Fri. Mar 31st, 2023


The Real News Network

What happened to Olivia Podmore? Deceit, despair and the death of an Olympian

52 min read

The death of 24-year-old cyclist Olivia Podmore the day after the Tokyo Gamesshocked the nation. Over the four months since her death, reporter Tom Dillane has spoken to family, friends and numerous sources inside and out of Cycling NZ. Podmore’s own life was both exceptional and ordinary. An outstanding athlete, she also faced many of the trials of an ordinary teenager and young adult. Flirtation with drugs, abortion, and the battles to rise to the top of her sporting field. The crushing disappointment often part of that ambition and a string of personal misfortunes all silently converged to a tragic end.

She was full of playful jokes to the end. They never let her down.

Fresh off an exuberant, boozy weekend in Queenstown, a running gag from the night before was tauntingly picked up again with her housemate and friend.

“Hey sugar daddy thanks for a great weekend. I’ll send you some foot pics later” the text read on Sunday, August 8.

Andrew McLean smiled at the message in his phone now separated by 1000km in his Cambridge residence.

He had caught a flight home early, grappling with a hangover felt among all their ski group.

The text sender, Olivia Podmore, was somewhere in the South Island in transit, flying from Queenstown to Christchurch airport, where she would briefly unite with her mother before also returning to Cambridge, where she flatted in McLean’s house.

“We went out on the Saturday night and, I mean, I look a decent 39 and she looks beautiful,” McLean says.

“So we’re out at this bar just her and I and there’s random dudes, and they said ‘oh, what’s your deal?’ and I said ‘oh, I’m her sugar daddy’ and they said ‘oh how does that work’ and I said ‘oh well she sends me foot pics and I give her money, take her out for dinner, she’s come down here learning to snowboard’.

“Liv was playing along with it, we’re toying with these guys, we’ve got them on the line.”

The one true part of their story was that Podmore learning to snowboard, and it included a small posse of friends rounded out by two-time Olympic gold medallist Eric Murray and his partner, Thea.

The days leading up their night on the town had been spent on the slopes of Coronet Peak with a novice Podmore already traversing the top mountain runs after a single lesson on the Friday morning.

Pleas from the more experienced group of skiers to stand up straighter as the Olympic athlete descended were blissfully ignored.

“We had this great afternoon on the mountain. She learned how to snowboard. She was nailing it, she was having a great time. As we used to joke about, she’s ‘living her best life’,” McLean says.

Down in the cafe, McLean ran into an old Christchurch friend with his wife, who were charmed by Podmore’s attention to their 5-year-old daughter, Florence, while the rest of them chatted.

“Just asking questions that you ask a 5-year-old: ‘what school do you go to? Who’s your teacher? How old are you? Blah blah blah’ All those sort of questions she was super engaged with her. She wasn’t off … withdrawn.”

But what Murray remembers of that more sombre Sunday alongside the 24-year-old Podmore on the same flights out of Queenstown was in retrospect, a bit erratic.

“Just her mood in the last [days]. Like even when we were down in Queenstown,” Murray says.

“I thought she was just hungover from our big night we had on Saturday night. But of course she was real quiet and she was real happy and then real quiet and then real happy. So it was just up and down a lot. And it wasn’t until obviously after, my partner said ‘man she was real up and down on that Sunday’. Of course, at the time we’re all just having a great time, we’re not really analysing everyone’s behaviour. It’s not until you get back and you see, [she’s] just sitting there not really chatting much. Maybe it was like the decision making going on in her head. So yeah, it’s just one of these things you look back on and you do the old hmm … “

That Sunday also marked the end of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Sprint cyclist Podmore had trained for four years but failed to qualify. Less than 24 hours later, she was found dead in the renovated sleep-out garage of McLean’s Cambridge home.

In a post on Instagram she described “Andy” McLean as a lifeline of friendship and support that allowed her to get through an extra year.

But the 400-word message also revealed the pain and anger she only publicly opened up to the world 10 minutes before she left it.

The angst in the words was so palpable it sent local friends rushing to her address on the outskirts of Cambridge.

McLean pauses then repeats a version of the mantra about suicide that there are often no easy single explanations.

Mental health experts stress the reasons are varied and complex. Podmore’s life was in many ways a messy accumulation of personal burdens she hid with her ambition and verve.

“You know a lot of people said to me ‘what a nice thing that she said she lasted a year-that’s basically down to you,” McLean says.

“And I mean, yeah … it means nothing now because she’s not still around. So I just sort of look at it and think it’s an absolute mystery and always will be.”

Two months on, McLean can still not make sense of Podmore’s final days he had such proximity to. He is at least resigned to the lack of warning signs.

But he keeps revisiting that cheeky final text message from Podmore as an encapsulation of his confusion.

“I’m just thinking f***ing hell, the coroner is going to be looking at that and just think ‘what was their relationship?'” McLean says with a sigh of sad, exasperated black humour.

“But you know what I mean, you don’t send that f***ing text message and 24 hours later you’re not even on earth. That’s not normal.”

The Golden Child

Nienke Podmore says her daughter always had an advantage at competitions in her junior years cycling in Christchurch because she didn’t take it all that seriously.

She didn’t over-train and, perhaps as a consequence, she didn’t get nervous on race day. The start-line adrenaline was all part of the fun.

Her beginnings on a bike at about 13 years old were disproportionately divided between “a little bit of track racing and literally just riding out to Sumner for an icecream and back”.

“I used to help with a bit of coaching of school kids. Most other kids would be flustered and petrified before the race. She was just never, it just didn’t faze her,” Nieneke Podmore says.

“What was unusual about her was she just didn’t have to do a whole lot of training to do well, whereas a lot of other kids their parents had them out doing all these miles. I felt that is why she did well was a) she had natural ability but b) she just wasn’t worn out at the race. She turned up and she’d be ready to race.

“Whereas most kids she’d see them at the start line and it actually looked like they had to be tucked in bed. She was always just grinning away and having a ball.”

Podmore’s relaxed attitude may have been propped up by a natural ability for powerful athletic feats. Both parents Nienkie and Phil were keen cyclists and there was an elite sporting family pedigree too.

Her great-grandfather, Cornelis Gerardus Tabak, was an Olympic weightlifter for Holland in the 1928 Amsterdam Games.

From Nienke’s perspective, her daughter had a typical enough teenage social life that balanced out an undeniable ambition emerging gradually from underneath all the smiles.

“From the age of 13, she wrote a list of her goals in life and that was absolutely in there to be the world champion, the best in the world at sprinting,” Nienke says.

“A lot of other kids who did it, they seemed to dump their social life and focus on the sport, which I think is no good. So I guess from a mother’s point of view, I always tried to make sure there was a bit of balance. But yeah, she had a boyfriend for the first couple of years but she was always just really social and it all just fitted in so there was a good mix, and always a wide network of lovely friends always coming and going.”

But the frivolous teenage fun nevertheless was quickly consumed by Podmore’s easy talent for cycling – winning most junior national events for her age.

One fellow student from Middleton Grange Christian school in Christchurch where Podmore attended described the cyclist’s status there as “literally, the star of the school … very much the golden child”.

With a wide friendship group across her school year, Podmore was often drawn away from socialising by her training and international competition.

Her success was relayed back to the school body in newsletter updates on the Middleton Grange website with proud headlines like “Cycling on Gold” and tallies of her medal collections at international tournaments.

Phrases such as “Olivia’s form is tracking well” would litter such posts with an obvious and mildly overbearing investment in her success.

