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Donna Rae Szalinski: “Having many talented athletes in one team is a gift not a problem”

Wiggle High5 Sports-Director Donna Rae-Szalinski was born on 3 June 1959 in Moncton, New Brunswick Canada. The 57-year old moved to Australia in 1983 to do her PhD however she discovered cycling part way through her PhD and turned that into her new career. Donna is a sports-director and runs her own coaching company in Geelong, Australia where she lives with her family (husband and sons).

Donna grew up in a loving family environment with two older sisters (Gail – 10 years older, unfortunately passed away & Karen – 8 years older) and one older brother (Danny – 2 years older). When she was a child she had spent a lot of time in the family’s summer cottage at the beach near Moncton.

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Donna spent six years at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada completing a Bachelor of Physical Education degree and a Master of Science degree. Although she initially dreamed of being a Physical Education teacher, she turned to coaching as her career. If she wasn’t involved in cycling she would likely be teaching at a university near Geelong.

Not everything in Donna’s life has been positive. In 2011 she lost her youngest son Jono (she has two other sons, Daniel 23 and Christopher 21) in a tragic accident. But despite losing a loved one she is a true inspiration in how she deals with such a loss. “Having faced adversity in my personal life has taught me that life is a gift which we should embrace – make the most of every day, surround yourself with positive people and have no regrets. I can’t change what happened, but I can control how I go forward. I chose to devote myself to helping people as an athlete and person. That gives me a lot of satisfaction and it certainly helps me keep going.”

Competitive Sports
At first she combined coaching while being a competitive cyclist in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. She retired from competitive cycling in 1992 after having represented the Australian National Team from 1986 until 1992, mostly on the road and occasionally on the track. She picked up cycling while rehabbing from stress fractures in her feet incurred while completing the Gold Coast Marathon. She loved it so much that she continued with cycling.

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Donna was lucky to have the opportunity to compete in the Tour de France Feminin in 1986, 1987 and 1988. The women were lucky in that they were able to race the same number of days as the men but over shorter distances covering part of the men’s stage each day. For her it was an incredible experience that she still cherish to this day.

But cycling and running are not the only sports she has done. In university she did other sports including cross country running, basketball and field hockey.

Coaching
Apart from being a sports-director Donna has her own succesful coaching business in Geelong, Australia called Cycle Edge. She explains: “I run indoor training sessions on custom built ergos which monitor power, heart rate etc. I also do physological testing, bike set up and personal coaching. Cycle Edge started 15 years ago and absolutely love my time interacting with the people who come into the business. Obviously I am there less these days so I value the times when I get back to ‘crack the whip’ at a few ergo sessions.”

“I am lucky to have competent and caring people working Cycle Edge on my behalf while I am away – they treat the business with great respect and have my complete trust.”

Coaching is a delicate balance of art and science according to Donna. “It is the combination of accumulating knowledge then imparting it through effective communication with your athlete. I also believe a good coach empowers their athletes, helping them grow in their understanding of all aspects of their performance.”

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With being a coach for over 20 years and having her own company for 15 years Donna has coached a lot of athletes in her career and with some big successes. Not only on the road but also on the track, mountain bike and in cyclocross. “The highlights in my career thus far would definitely include winning the World Championships in 1995, 2011 & 2014. I have also experienced great joy in domestic competitions – it is the DS/Coach to athlete/team journey that motivates me.

Director Sportif
Next to being a coach Donna is also a successful Director Sportif or Sports-Director. Currently she is the head director of the Wiggle High5 Pro Cycling team of manager Rochelle Gilmore. She also has directed various Australian National Teams, The High5 Dream Team and the Victorian Institute of Sports (VIS) with lots of success.

She directed Australia’s High5 Dream Team to the top of the National Race Series in its inaugural season in 2015 and again in 2016 (shared with fellow DS Kim Palmer).

In Europe, Rae Szalinski’s experience includes directing the Australian National Team to numerous world class results including a stage win at the Route de France 2015 and a win at the GP Plumelec in 2016. The results her riders achieved over the last year played an integral role in ensuring Australia would start with four riders at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games in August.

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After having successfully finished her UCI Sports-Director course in the end of 2015 Donna joined the Wiggle High5 team in the middle of 2016 to replace Dutch Egon van Kessel. Van Kessel has had an impressive run of results with Wiggle High5 in 2015 most notably winning the Tour of Flanders. He also directed the team to three additional World Cup wins that season: Ronde van Drenthe, Tour of Chongming Island and the Open de Suede Vårgårda.

However Rae-Szalinski had a positive influence on the team’s results from the start with winning four stages in the prestigious Giro Rosa and the win of Chloe Hosking in La Course by Le Tour. “I was incredibly lucky in 2016. Winning a stage in the Santos Women’s Tour (Kimberley Wells) with the High5 Dream Team was a great start. This was followed by a stint with the Australian Senior Development Team which included victory in the GP Plumelec (Rachel Neylan), a UCI category 1.1 event. Winning 4 stages of the Giro with Wiggle High5 was amazing and certainly winning la Course by le Tour de France was one of my most memorable days as a DS thus far.”

Donna believes that her introduction to the full time European season carried a few ‘lessons in life’ and was a steep learning curve. But as in normal life, in cycling you need to learn from every opportunity. “If success is defined by ‘winning’ as a coach or DS you will have many more failures than successes. No failure or ‘flop’ is wasted if it provides an opportunity to learn and grow. I definitely learned some valuable lessons in 2016 with the step up to the full time European peleton. I also believe that you should never stop learning – cycling is evolving so quickly and as a DS or coach the quest for knowledge should never stop.“

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When asking about the transition from being a sports-director on a domestique team or a national coach to being a full time director at one of the World’s best women’s teams. Donna says: “The transition to full time in Europe has presented both work and personal challenges as well as rewards. On a personal level I am lucky to have a supportive family who support my move to Europe. When my children were young I did not travel extensively as I wanted to be their full time Mum. On a work level it is a dream opportunity to be involved with a talented team of professional athletes who are well educated and motivated.”

2017 Season
2017 will be Rae-Szalinski’s first full season as sports-director of the Wiggle High5 Pro Cycling team. She will be one of the three sports-directors next to Norwegian Martin Vestby and Britain’s Alex Greenfield. One of the main goals is to win as many races as possible but the key to that success is not as simple as it looks.

“For 2017 the aim is to deliver a professional environment for the Wiggle High5 team, with well educated staff and top class equipment which will assist our talented riders in performing to their best and winning races.” 

“Having so many talented athletes in one team is a gift not a problem. With good communication and team culture all riders support each other and work to achieve the best results for the team. I was very impressed with how well the team committed to each other in 2016 and look forward to this continuing in 2017.”

Through out my coaching career I have advised athletes to focus on the correct processes as a means of achieving goals/results. This also applies to my goals for 2017. Of course a goal is to win asmany races as possible, but our focus will be on the processes required to to do so.”

“In the long term my goal is to continue enjoying the passion of cycling and enjoying the challenges of elite performance. The minute I stop feeling the passion for cycling is the time I will walk away.”, Rae-Szalinski will start the 2017 season with the Wiggle High5 team in Australia with the Santos Tour Down Under (Jan 14-17).

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