Bridie O’Donnell has enjoyed two very different careers. First, she worked as a medical practitioner. Then, in her mid-30s, O’Donnell made the sharp pivot to professional cycling, a field where she found great success. For six years, she travelled the world racing in the Australian national team and Italian professional squads.
O’Donnell eventually made the switch back to working full time in medicine, but she never really left the world of sport. In 2016, at age 42, she broke the women’s world record for the longest distance covered by bike in one hour. 2018 saw O’Donnell publish Life and Death, a memoir detailing her experiences as a cyclist in Europe. This year, Australia’s most unique slashie will again join the SBS commentary team for the Tour De France when it kicks off on Saturday 26 June.
Her years on the road as a cyclist taught O’Donnell a lot, including the importance of a good night’s sleep. Here, she tells us about the pillow that made her many cheap motel stays bearable, as well as the story of two other significant belongings.
What I’d save from my house in a fire
I would grab Gypsy, my rescue greyhound, and some family heirlooms that might be of very little value to others but are of great sentimental value to me. One of them is a beautiful gold pendant necklace that has a small glass and gold medal on it. The medal was awarded to my great grandmother who won an Irish bag piping competition as a teenager and she kept it with her every day.
A few decades later, my grandfather decided to propose to my grandmother, and he asked his future mother-in-law for the medal. Instead of a ring, he had a necklace made for the proposal. They were married in the 1940s and went on to have six children and eight grandchildren. When I graduated from medical school my grandmother gave me the medal and necklace, and I’ve kept it safe for 20 years.
My most useful object
My most useful object is definitely my pillow. I discovered this when I was a professional cyclist, and realised it was the only way to be comfortable while squished in the back of a team van during the long 14-hour road trip all the way from central Italy to northern Spain for a bike race. It also saved me when we would arrive at 2.5 star motels with awful pillows that inevitably led to terrible sleep.
There were a lot of team vans that had no seatbelts in the backseats, which terrified me. My concerns about that were met with derision by old, chain smoking Italian men who drove the vans and said that seatbelts were “invented by the English and are a waste of time”!
The item I most regret losing
I once owned a very stylish black one-piece swimsuit with a plunging neckline and when I wore it, I imagined I was some sort of Sophia Loren-esque hybrid of a Bond villain and a Hitchcock heroine. I bought it on holiday in Antibes in France, and it made me feel very European, mon cheri.
One year I was stupid enough to pack it in a suitcase of clothes I couldn’t care less about when I was heading off to Italy to join my pro team, and of course the baggage never arrived at Malpensa Airport in Milan. I would go back to the lost baggage section each week when a team mechanic was headed to the airport for one reason or another, but it never showed up. I still miss that swimsuit.