It was not necessarily wanted attention for the popular but laidback teen who had to deal with a degree of innuendo in her final school years, triggered by a silent ordeal few knew about.

At age 16 she had an abortion.

It was a decision she seemingly confided in depth to no one. And possibly no one at all before the event itself.

“I didn’t know she’d had it done until the day she’d had it done, and as a mother obviously huge empathy for her having to go through that, and that she didn’t tell me,” Nienke said.

“But really supported her, and said to her I would do the same thing. I don’t think that screwed her up.”

One of Podmore’s best friends from Middleton Grange right from year 9, Ruby-Rose Shingleton, said it was hard to gauge the toll the abortion took.

She was understandably guarded about it amid the conservative Christian school environment.

“She definitely kept it as a secret,” Shingleton says.

“She did mention it to me but it was very lightly mentioned, because I guess we were young and at a Christian school abortion’s not really accepted or whatnot and I think that was a huge thing as well. I think she got bullied as well by people in the church and the school who did know as well. I think she wasn’t very accepted so that would have been just as traumatising.”

It was a decision that, in her head, she came back to look on with a greater lament in later years.

But for the moment, there was the fuel of the cycling to perhaps keep such reflection at bay.

'Morning to dark on that bike'

After finishing school at 17, Podmore went straight to train at High Performance Sport NZ’s centre in Cambridge, 25km southeast of Hamilton.

Knowing no one other than the acquaintances of rival teenage cyclists from around the country whom she’d run into at national track meets over the years, Podmore struck lucky with her new residence in the North Island.

A woman now known by all as her North Island mum, Raywin Pierce, had offered to be a home-stay for young girls who had relocated to train at Cycling NZ’s High Performance Cambridge base.

“She was just turning 17 I think. I put my name down at velodrome, because I used to do Cambridge high school and I thought I would change to velodrome and have some girls because I’ve got a lovely home and two bedrooms downstairs.”

“She [Podmore] saw her bedroom and she was over the moon. I can see her. She came in and checked the room and I said think about it, and get back to me in a couple of days. You may want to look somewhere else.”

Podmore moved in the next day.

A widow, Pierce’s own three older children had moved out and from 2014 onwards her home was filled with Cycling NZ athletes Podmore, Emily Shearman and Brea Roderick.

“Honestly they all got on so well. They cooked. When they baked every saucepan came out of that damn cupboard, but they cleaned up, they had the music pumping, always the music, they loved music, they sang.”

“She [Podmore] chilled out. She was very much into beauty and hair. She was into beautiful clothes. Go to the Mount, swimming, come back home again. She had lots of visitors. She was just a normal teenager. She had nothing bad or stressed about her. She was totally gorgeous.

Pierce describes the town of Cambridge as “broken” by the memory of Podmore over the past three months.

“It’s tough. Nobody around here can believe it. She [Podmore] had her red car out there and everybody knew it was her. It ran on no oil. It ran fast like her cycling.

“It’s in my head every day. I still call her bedroom ‘Liv’s bedroom’. You can never shake that out of your head. She broke my heart. She was my third daughter. I was her North Island mum. I was here for her 24/7.

“My three kids just idolise her and it’s really broken them. So she was very much part of our family functions, every time we went out to family functions she was there. She brought glory to our home. I can’t fault her in any way.”

Pierce says amid a constant stream of socialising – be it at cafes, restaurants of visitors at her home – the teenage Podmore from 17 to 19 was above all preoccupied with her cycling.

“She was always out there, up and gone, morning to dark on that bike. If not, she was in the shed pumping music on that cycle thing [exercise bike].

“Cycling on that thing for hours. She just went on it hard-out. An unbelievable spirit. She was just so happy. Her focus was that bike.”

Podmore’s stay at Pierce’s Cambridge home lasted four and a half years and it is separated by the defining midpoint of the Rio Olympics.

Even Pierce, who vowed not to comment on any negativity in Podmore’s life, or the dramas of her cycling career, hinted at the contrast in the then 19-year-old when she returned home from the 2016 Games.

“I just want to remember how she was in my home. I don’t want to think about when she got home from Rio, she was okay … I’m not saying too much. I just want to remember the beautiful times that we have had here, and other people can talk about the harder part of life out there.

“I wanted to stay on the positive because she’s my daughter and everybody has crap in their life and I just think we focus on her happiness.”

Crashing out of an Olympic dream

Podmore herself describes those first two years in Cambridge as characterised by a narrow and intense focus on cycling that came to a whirlwind climax at Rio.

In a May 2020 interview with one of her sponsors, sports brand Recovery Systems, Podmore describes the enthusiasm of her Olympic lead-up and the disappointment of the actual Games.

“I think when I was 16 I think that’s when myself and [personal coach] Hamish Ferguson started to start thinking, let’s go for the Olympics, two and a half years away. Let’s give it a crack. We started writing a list, and if I can beat this person and do this time and get this result we can make it happen.

“By the time I’d turned 19, I think I got the news in July [2016] that I was going to the Olympics. That was really exciting. I was already overseas at that point on campaign with the team who knew they were going. So I was surrounded by like-minded people.”

The 19-year-old was selected for the individual track sprint, the team sprint and the precarious keirin event, in which up to seven riders jostle behind a pace-setting electric bike before exploding to the finish line in the final two laps of eight.

With a modest grin on her face, Podmore sums up the entire Olympics competition: “it wasn’t a great experience for me”.

After a false start in the first team spring event by a whole second on her first day of racing – “which is a lot in track cycling” Podmore laughs – it quickly got worse.

“The next day was the keirin and round one it was just over a lap to go and we were really gearing up,” Podmore says.

“I’d started coming round the bunch and there was a crash happening in front of me. The Russian rider went underneath me instead of going under to avoid the crash just freaked out and swung up and took me out. Instead of sliding down the track the way it angles, I flipped over and landed on my head.

“So I was knocked out. After watching the video, I think for about 45 seconds.”

In the daze of her concussion, Podmore decided to ride the very next race minutes later to try to qualify for the second round of the event.

“I sort of stood back up and decided I was going to race the next repechage, which in hindsight … yeah hindsight’s a great thing.”

“It wasn’t great and that was me for the keirin day done. The next day I had to get up and we had sprint day. I went out there and I think I did an 11.3 (sec). Nowadays I’m doing a 10.7 to put that in perspective. I didn’t qualify. I think I came in 20th maybe, something like that, I can’t even remember.”

But hindsight also brings a bit of perspective – and leniency on oneself too.

“I was in a lot of pain and I didn’t really want to be there but some of my coaches and the physios and the support staff were just so supportive and they helped me on my bike and I got out there so I was really proud of myself for that.”

Almost four years on from it, Podmore was well aware it was more than just a little spill.

“After that came the delayed concussion, which was a lot,” she says in her May 2020 interview.

“So I was vomiting for two days straight and felt terrible for about a good month to maybe … I honestly want to say I had symptoms for six months after that. I just wasn’t myself. So, yeah, it was a pretty traumatic time looking back on the whole experience but it’s made me who I am today.”

Friends McLean and Murray have only looked back on that Rio crash with any suspicion since Podmore’s death.

Straining their memory for moments of dejection amid the good-humour, half-formed theories arise. But this one’s stuck for both of them.

It stemmed out of concerns Podmore repeatedly expressed over her inability to concentrate.

“She turned round to me one time and said ‘look, I think I’ve got ADHD’,” McLean says.

