[g1_quote author_name=”Alison Shanks” hide_author_image=”none” author_description=”Champion cyclist” author_description_format=”%link%” align=”right” size=”s” style=”solid” template=”01″]

It’s all about positive encouragement – and trying all sports. You don’t have to be in your sport at primary school. The thing is to develop a whole range of skills.


The 26-year-old Dunedin track cyclist took up the sport just four years ago, and capped a meteoric rise to win gold at the World Champs in Poland in March.

Her grit and determination—and respect for excellent teachers and coaches began in kindergarten. “I still remember my kindergarten teacher, Mr Russell—he was good fun!”

With three younger siblings and sporty parents, physical activity was always on the go in the back yard. At age 10, Alison moved a bit closer to Dunedin—“partly to make it easier for our parents to take us to all our sporting practices”—and into Mrs Gardener’s class at Andersons Bay School.

“For the first half-year, I was scared. She was strict and you did what you were told.” But as time went on, Alison realised “she was a big softie really”. And by that time, Mrs Gardener had fixed Alison’s handwriting. “It wasn’t so good before I got to her. I’m glad I learnt to write properly—it’s a pretty valuable tool, and even more so now I’ve started writing autographs. It’s nice for people to be able to read what’s written.”

Alison Shanks picMrs Gardener was a tough teacher, says Alison, “But she set me up really well for intermediate school. And I’ve had a chance now, with her teaching my sisters and brother, to see her soft side. Always when standard four are leaving, there’s a wee tear in her eye.

“She played the piano too, and she could get quite emotional—you could see the wee tear in her eye behind the glasses.”

Judy Gardener worked at Andersons Bay School for nearly 20 years, retiring a couple of years ago, although she still relieves there. According to a coworker, “She’s one of those firm but fair teachers. She has nice old-fashioned standards, and she expects a lot from the children—but in a nice way. She’s always very popular with the children.”

Alison’s good handwriting also helped with note-taking at Otago University, where she completed a science degree and a commerce degree with honours. At the same time, she was playing netball for the Otago Rebels, but wasn’t getting a lot of game time.

“I was fitter than the others, but I was spending a lot of time on the bench—very frustrating.”

Through classmates who were doing marathons, she met Craig, her current boyfriend and coach. “I joined his running squad, and he saw I had a pretty good engine, good lungs. I went cycling a bit with him, and he said I had to make a choice—to be an average runner and an average cyclist, or to choose one.”

After coming fourth at the Beijing Olympics, Alison won the World Championships in the 3,000 metre individual pursuit—and now has her sights set on next year’s Commonwealth Games.

To primary teachers, Alison says, “It’s all about positive encouragement—and trying all sports. You don’t have to be in your sport at primary school. The thing is to develop a whole range of skills.

“Kids need to keep enjoying it, and you have to be careful not to overpraise—kids aren’t stupid. I remember the best coaches—you had to work to try and impress them. It’s a fine balance between positive encouragement but also developing a work ethic in kids. It’s a hard balance because it’s almost different for every individual kid—teachers are like psychologists!

“I loved school—and all through high school as well. We had some great sporting teams and fantastic coaches who were completely dedicated to us. I used to love going to school.”