Maja Wloszczowska, mathematics and the Polish bubble

She is an athlete who has rarely been introduced outside of her home country. Yet Maja Wloszczowska has embodied world-class format for 15 years. But the Polish athlete has not only won two Olympic silver medals, two world championship titles and is one of the medal candidates at the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships in Albstadt. She also shapes cross-country sports with her personality and she represents the bikers in committees of the UCI World Cycling Federation. Reasons enough to approach Maja Wloszczowska in the World Championships series “20 Heads for 2020”.

In purely sporting terms, the success story of Maja Wloszczowska (pronounced: Wloschowska) spans two decades. As a junior, she was twice vice-world champion in 2000 and 2001. Only two years later, however, she was allowed to put on the rainbow jersey for the first time. In 2003, at the age of only 19, she became the first female marathon world champion in history. In 2010 she also succeeded in cross-country.

Maja Wloszczowska, these are difficult times for our agreed talk. Currently there are no competitions because of the Corona crisis and you are at home in Jelenia Góra.
Yes, I was lucky. I was able to get back home from a training camp in Spain before our government closed the borders. I have to stay at home, but I can still go outside for bike training.
In terms of Corona you were also part of the telephone conference with the IOC last week about the Olympic Games in Tokyo. For the past two and a half years, you have been an elected athletes’ representative on the UCI’s Mountain Bike Commission, as well as on the UCI Athletes’ Commission. Do you have the impression that you can make a difference there?
We are asked and I have the impression that our opinion really matters. Since my election in 2017, I have been able to say many times what we athletes think about certain questions and decisions. And they respect our opinion. At first I thought that this was just a political measure because big organisations have to show that they have that. But actually it works.
You were afraid that this is a show event?
Yes, but it’s not. We can direct questions from athletes to the right people and start discussions. I’m happy to make a difference.
You started a Facebook group for the mountain bikers. After all, there are 96 sportsmen and women represented there?
Yes, but to be honest: sometimes when I asked a question in the group, there were not too many answers (laughs). But in the meantime, people look at the group a little more often. In any case, I’m glad that we have that. If there is a problem, we can talk about it.
Sometimes you might get the impression that few athletes look beyond their own interests. How do you see that?
Ah, no, I wouldn’t generalize. At the moment, when it comes to qualifying for the Olympics because of the corona virus, the athletes already see the big picture and say that the world has bigger problems than our sport. At least our mountain bike community is very close to life, I would say. You could see that when the Cape Epic (renowned MTB stage race in South Africa) was cancelled two days before the start. I didn’t find a single bad comment there, everyone supported the decision.

Maja Wloszczowska has been elected as the athletes’ representative on the Mountain Bike Commission of the UCI in 2017 and is also a member of the UCI Athletes’ Commission. She is also the athletes’ representative on the Polish Olympic Committee. The Dutchman Leo van Zeland, sports director during her time in the international team Giant Pro XC, called her a “real character”, a person who stands for values and lives them.