“I said ‘what makes you think that’, and she went through some symptoms. Dr Google, no good. But I said ‘look Liv all these things could be the result of a long-term head injury’. She was out cold in Rio. It’s a ripper of a crash.

“But she was on her bike the next day and like, that doesn’t happen in rugby – for like the past 20 years, you can’t do that. So part of it I think, could possibly have been a long-term head injury. She’s like ‘I’m not depressed but there’s something not right, because I don’t feel depressed’.

“I sort of think about, f***, was there something there? I don’t think it was her only crash. She said ‘oh that’s not the only time I’ve been knocked out on my bike’ and I thought ‘wow’.”

Murray is equally compelled by the silent erosion that Rio concussion may have had on Podmore’s state of mind over the years.

“We never really even put two and two together,” Murray says.

“Obviously, after a tragedy you’re always searching for answers and the what ifs. She was seriously knocked out in Rio and then back to it like tomorrow. What does that do to a young brain and what does that do going forward? But she quite often would be like ‘I’m just so dyslexic’. And we were like are you actually dyslexic? ‘I don’t think so, but I just sometimes confuse myself and I just say the wrong things, or I write the wrong thing down’. So maybe there was something there. Maybe there were long-term issues that we don’t know about.

“We’re never going to know, but it terms of the whole equation, this big jigsaw puzzle, that’s another piece to actually seriously consider about the why?”

There is a growing body of research around repeated head injuries to athletes leading to a condition called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), and inconclusive theories it has a connection to athlete suicide.

Neurologist and expert in traumatic brain injury at the Auckland Medical Specialists clinic, Dr Kiri Brickell, says she does not think Podmore would have had CTE. But the further disruptive impact of that Rio concussion at a highly stressful period would have been real.

“No I would expect recovery [from Podmore’s Rio concussion], but the psychological … It’s the other factors which prolong concussion symptoms,” Brickell says.

“It’s the chronic pain, which can be transformed from an episodic headache to chronic daily headache by the use of drugs. It’s the sleep disruption. It’s the depression and anxiety that can develop. The cognitive effects of a concussion can reduce the resislience to be able to respond to the ongoing stresses in your life.”

Brickell says predicting the severity of concussion needs to be viewed in the “holistic context” of that person’s life circumstances.

The less likely they are to be resilient because of other stresses, the harder and longer a concussion could hit.

“I would say the impact that would have been significant would have been the disruption of her Olympic dreams,” Brickell says.

“If she had a crash, that would have knocked her confidence for anything else and then you see how things just snowball.

“It’s just an additive complexity in someone’s already complicated life. Drugs don’t help. Alcohol doesn’t help. Not sleeping doesn’t help. That whole competitive toxic relationship doesn’t help. So it’s really messy.

“It’s not causative, it’s accumulative. If you are on a knife-edge when you get the concussion, when you stumble, you fall off the cliff, then you do the circle of death – depression, not sleeping, chronic pain.”

Brickell insists concussion is not simple “because people aren’t simple”.

It would be rare to find a more complex and compromised life than Podmore had in the years following Rio.

Aside from the monumental physical toll of the Games, what Podmore was never at liberty to say was that behind the scenes, the antics and dysfunction in Cycling NZ’s camp weren’t “a great experience” for her either.

'She thought she'd been kidnapped'

Even in the moment of her greatest cycling success, things quickly became overcast by politics.

Podmore was in Europe training alongside the already selected Cycling NZ 2016 Olympic squad when the hoped for, but also half-expected, news arrived.

She would be competing in Rio.

The validation of many teenage years of sacrifice, but little time in the moment to savour the realisation of a dream.

“That was really exciting for me to get the news overseas, but I also pining to be at home with my family to share that news,” Podmore said in 2020.

“So I stayed overseas and we made it over to the Olympic village and it was very, very full-on as you can imagine. Just people everywhere and you’ve got to walk 2 kilometres for the food hall a few times a day. And then it came time for racing.”

Not only was celebration for team selection quickly sidelined. It turned out that time and mental energy to focus on Podmore’s actual performance would quickly be sapped too.

What she failed to mention in that briefly edited account of joining the Cycling NZ team was the infamous Bordeaux training camp in France six weeks out from the Games.

It contained an incident that would in many ways define the rest of her life, despite her not actually being directly involved in it.

A night out among the athletes and coaches left Podmore minus a room-mate in the early hours of the morning in the middle of a country she’d only recently arrived in.

The 19-year-old first time Olympian reported the missing athlete to Cycling NZ management that night which then exposed a relationship that was going on between the room-mate and coach Anthony Peden.

According to mother Nienke and her partner Chris Middleton who were being relayed the drama of the situation in snippets back in Christchurch, Podmore reported the incident out of innocent concern.

“She thought she’d been kidnapped,” says Middleton.

Nienke says as far as she understood, her daughter was the first person who had officially raised the athlete/coach relationship to Cycling NZ management.”She was the first person alerted that this was going on, so she told one of the other coaches.”

In real-time, mid-2016, Nienke Podmore and Middleton were just hoping the incident would be formally addressed by management and the team could focus on the Olympics.

“You kept hoping that the normal corporate-style response would deal with the situation. You didn’t have any ability to affect anything,” Middleton says.

“Because it was so close to the Olympics, you just had all your fingers crossed and hoped they would solve the issue. In retrospect, a girl’s run off with a bloke, that’s not the end of the world, it’s not a first-class crime of any sort. So at that time you weren’t really thinking Olivia was going to end up being the scapegoat. You kept assuming, they’ll tidy this, this is minor, there are big people in charge who are trusted to be doing this stuff with kids, this should be easy. So you didn’t worry too much.”

However, as it became evident that Cycling NZ was allegedly pressuring Podmore to keep the relationship quiet, the roll-over impacts on unintentional whistle-blower Podmore became apparent.

“We were [now] worrying. It’s a few weeks to the Olympics. This was a tough kid who didn’t ring up moaning and crying. She was just like ‘I’ll keep my head down, I’ll work hard, it’ll get solved’. She unfortunately, was too strong for her own good. But we knew she was worrying. From the top it was an embarrassment, something they just wanted hushed up. It wasn’t a solve, it was a hush.”

Middleton says the impact of that event set Podmore’s cycling career on a different course.

“That was the first point of any negativity that then changed the pattern of everything. When she was in France everything was good up to that point, 100 per cent happy, training, wanting to train harder, wanting to race, wanting to get stronger, not one complaint. Then, in France, it went bad and that was a while before the Olympics, six weeks and that totally screwed her up. Cycling was easy, that was no problem.”

From reports of those close to Podmore, the next two years within Cycling NZ following the 2016 Rio Olympics and leading up to 2018 Heron investigation she was marginalised within the Cambridge training environment.

The 2018 Heron report found there was “favouritism from Peden to the athlete” with whom he was in an inappropriate relationship, who had also been seen “regularly at [Peden’s] house from October 2017 onwards”.

Some Cycling NZ athletes are also understood to have resented Podmore during those years for raising the inappropriate athlete relationship with Peden to Cycling NZ management.

The sporting organisation came under heavy media scrutiny from May 2018 onwards after the allegations of Peden’s behaviour became public, and the independent Heron report was commissioned in response.

Nienke says her daughter was “big time” feeling antagonism from within the organisation for the storm some felt she had created.

Speculation from the public outside Cycling NZ that Podmore herself was the athlete in a relationship with Pedin was also a burden she bore during that 2018 period.

