in mindset for Petricola.
“[Matt Ryan] tried to help me get back into some exercise,” she recalled.
“He was asking me [about] the things that were stopping me. I complained about the heat and he was like ‘how do you go on a bike?
“The one thing that I felt like I could do, even when things were going pear-shaped, is turn my legs over on a bike”.
Petricola revealed that she initially had hesitations with “handling” due to her arms and hands not being functional anymore. But through persistence, and the support of Ryan, the para-athlete explained that it was what led her to aim for the Tokyo Paralympics.
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It was that persistence that soon saw Petricola make her debut at the Tokyo Paralympics in a stunning fashion. Her inaugural Paralympics saw her win the gold medal in the women’s 3000m individual pursuit C4. Petricola added to her medal haul after winning the silver medal in the women’s road time trial C4.
“Obviously, Tokyo was pretty incredible winning the gold medal. You know, that was always the aim,” she said.
“Actually achieving that was pretty phenomenal, and to do it comprehensively, it was really satisfying.”
Like many sportspeople, Petricola has dealt with her fair share of challenges and criticisms. During the conversation, she confessed that she uses this as motivation to keep pushing through the tough times.
One such time she used the criticism to fuel her ride was at the 2019 Road World Championships. Petricola explained that prior to her gold medal winning performance, many people doubted her ability to succeed on track. Going from being “pigeonholed as a track athlete” to winning the time trial was “pretty satisfying” according to her.
“As soon as someone says that you can’t, your natural inclination is ‘I’ll show you how much I can’t, let me show you’,” she said.
“I guess that that’s the way I’ve been brought about, my life [doesn’t] have to be a certain way. I get to choose that.”
Currently working at a school rowing program, Petricola shared that she’s already focused on her next big goal. Sporting-wise, she’s currently preparing for next year’s World Cup which will be held in Europe. Petricola is also hopeful for the 2024 World Championships too.
Following on from the success of the recent Paralympics, Petricola touched on the evolution of Paralympic sport. She believes that the games are “viewed different[ly]” now to what they once were in the past.
“I think that the beautiful thing about the Paralympics last year, and the opportunity that came with so many people being locked up in Australia, was being able to see what we do as athletes and how inspiring Paralympic athletes are,” she said.
“You know, I think people find it really relatable because everyone goes through hardships. You know, the hardships are different. But the way that you respond can be the same.
“Not everyone needs to come out and be a Paralympic athlete because they have MS or [cerebral] palsy, but you know, people do go through difficult moments in their life and it’s how you respond to it that determines the person that you are.
“I think that’s what the Paralympics really speak to. That spirit of resilience, and standing up to challenges that try and knock you over.”
She believes that there’s been significant exposure for the Paralympics, as media outlets like Channel Seven have helped to opened up athlete stories to the greater population. However, Petricola believes that there’s still a long way to go to be of “equal footing” to able bodied sports.
“It’s certainly not the commercial interest yet,” she says.
“From what I can gather, and I think that’s the next thing that will change.
“You know, it’s like women’s sports 20 years ago. It takes a while for this stuff to change, but you know I think the Paralympics was a really great springboard for that first step.”
Outside of sport, Petricola is also focused on “inspiring [potential] future Olympic sportspeople” as she is in the middle of school rowing season. She admits that it’s “pretty full on” at the moment.
When asked what she would like her legacy to be, Petricola is thinking close to home.
“I would really love for people to feel that I’ve made a difference, for people with MS.
“For them to see what’s possible, and [see] that you can still have a full life despite [living] with this horrific disease that’s still a piece of you.
“And I think from a Paralympics perspective, I would really love to be able to walk away from the sport, leaving it in a stronger position then what it was when I came in, in terms of becoming [a greater voice for the community].
“Making sure that there’s greater recognition from the sporting community and for the sporting organisations that fund us. I would really love to have a positive impact in that space as well. So yeah, I think those are probably the two big ones.”
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