Donna Rae-Szalinski: Sport Director and enjoying every minute
Control the controllable, deal with the unexpected and have fun.
That more-or-less sums up the philosophy of Donna Rae-Szalinski when talking about her role as Sport Director with UCI Women’s Team Wiggle High5.
Her girls, as she refers to them, have nicknamed her Mama Bear. At 57 years old, she may be a mother figure, but she is a straight shooter and encourages the team to be the same. No beating around the bush. Tell it straight.
“I try to create a culture based on communication,” she explains. “There is nothing the girls can’t say to me if it’s said with respect and vice versa. We have lots of good discussions.”
She says the openness leads to constructive and positive post-race debriefing sessions, even if they can be quite intense depending on the situation.
“If they’ve had a good race, they usually chat on the bus on the way back to the hotel,” observes Rae-Szalinski. “But if things haven’t gone to plan, I let them settle down and we talk later.”
As the Sport Director points out, there is only one winner, and with the depth of talent in the women’s peloton, nothing can be taken for granted.
“Sometimes we might have the potential to win and we don’t. In those cases, we have to review the race, what worked, what didn’t and why. None of it is wasted if you sit down after the race and talk together.”
From competitor to coach to DS
A former competitive cyclist – she represented Australia in the late 1980s and early 1990s – Donna Rae-Szalinski has her own coaching business in Geelong, Australia, and has also worked as Sport Director for Cycling Australia and the Victorian Institute of Sport. In 2015, she completed a course for UCI Sport Directors (in French Directeur Sportif – DS) at the UCI World Cycling Centre in Aigle, Switzerland.
She didn’t hesitate for long when Wiggle High5 founder and team representative Rochelle Gilmore called her last year to offer her the position of DS.
“I’d just arrived back in Australia from Europe and was driving home from the airport when she phoned. I wanted to say yes immediately but given that my husband was in the car with me, I asked for a couple of days to discuss it with my family!”
Two weeks later Rae-Szalinski was back in Europe, working with one of women’s cycling’s most prominent teams racing in the prestigious UCI Women’s WorldTour. She had been thrown in at the deep end.
Straight into the thick of things
“I couldn’t have asked for a better welcome. The girls are amazing and so much fun to work with. They are also seasoned professionals. They can win races and I am fortunate to be working with them.”
One of her first events with Wiggle High5 was the 2016 Giro d'Italia Internazionale Femminile. Bingo. Team member Giorgia Bronzini won the first stage and the girls persuaded their new DS to celebrate with red wine, oblivious to the fact that she drinks very little alcohol and did not like red wine.
The week got no easier for the newest member of the team’s management: “We had a very successful Giro and by the end of the race I was ready to join Alcoholics Anonymous,” laughs the DS who has since learned to “tolerate” red wine.
After the Giro, her new team continued a successful season finishing second in the teams ranking of the UCI Women’s WorldTour. But Rae-Szalinski is always seeking to improve.
“I’m definitely still learning: learning about the girls and getting to know their strengths and also learning about the different events, especially the ones I haven’t been to before
“We always go into a race with a plan and we do everything we can to stick to that plan. It’s all about process. How will we race? How will the other teams race?
“Unexpected things can always happen, for example when a key rider punctures or crashes at a critical moment. It’s a matter of controlling the controllable and dealing with other situations when they happen.”
Ask her what she sees as the best part of her work, and the answer is out almost before you’ve finished the question: "Race day!"
"When the action starts and you’re in the convoy… I love it"
She adds: "And the minute you don’t love it, it’s time to get out. Yes, I get nervous but they are positive nerves. If you’re not nervous, it means you’re complacent and you shouldn’t be there.
“The other thing I love about my job is being with the girls, working with them, and figuring out how we can do things. We also have a lot of fun. That is something that Rochelle is adamant about. It should be fun. And it is!”
Rae-Szalinski says she is blessed to have the support of Assistant Sport Directors Martin Vestby and Alexandra Greenfield, the three working together to ensure all DS duties are carried out. Quite apart from race-day, this involves a great deal of administration and coordination, including liaison with hotels, communication with race organisers, organising team staff schedules and ensuring the well-being of the riders. Then there is the detailed research and study of the race routes, which she says has become very scientific. She enjoys it all.
The downside of her life as a DS? Maybe the 10-hour drives but above all being away for long periods from her family back in Australia.
“But it’s all part and parcel of the job.”
Exciting period for women’s cycling
She says she is fortunate to be involved in women’s cycling in what she sees as very exciting times. The professionalism of women’s cycling is a far cry from her own racing days.
“In my first year of racing on the road for Australia, we were given one jersey. At the Tour de France Féminin I had to wash my jersey in the shower at the end of each day and hang it out of the car window to dry,” she laughs.
“Things have come a long way, especially in the last two to three years with the UCI Women’s WorldTour and the increased media exposure."
She adds: “The women’s peloton in so good now. When you look at the number of teams with WorldTour wins, you can see that there is no one dominant team. Women’s racing is not predictable.
“It is so cool when everything comes together for the team but you can never be sure. Nobody can afford to be over-confident. It you have a win, that’s just great. You have to appreciate it. Then you pack it away and get ready for the next race!”