“She got that and even I got that all the time from people. ‘I don’t want to ask, but is Olivia the one?’ So, that alone was just awful,” Nienke says.

This internal Cycling NZ pressure is also understood to have extended to the interview process for Podmore during the Heron report undertaken in mid-2018.

When the report itself landed in October 2018, it said the “allegations which emerged in the media recently are well-founded” – referencing a string of articles alleging toxic culture at Cycling NZ following the departure of Pedin in May 2018.

Heron QC concluded there was a lack of accountability and leadership throughout the Cycling NZ operation and a reluctance to raise issues, including “instances of bullying”.

It references that then Cycling NZ CEO Andrew Matheson was “made aware of the allegations that an athlete and a staff member were pressured not to tell the truth about it [the Peden relationship]”.

It is understood Podmore was this athlete referenced – and there were claims she had been told by those within Cycling NZ management to not tell the truth about the coach/athlete relationship when it was exposed during the Bordeaux training camp.

A “formal investigation process” into this alleged pressure on Podmore to lie by Cycling NZ was not taken further because “no formal complaint was laid and the athlete did not want her identity revealed”.

Cycling NZ team-mate and Rio Olympic silver medallist Eddie Dawkins says, in his opinion, it’s clear the reference Podmore made to a “cover-up” at Cycling NZ in her final Instagram post was directed at the Heron report and Bordeaux training camp that led to it.

“I feel like, for a young impressionable athlete, that you’ve been told to lie to a lawyer about your involvement with something – it would be hard. You’d be nervous as s**t and she’s not like a hardened criminal or anything that can just go up there and say it with a straight face. I bet you it was really tough and that stuff weighs on you. And if you’re starting to get left out of teams and all these things start to add up. You’re like ‘well I’ve been doing everything right, I did what they asked me to do, you know, and now I’m still on the outside’.

” … it would have been better for her to be on the outside three years ago but actually say the truth, you know. Because she would have probably gone into her own life you know, and she’d still be here. But it’s one of those things you can’t obviously take it back, but that’s what must have been weighing on her for all this time, the fact that even though she did what she was told to do, nothing changed.”

Sports psychologist Professor Gary Hermansson is the former Massey University Head of Department Health and Human Development and has been the NZ Team’s Sport Psychologist for four Olympic campaigns and four Commonwealth Games.

Hermansson has also worked directly with Cycling NZ and High Performance Sport NZ for many years, and says it’s totally reasonable that Podmore may have felt a sense of betrayal from Cycling NZ.

This manifested itself in the years after the 2018 Heron report when Podmore reportedly felt she was being marginalised within Cycling NZ by some coaches, culminating in the final blow of not being selected for Tokyo 2020.

“The two most profound fears we have as human beings, if you think back in tribal terms, and it’s part of our DNA, is the fear of being rejected or being abandoned,” Hermansson says.

“Rejection can be fleeting, but abandonment is a massive … If you think of that again in evolutionary terms, if you get thrown out of the cave by the tribe you’re in the territory of sabretooth tigers and how do you deal with it on your own?

“So I think with regard to Olivia. it could well be that you’ve sacrificed something for the sport. The Pedin situation for example is as I understand it she was encouraged, or advised to, or driven to actually collude and protect the sport in that regard. You know you’ve done all you can for the tribe, you’ve met the qualifying, you’ve even sacrificed your own integrity for that perhaps, if that’s what the review suggests. To then have that happen and then to find that you are kind of rejected and then somebody else is in there. Then of course, when the rewards go in the other direction, you get that medal going to another athlete, who was in a sense taking her place, it hurts even more and it feels even more desolate in that space.”

One of the most publicised changes out of the 2018 Heron review ended in the departure of Anthony Peden – whom the Weekend Herald can reveal is understood to have been paid a settlement and put on a non-disclosure agreement.

But the report made a number of findings, including a lack of accountability and leadership throughout the Cycling NZ operation and a reluctance to raise issues, including “instances of bullying”.

In his findings, Heron said: “The allegations which emerged in the media recently are well-founded. They reflect a culture in the programme of a lack of consequences for poor behaviour, a lack of accountability and sub-optimal leadership.”

The report found that the poor behaviour lay with a small number of individuals at Cycling NZ and questioned whether the high-performance system “adequately protects the welfare of athletes”

Heron was satisfied an “inappropriate personal relationship existed between the coach and a female athlete” and that an “old boys’ club” that prevented accountability for poor coach behaviour was also found to exist.

Yet several Cycling NZ athletes from the time believe Peden became a scapegoat that Cycling NZ were happy to let the media run with, while the other firmly rooted cultural dysfunction Heron identified were obscured.

Nienke’s partner, Chris Middleton, also believed this redirection and manipulation was going on.

“Everybody seems pretty happy the Peden was gone, he was the fall guy for everyone, and the board said no, Andrew Matheson [chief executive], you stay. Who was ultimately the gatekeeper of that? The board, Matheson, everyone blamed it on Peden. You’ve got to start at the top. But everyone who was involved in not carrying out the Heron report has not done their job.”

Eddie Dawkins says despite Peden being his direct coach in the men’s team sprint, he was not even one of the 70-odd people interviewed for the 2018 Heron report.

The retired 33-year-old Olympic Silver medallist says he believes there was an imperative within Cycling NZ that the “report got finished without too many hurdles to jump over afterwards”.

“We were in his programme and in his [Peden] team and I never got asked about it at all,” Dawkins says.

“It was bizarre, because I thought me and Weapon [Peden] were really close, we’re still really close and that perhaps they would talk to me because obviously I had the best relationship with him, aside from [name], and they never talked to me once.”

For Olivia, the ordeal of the year 2018 – which had her dragged into the Heron interview and investigation process from May to October when the report was handed down – was topped off with an unusual perk that not even her mother was aware of.

At the end of 2018, Podmore was paid a $20,000-plus sporting grant for welfare reasons.

Several Cycling NZ team-mates told the Weekend Herald that awarding Podmore – a 2018 Performance Enhancement Grant (PEG) when she did not compete at the World Championships that year was unprecedented.

One Cycling NZ athlete said they were “gobsmacked” when they heard High Performance Sport NZ (HPSNZ) had offered the money to Podmore for a reason other than performance on the track.

Dawkins claimed that before Podmore’s death, he had never once heard Cycling NZ talk genuinely about mental health concerns in his decade with the organisation.

“In my whole career, no one’s been given money just for the sake of giving it to them,” Dawkins says.

“They don’t give out money for how you feel, ever.”

Another person who knows this harsh competitive reality well is Eric Murray, who’s been intimately involved as an athlete and coach in High Performance Sport NZ’s Cambridge base across two decades.

The 39-year-old won the gold medal in the Men’s coxless pair at both the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympics and has won eight world championships.

The $20,000-plus grant became a subject of absurd amusement to both Murray and Podmore in the last 18 months of her life.

“Hush money, we used to laugh about it and call it hush money, and she was like ‘well yeah, pretty much’. Of course man, what else would you f***ing give a discretionary thing for. Honestly, it’s the same in any other sport that you don’t give away PEG’s funding for no reason,” Murray says.

“There’s normally a reason, that someone went to world champs and got injured like right on the precipice, and then the team manages to get funding, and you go as a CEO or a High Performance manager and say hey look this happened. But to just give it to one person for another different reason alone, that’s not in my opinion an appropriate way to manage the funding.

“In a way, what else do you think it is? It’s never going to be called ‘hey look we’d like to give you this to keep your mouth shut.’ It’s: ‘hey look for everything you’ve been though, we would like to offer you some support for your training going forward’. And in a way I’d be like well I haven’t earned it. Why are you giving me the money?”

Nienke Podmore says the first she ever heard of the $20,000-plus PEG to her daughter was when the Herald first reported it on September 11 this year.

“It’s very odd she didn’t tell me,” Nienke says, agreeing it “would appear to be” money for her daughter’s co-operation on matters outside the track.

Many past and present Cycling NZ athletes the Weekend Herald spoke to are emphatic that nothing was materially done post-Heron 2018 to deal with the cultural issues at the organisation.

Sources within Cycling NZ and those close to Podmore paint a picture of coaches wielding power over athletes with unfair, inconsistent and totally arbitrary team-selection processes.

Another tragic end

Replacing Peden after his May 2018 departure as Cycling NZ lead sprint coach was German Rene Wolff – a former world champion and 2004 Olympic gold medallist in the team sprint event.

Nienke says initially Olivia was relieved and optimistic about the fresh start with Wolff, but things eventually soured over the next three years.

“I think when Rene first came on board, Livi was like ‘yay, this is a fresh start, put it all behind me, this is going to be great’,” Nienke says.

“He was really nice to her initially and then I think that lasted for not very long and then she found him a bit of an ass.

“It was a new training programme. She did it, and that’s what she was frustrated about over the last few years. She said ‘Mum, I’ve done every single thing they’ve told me to do. I know it’s not working. I’m not going faster. Yes I’m stronger. But she should have been going faster. She was just continuously frustrated.”

A former employee within Cycling NZ who has “worked extremely close with athletes within the high-performance programme” made far more damning allegations against Wolff.

The source told the Weekend Herald Wolff had been “consistently breaking athletes” and cyclists were constantly confused about changing team selection criteria for Tokyo 2020.

“I can tell you that the current [head coaches] and certain HPSNZ staff members, have contributed to her [Podmore’s] mental decline over the last 18 months,” the Cycling NZ employee claimed.

“He has told [athletes] they will never be good enough to go to the Olympics, in four or eight years and that he believes if they attempt other sports, they will also fail. There is no avenue to prove him wrong and get back into the team, the door is closed hard and fast.”

Overseeing the final call on selection process for the Tokyo Olympics was current Cycling NZ High Performance Director Martin Barras, who had previously been a head coach at Cycling Australia.

Several past and present Cycling NZ athletes and staff have spoken to the Weekend Herald of their surprise with Barras being hired in 2017 after his off the track issues as a coach at Cycling Australia through the 2000s and 2010s.

Although Barras’ hiring was prior to the fallout of the 2018 Heron review, many athletes have now reflected that his old-school training methods were hardly the culture-chance the report recommended for the sporting body.

One historical event in particular rankles all who reflect on it.

In 2005, Barras was assaulted at an Adelaide velodrome by world champion Australian sprinter Jobie Dajka, whom he was coaching at the time.

Dajka had been axed from the Australian Olympics team weeks before the 2004 Athens Olympics after misleading two doping inquiries into the discovery of syringes at the Australian Institute of Sport’s athletes’ residence in Adelaide.

Dajka was convicted for assault in 2006, for which he received a good behaviour bond, and was banned from racing.

“I regret what I did but I was definitely pushed and like I said I’m sick of being part of a corrupt drug sport which just doesn’t deserve my time any more,” Djaka told the Daily Telegraph shortly before his conviction.

Dajka said he became enraged when told that he was to be suspended for three months by Barras at the Adelaide Velodrome.

“I just snapped,” he said. “I basically grabbed him by the throat and pushed him towards the whiteboard. I went away, came back, and he said a couple of things to me and I basically pushed him over.”

At the time of the police investigation of Dajka’s assault of Barras, the Australian cyclist had been hospitalised while battling alcoholism and prescribed antidepressants.

In 2009, Djaka committed suicide, aged 27.

The Herald Sun reported that at Dajka’s funeral, his father, Stan Dajka, said in the eulogy that he wished “torment” on the people who took his son’s dream away.

“Yes I’m bitter, my son, my heart will never forgive them for taking your life’s dreams away,” he said.

“They tore your heart out, put you in a heap and closed the door. I hope the guilt torments them forever, as it has done for us.”

The Daily Telegraph reported that Dajka said Barras encouraged a culture of “sledging” within Cycling Australia in the 2000s.

An athlete within Cycling NZ under Barras found none of this ugly history surprising when relayed it.

Recounting their own first-hand observation of the high-performance director at work, they stated if he “doesn’t like you, he will try to manage you out of the team.”

The athlete also accuses Wolff of training cyclists in the lead up to the 2020 Berlin World Champs in a way that was detrimental to their being selected on the NZ team.

Podmore was among several other athletes in the Cycling NZ hub trying to qualify for Tokyo 2020.

Cycling colleagues say she and others were continually frustrated by changes made by Wolff and Barras to the selection criteria.

Eddie Dawkins says he believes Podmore fell foul of a matey culture at Cycling NZ led by Barras and Wolff, in which favouritism determines much of the selection for events.

“It’s all of them together and it’s kind of a boys’ club where they decide which cyclist become the ‘next cyclist’,” Dawkins claimed.

Dawkins says in his opinion, selection on the Cycling NZ teams was often not purely about “talent or potential”.

“It’s about who do we [the coaches] think is the best, and who’s probably going to create the least ripples going along the way, and they have just made this textbook of athletes who won’t say anything,” Dawkins says.

A habit Barras has of ignoring athletes via email and in person was also a long-standing and calculated way of operating, according to the Cycling NZ staff source.

Barras’ ruthless method of communicating with athletes is described as being determined by their recent performance and his personal whims.

“[He’s] only speaking to them when they do well, [often] telling them they are not good enough – even though they have results to prove otherwise”.

Another former colleague of Barras in Australia who spoke to the Weekend Herald on condition of anonymity corroborated this coaching style.

“Marv doesn’t motivate you by being nice to you. Marv motivates you by being an arsehole and seeing what happens,” the Cycling Australian source said.

Back in 2013, Barras also implemented a training programme for Australian women’s road cycling team allegedly referred to by the athletes as the “death camp”.

Australian cyclist Tess Fabry wrote an account of that camp in New South Wales for the Cycling Tips website, which involved being given a drink bottle containing sand and lead that riders had to carry on their bike during a 200km ride.

“The closest thing they could give us to a literal cup of concrete,” Fabry said.

Athletes on the camp were abruptly sent home by coaches without any explanation.

The riding exercises included asking athletes to ride courses with unknown endpoints, along surfaces intended to cause wheel punctures.

Fabry also describes a 150km Snowy Mountain time trial, in which it did begin to snow and she began to freeze.

Multiple approaches have been made to Wolff, Barras and Cycling NZ to get some response to these allegations during the research for this feature. Neither coach responded directly.

Cycling NZ said in a statement that they will not be providing further comment while a fresh independent inquiry into the sporting organisation and a Coronial inquiry into Podmore’s death are currently underway.

On Friday, November 26, Barras resigned as Cycling NZ High Performance Director after a separate investigation revealed an “integrity breach” at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Barrister and experienced sports director Don Mackinnon undertook an investigation which revealed the process to replace an athlete during a cycling event at Tokyo 2020 had not been conducted according to IOC and UCI rules.

Cycling NZ chief executive Jacques Landry said while Barras was not directly involved in the incident, as Director he was ultimately responsible for the conduct of the NZ Cycling Team.

This incident is understood to not relate to Podmore.

Olivia's uphill battle

By 2019, Podmore was attempting to qualify for Tokyo Games, lugging the considerable baggage of her unwanted role in the Bordeaux training camp controversy and the subsequent Heron review.

After not competing in the 2018 World Championships, Podmore describes her 2019 trip to the pinnacle event for the year in Poland as not ideal.

She exited the keirin and the women’s sprint event in the heats, and the team sprint in the qualifying stage.

Speaking in 2020, Podmore said given that disappointment, it was a blessing the Tokyo Olympics were postponed a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“For me it’s helped because I was in a position after worlds … I had a mixed bag at worlds,” she said.

“I had some personal bests. I had some not so great races. So it’s definitely helped me. I felt in a position that I wasn’t necessarily the strongest or that I was even in contention for selection and that’s hard for me to say for sure. But I think it’s exciting right now because the doors have been reopened for me and I’ve got another shot to show them that I deserve to be there. Yeah, so I’m excited for that.”

A first place in the team sprint with Hansen in the international World Cup event in Cambridge in December 2019 buoyed Podmore further that the Olympics was still within reach.

However, throughout 2019 and early 2020, Podmore and team sprint partner Natasha Hansen were increasingly worried they hadn’t gone to enough lead up international events to qualify for the Olympics.

And, according to Murray, who was serving as a sounding board for Podmore during these career difficulties, Cycling NZ was offering no path to get these qualifying points.

“That’s what frustrated her. You know what happened in the end was they didn’t have enough points to qualify but they could have gone to a few more events and then got the points to get the qualification place, but of course they weren’t being allowed to go to these qualification things. So in a way, from what Liv told me, Cycling NZ was sort of holding them back from going to do these things. Now was that because they didn’t have the funding? Could have been.”

In August 2020, Podmore and Hansen were finally told they were not in the Tokyo Olympic squad.

There had been no material change to the Cycling NZ Olympic squad selected a year earlier – prior to Tokyo 2020 being officially postponed due to the pandemic.

What would have not helped matters was by this time was that Hansen was in a legal dispute with Cycling NZ over the perceived obstacles in the selection path for her after foreseeing an inevitable Olympic squad rejection.

This dispute lasted several months during 2020 with legal costs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Given the sparse training grants and meagre salaries of Cycling NZ athletes, those in the know about these legal costs found them a further insult.

The debacle seemed to further reflect the organisation’s mismanagement of the athletes under its guidance and care.

As Murray points out, Podmore’s association with Hansen is “not going to help the equation” for her selection in other individual events outside the women’s team sprint.

“Liv’s on the outer of it because she’s part of that legal thing, even though she’s not, because she was Natasha’s partner, she knew stuff, you’re in this triangle and of course she’s just sitting in the middle of it, she’s not part of it, but she’s around the whole thing of it. It was just this messy situation.”

After missing the Olympic squad, Podmore requested a mediation session with Cycling NZ, which McLean reluctantly attended as a support person.

“I said, ‘Just to be clear Liv, I think you should get a lawyer for this but I said I’m happy to go along and be your support person’,” McLean says.

But already disorientated by the situation she found herself in, Podmore did not want to raise the stakes of the meeting further by having her own legal representation.

Cycling NZ was apparently not so naive, or optimistic, about where such a meeting could lead.

“At that mediation meeting, there was a lawyer for Cycling NZ who turned around and said ‘you are welcome to appeal this to the court of arbitration for sport but just to let you know, they’re very rarely successful and it could ruin your relationship with Cycling NZ,” McLean recalls with clear anger.

“And I said ‘Oh that sounds like a threat to me’, and they said ‘No, no, not a threat’. And I said, ‘Well it sounds very threatening’.”

Also in attendance that day was Barras, who made a distinct impression on McLean.

“High-performance Marv Barras. He’s the guy, I’m going to make no secret. I don’t want him to work with athletes ever again,” McLean says.

“Marv sat at that meeting, sat with his hands on his big fat stomach and said arrogantly ‘Nope, she’s not fast enough’. And I said ‘Well she put down a time that was 0.2 seconds off a NZ record after lockdown having not been given any training equipment over lockdown. She’s just come out and blitzed it and you’re saying she’s got no potential.

“If she had walked away they wouldn’t have given a f***.”

The lack of a clear individual performance plan with criteria for times and results in race meets in Podmore’s contract with Cycling NZ was also raised.

McLean says Cycling NZ’s response to this was that coaches in the past had used them to indiscriminately get rid of athletes they didn’t like.

“At the end of the meeting I said ‘well how much does this have to do with Natasha Hansen?’ and the mood in the room changed quite significantly at that point. So the answer was – a lot. But they didn’t say that.”

Fellow Cycling NZ team member, and one of Olivia’s best friends within Cambridge, Shaane Fulton was reluctant to reveal the discussions they had about the Tokyo Olympic team snub.

“I do know [how Olivia felt] I just don’t really know how to explain it is, I think, the best way to put it. We definitely discussed it but a lot of our discussions were also about what the future’s going to hold for us,” Fulton says.

“I think to a point [Podmore was frustrated] but again I think we all would be in that situation.

“Anyone in that position when they’ve been to the Olympics as a young rider and then don’t get selected the following games, it would be a hard hit for anyone. That’s why we were constantly looking forward to Commonwealth Games etc., because they’re 12 months away. We were able to refocus and just push on. But yeah, we definitely had some discussions about it and talked through things.”

Fulton says when she entered the Cycling NZ program in 2019, Olympic selection “wasn’t in my ballpark at the time” and much of what she discussed with Podmore was the future ambitions they could share as track sprinters.

“I can understand how it would be hard for an athlete. It’s interesting being in a team environment when things like that go on, because at the end of the day you’re always fighting for spots regardless of if they’re your friends or not. That’s what sport is. You can’t have it all your own way, unfortunately. But as long as we’re all there when it does or doesn’t happen that’s the main thing. But as far as that went, when the Games got postponed and selection was made clear we always just talked about what the future held and how exciting that was going to be with the team sprint going to three women.”

Eventually, Podmore submitted to the words of Cycling NZ around the impact a legal dispute could have on her athletics career and did not take the matter further.

She would resign her sights to the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham as one final tilt at entrenching herself in the Cycling NZ team and then who knows … Paris 2024.

But at that stage, the logic was two more years of training and if that didn’t work she would walk away.

Perhaps also she saw team-mate Hansen, who was retiring following her own legal battle as proof the Cycling NZ lawyer in her mediation meeting was speaking from experience with his “advice”.

'The spark was starting to fade'

Few in Podmore’s life had a greater vantage point than Ruby-Rose Shingleton to judge her mood.

The best friends had been sitting across from each other in the classroom, playground, bedrooms and bars ever since they met in year 9 at Middleton Grange Christian co-ed school.

She was one of the few confidants to Podmore’s teen abortion – albeit after the fact.

Although Shingleton moved to Dunedin in year 11, they always remained close, reuniting when they could a few times a year despite their respective relocations across New Zealand.

In that final year, Shingleton says she sensed something go out of Podmore’s eyes looking at her friend’s social media posts from across the country.

“You could see the spark was starting to fade. She just started to look different too. Even in the final post that she ever did with her mum, you look at her eyes and she’s just not there. It’s so obvious she’s not there anymore.”

Shingleton was with Podmore back in Christchurch on the day in August 2020 she knew for certain she would not be in the Tokyo Olympic squad.

And finally, the facade of optimism dropped.

“That’s when she said ‘I think this can’t go on anymore’ and she was getting sick of it. It really hurt her,” Shingleton says.

“I think you could tell for the first time, it was really obvious she was really disappointed. She did kind of imply she felt like she’d put some much effort into … she’d missed out on all her teenage years trying to work towards. That was always her goal. And to keep getting shut down for putting all that work in.”

Shingleton says her friend had a great skill at “making everyone around her feel really comfortable” and it took a concerted effort from her family – with whom she spent much of her teen years in their Sumner, Christchurch, beach home – to dig beneath.

“She’s so good at putting on a front,” Shingleton says.

“There was so much disappointment behind her smile. She definitely didn’t want to burden people with her problems. Also probably because of Cycling NZ, she probably was made to feel that she couldn’t.

“I think that’s the problem, obviously, with all this is that everyone’s like ‘she was so happy’ blah blah blah. But definitely, when she didn’t get selected for that last Olympic thing, you could tell that was a huge thing for her and I think from there it went downhill. And it was obvious to see on her social media that, it just wasn’t the same Livi I knew.”

According to Ruby-Rose and her mother, Lynette Shingleton, it was around this time in August 2020 they became aware Podmore had begun taking recreational drugs with some regularity.

Most concerning to Lynette Shingleton – who had made a concerted effort a decade ago to get to know the dutiful teenager, who never turned up to their house without food and did the dishes without prompting – was Podmore’s use of Acid.

“Livi was at my house a lot [as a teen]. Livi would strike you as mature beyond her years. Really responsible,” Lynette says.

“She was unusual in that respect. But I was like, hmm, there’s got to be more there. I made a decision with her really early on that I wasn’t going to let her be like that. I wanted to know what was really going on with her.

Lynette says she reached through to a young Podmore dealing with a number of vulnerabilities, including the breakdown of her parents’ marriage during those high school years.

“I wanted to know the gut-wrenching part of it, the reality of her life. Her parents split, she didn’t have a family home any more.”

Lynette says it was not surprising Podmore was willing in 2020 to share details of her recreational drug use, given their history.

“She knows we wouldn’t judge her,” Lynette says.

As she understood it, Podmore’s drug-taking revolved around a group of people outside the cycling world in Cambridge.

“I didn’t like the fact she was doing it. But I knew she was really struggling. She was getting over the whole drama of the cycling thing. It [drug use] absolutely would have contributed to her mental state, without a doubt,” Lynette says.

“I knew she would have been doing acid for at least two years leading up to her death, and some other stuff, MDMA and dope.

“I think it was a coping thing. I think when people get into drugs like that it’s a form of escapism. She dived into it and she enjoyed it. It didn’t scare her. I’m talking completely out of it for hours. Weekends. We’re not talking lightly into it, we’re talking fully into it. I don’t think she let many people know and she wouldn’t because she was ‘Olympic cyclist’. Possibly it was her way of just managing everything but her mental health was just declining at that point.

“I do beat myself up thinking … I needed to get on that phone. I could tell she wasn’t good, through the Olympics. I could tell her posts were off.”

Chris Middleton also admits they were conscious of an escalation in Podmore’s partying in the years following the 2018 Heron report.

“She needed to cut loose a bit more. It was affecting her. [She coped] probably by partying too hard. It was clearly a release,” Middleton says.

“Even when she came down here [to Christchurch] you could tell she needed it a bit. That made us suspicious. She did tend to go out quite hard, quite regularly. It’s like, you’re an Olympic athlete, you can’t do that stuff. So that did worry us a little bit.”

A series of unfortunate events in the first half of 2021 also likely to have contributed to Podmore’s fragile mental state.

On top of the recreational drugs, it emerged to several close to Podmore in her last year that she was on antidepressants.

It is unclear how long she had been on them, but what is known is that she came off them a couple of months before her death due to a cardiac issue she was dealing with.

Murray says two to three months before Podmore’s death, a recurring health issue emerged where her heartbeat would race for no clear reason.

“She had an episode in training and it happened again somewhere else,” Murray says.

“We were round here [McLean and Podmore’s house] one night and she had this little thing where she would keep track of it and she said ‘my heart’s gone again’. I put my watch on her, and she’s just sitting and her heart’s like 145 beats a minute. And we were like f***. So then my partner actually took her to the A&E because it just wasn’t coming down.

“So she went off her pills [antidepressants] because there was no atrial fibrillation, there were no issues with like ECG – it wasn’t showing irregularities. I don’t think it was anxiety but you never know. I don’t know [if it was on doctors recommendations] but she said to us I’m coming off them [antidepressants] to see if it will help my heart. That’s all I know.”

As the Olympics began on July 23, it is also understood that Podmore discovered Cycling NZ was offered a late Olympic start in the women’s team sprint because another team had withdrawn and New Zealand were the first reserve.

But Cycling NZ did not take up the offer.

Cycling NZ had not officially let Podmore know of this offer made months earlier – and she discovered the news from a staffer at Cycling NZ who let it slip in the first days of the Tokyo event.

In the final week of the Tokyo event, Podmore also had to watch an ex-boyfriend achieve Olympic success, and the team-mate selected over her to race in the women’s sprint track events also won a medal.

Cycling NZ team-mate Shaane Fulton, who also wasn’t at the Tokyo Games, says it’s undeniable athletes watching the Olympics on TV do so with a pang of desire.

“We were talking a lot on the phone,” Fulton says during the Games in July and August.

“I think there was a little bit of envy [from Podmore]. You know, everyone wishes they were there. I just tried my best to support her during that time.”

McLean watched much of the Games beside Podmore in Cambridge and was clear she “didn’t hate watching the Olympics” and there was much fun and banter about the athletes she knew personally.

But he didn’t deny the joy of watching others succeed was likely bittersweet for her – especially those particularly close to her.

“I think she found it hard because she’d put in a whole heap of work and she was comparing herself to other athletes and they’d got there. Everyone sort of has their own struggles,” he says.

Prominent also in Podmore’s final social media post was also a latent pain and regret about her teen abortion.

She described it as a decision to “keep her Olympic dream alive”.

Some friends believe the incongruity of Podmore’s life at 24 with her youthful ideals of what a well-rounded life should be also came to form an underlying guilt and dissatisfaction.

In particular, the lack of a settled and traditional domestic life clearly rankled her.

“She said to me ‘I thought I was going to be married at 24, have babies’,” housemate McLean says.

“I thought I was going to be a farmer’s wife and have babies by the time I was 24. I didn’t want to be an old mum. So she had this pressure on and I think it was driven from growing up in that Christian faith of you having to sort of have your whole life sorted out at a really young age.”

Murray believes “her upbringing was tearing her apart from the person that she’d become”.

“She loved being herself and the person she had grown into … loved getting tattoos, she loved being herself. But I don’t know how or for what reason … just in her head, you were meant to be married by now or s**t … you were meant to have a house, or you were meant to already have kids or whatever.”

And from the strict religious environment of her adolescence she went straight into the pressure-cooker of High Performance Sport NZ’s Cambridge centre at 17.

“You want to go to a few different work places and f*** up and learn from your mistakes,” McLean says.

“You get dragged into a national system at [17], you’re going to make mistakes and I don’t think she made many to be honest. One was being way too honest in a review and telling the truth, and look, that shouldn’t be a thing. But like, you want to be able to make mistakes and do things. And she referenced that, that people wanted you to be perfect. And I’m like ‘Liv, no one wants you to be perfect’.”

Ruby-Rose Shingleton says this burden of perfection was clung to the very end.

“Liv didn’t really have a lot of friends I would say outside the cycling world,” Shingleton says.

“Just a few of us, like her age. And she had a lot of guy mates because I think of the way she was. But she definitely had a lot of things with guys for quite a while that always seemed to turn a bit south which I don’t think would have helped. I think that just contributes to belonging and wanting to be wanted and stuff.

“Then she got into the group of guys who were doing a lot of drugs. She was actually kind of lonely I think because she wasn’t very vulnerable with a lot of people. That’s what I kind of got the feeling with her.

“There’s not a lot of people where she’s actually herself.”

Suicide in New Zealand

New Zealand sits in the middle of other OECD countries when comparing total population suicide rates.

In the year to June 30, 607 people died by suspected suicide in New Zealand, compared to 628 the year before – a decrease of 21 deaths, and a drop in the suspected suicide rate from 11.8 deaths per 100,000 to 11.6.

This was second consecutive 12 month recording period for the Chief Coroner when New Zealand’s suicide rate dropped.

There was also a decrease in suspected suicides for females in the 15-24 age range, from 12.6 to 11.4 per 100,000 people.

Yet according to the UN Children’s Fund rankings in 2020, New Zealand’s youth suicide rates are the second-highest in the developed world, with 14.9 deaths per 100,000 adolescents.

In 2019, the Government’s well-being budget increased funding for the mental health sector by $1.9 billion.

'It needs to be all out in the open'

It didn’t take long for Eric Murray and Andrew McLean’s bewilderment in the day’s after Podmore’s death to be provided a bit of bleak context on what their friend had been emotionally hiding.

A medical pamphlet was found in Podmore’s room by Murray’s partner, Thea, designed to help ward off or repress suicidal thoughts.

“It was a pamphlet that was like ‘what to do if you’re about to take your own life and it was who can you talk to’. Looking back on it I don’t think you get that book by just jumping on the internet and getting it sent out to you,” Murray said.

“Obviously, somebody’s given this to her or she’s managed to get it from somewhere. And she had me, Thea, Andy, a couple of her friends [written down] in terms of ‘who can you talk to?'”

The 24-year-old’s numerous diaries were handed on to the Coronial inquiry that is still ongoing – and according to internal Cycling NZ correspondence, could take years.

But 10 days after Podmore’s death on August 9, Cycling NZ commissioned their own fresh inquiry into culture at the sporting body and its overarching funding organisation High Performance Sport NZ.

On September 21, Sport NZ chief executive Raelene Castle and Cycling NZ chief executive Jacques Landry fronted the media virtually to outline the terms of reference of the new independent inquiry and announce the four-person panel to oversee it.

Queens Council Michael Heron will again chair the inquiry but this time be joined as co-chair by Massey Professor Sarah Leberman – an expert in sports administration and leadership.

Rio Olympics silver medallist rower Genevieve Macky (nee Behrent) and Silver Ferns netballer Dr Lesley Nicol will round out the four panel members.

Castle was specific this inquiry would not overlap with the coronial inquiry into Podmore’s death and will be dealing more with the “environmental realities” of culture and support at Cycling NZ and HPSNZ.

“I think there’s a very delicate line that we’re trying to navigate here, which is the job of the coroner and the coroner will be looking at very specific iterations relating to the social media post and the situations that actually led to her passing. So that’s the focus for them,” Castle said.

Landry also confirmed any athlete who had signed a non-disclosure agreement with Cycling NZ or HPSNZ will be able to waive that to speak to the independent inquiry panel.

“We have no idea whom the panel will be contacting,” Landry said.

And on November 22, the first dramatic outcome of the inquiry arrived. Landry was resigning as chief executive of Cycling NZ after three years in the job.

The official Cycling NZ press release said.

Integral to the 2021 Heron review will be evaluating whether the findings from the 2018 report were ever properly implemented.

However, the Weekend Herald understands several past Cycling NZ athletes have declined to engage with the new Heron report due to a lack of faith in the sincerity and efficacy of the fresh review after what they believe was the failure of Cycling NZ to act on the 2018 report.

The Weekend Herald has obtained via the Official Information Act, details of correspondence to Cycling NZ in the week following Podmore’s death. The parents of five other children in their High Performance system got in touch to air their concerns.

According to Cycling NZ’s summary of the email contents, one parent “claims that this could have been them mourning the death of their child” while citing “many specific examples of alleged mistreatment within Cycling New Zealand”.

Three of the other parents discuss “the pursuit of medals and success [that] has come at the expense of a vulnerable individual”, mistreatment of New Zealand athletes and a lack of support from sporting bodies – including citing the death of an Australian cyclist.

Dawkins says he hopes what he views as the failures of the 2018 report, in which he was never involved, are not repeated.

“It’s one of those things where, if it’s not done independently, we’ll end up with a similar situation,” Dawkins says.

“I’m sure Mike Heron did his best to get there but it was obviously dedicated by what he learned, you know. Things got changed, things got left out that probably had a massive impact into the report – that got left out on purpose and every stone needs to be turned over and it doesn’t matter who it affects and how far it goes, because it needs to all be out in the open.”

Olivia Podmore clearly wanted some stuff out in the open in her final year once unshackled of the silent obedience she carried while Tokyo 2020 qualification was still feasible.

That quashed, she came to Lynette Shingleton in December 2020 and asked her to film and produce a documentary that would expose the alleged lies and mistreatment she had suffered within Cycling NZ.

“It was our last conversation before I came over here [to live in Sydney],” Shingleton said.

“I think it was going to be her last attempt to … maybe in her head she thought we’d do the doco and she’d still do the same thing but she knew by asking me to do the documentary we were going to go there with everything. So she was going to lay it all out.”

For Nienke Podmore – still waiting for a call from a single senior figure at Cycling NZ following her daughter’s death – the hope for real change at the sporting organisation remains despite others’ cynicism.

In a way, she has to believe the new review isn’t futile. The alternative is too bleak.

“Clearly there needs to be some serious changes there otherwise, you know, potentially there is going to be more of what’s happened and I just wouldn’t want to wish this on anyone really. It’s just awful,” she says.

A flash of regret crosses her face but quickly turns to resolve.

“When she went up there, she was just a kid that loved riding her bike and I feel in hindsight with everything that’s gone on I wish I had hounded Bike [Cycling] NZ or kept in contact with them to make sure that she was okay,” Nienke says.

“But I feel that really they should have been the ones to reach out to me and check if I knew that Olivia was oaky.”

In the same moment, Nienke acknowledges the inner pain her daughter harboured was never really let out to the world.

To the end she veiled it with her enthusiasm – for everyone else’s benefit, if not her own.

“Even when things were down she would always put best foot forward and just always be so positive and just always wanting to do the best for other people. A lot of people have heard all the stories of how she’s inspired them and encouraged them. And even the week before the Olympics started, she met some people down there and got them excited about BMXing. She was talking about BMXing with them and the next day they went out and bought a BMX because Livi had got them so G’d up about it and I love hearing stories like that about her. You feel like you’ve done a good job as a parent.”

Where to get help:

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633 or text 234 (available 24/7)
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (12pm to 11pm)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 or text 4202 (available 24/7)
Anxiety helpline: 0800 269 4389 (0800 ANXIETY) (available 24/7)
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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