You started cycling early. Your sporty mother encouraged you to do so. Skiing in winter, cycling in summer. But it took you a while before you actually got into cycling.
That’s true. I was afraid that school would suffer if I went to a club and trained regularly.
Was it important for you to be good at school?
Yes. It was like that at the time. Maybe it’s not quite the normality for children (laughs), but yes, it was like that. When I was young, I loved school.
But then you took the path and raced.
Beata Salapa was Polish cross-country champion at the time and she was a sports teacher at my school. She encouraged me to give it a try. So I went to training once and I liked it so much that I have stayed with it until today (laughs).
You have also won a number of titles on the road in Poland and as a junior you also won bronze in road racing at the World Championships.
I wouldn’t call myself a road racer. We mountain bikers train on the road and race from time to time. But for me it was always just a means to an end, i.e. training. I like road racing, but there was no way to do that for a longer period of time. However, I don’t feel sad about it because I prefer mountain biking.
So your self-image is that of a mountain biker?
Definitely. Mountain biking gives me much more pleasure than riding on the road. But I also love our community. I like it when men and women are in the same place at the World Cup. I think in terms of this we are a very good role model. I like the people and I think we mountain bikers live more of a hippie life (laughs). That suits me better. We live more freedom. Maybe we are the happier people. Okay, I wouldn’t say that road bikers aren’t, but I think we have more fun. With the men, money is of course a reason to go road racing, but I heard that Peter Sagan (triple road world champion from Slovakia, but as a junior also mountain bike world champion) would also prefer to be a mountain biker. But in his case it is understandable that he is not.
For women changing to the road is not so attractive?
You can see that women’s racing on the road is developing well and becoming more visible. But I would never switch.
You mentioned the MTB community. Is it possible that you yourself lived your sport a little in a Polish bubble until you joined the international Giant Team?
Yeah, Polish bubble, that’s the perfect description. I really felt very comfortable in the Polish teams and had a lot of fun with the other women. But we were actually a bit isolated internationally. Our team manager at that time was mainly concerned with the market in our home country and he wasn’t interested in us being in contact with other teams. But the other problem was the language. I was the only one in the team who spoke English. When I wanted to go somewhere, I had to go by myself. That was certainly the more important reason. But I still had friends in the scene through my race in Jelenia Góra. That way I got a lot of contacts. But when I look back at my whole career and there is one thing I regret, it is that I didn’t change to an international team earlier. I don’t mean that they are better in terms of results, but for my personal development Giant was the best decision I ever made.
In the former Giant team you met Jolanda Neff.
Yes, I was also lucky that we had such a great team. Jolanda was there, Marianne Vos, Pauline Ferrand Prevot and excellent guys like Fabian (Giger), Emil (Lindgren), Michiel (van der Heijden) and Henky (Henk-Jaap Moorlag). That was the best time of my life. I mean, now with Kross it’s nice too, but back then, that was an absolute dream team.
Jolanda is almost ten years younger than you.
You don’t have to remind me (laughs).
I’m sorry…
..yes, ten years, that’s right.
But you obviously have a very good relationship. Has that changed over the years? She was still an under-23 rider back then and I’m sure she could learn something from you, right?
Hmm, that would be too much of an honor. Jolanda is a very, very smart person and she can learn from other people whatever she wants to learn. She absorbs all kinds of things from all the people she meets and I admire her abilities. I would perhaps say that I could observe her development. I can remember our first team camp in Cyprus when she was thinking about whether she should move up to the elite in the World Cup (early) or stay in the U23. She wrote down all positive and negative points on a paper. As a young rider she was a bit lost, but one year later she already won the overall ranking in the elite. She has grown very quickly. But it was great to see that she has not changed as a person. That I can really say objectively. Within a year she became a star, but she stayed the same.
At the beginning of her career she liked to approach her races offensively, sometimes too offensively. And she once said that she then followed your advice to hold back.
Yeah, I guess so. Sure we talked about it. If I had something to say to her, that’s what I did. But like I said, she’s a smart person and despite the fact that I have more experience, I could learn from her, too. She also gave me good inputs. I remember that Fabian also always listened when she said something. I think she didn’t always say clever things (laughs), certainly not. But in many points she did, we all learned from one another.
After Giant withdrew as a sponsor and Jolanda Neff was under contract with Stöckli for two years, you rode together for another two years with Kross.
I would not say that we took advantage of the moment when Stöckli pulled back. But yes, all (teams) spoke with Jolanda. It was certainly a lucky circumstance that I organized my own race at the end of the season and invited my closest friends (in the MTB circus) for a whole week. Jolanda, Nathalie (Schneitter) and Eva (Lechner). We spent a super nice week together and it was certainly a good opportunity for Jolanda to come down. She had so many options and it would have been difficult to decide. She saw that she had a lot of support from my side, but also from Kross manager Tomas Szcierwinsky. We didn’t push her and it was what she needed at that moment. When she left Kross, I could understand that, too. We remain friends for life, no matter what teams we race for. But for me it means a lot to ride for a brand that produces its bikes entirely in Poland. This is an additional motivation for me.
You mentioned your race in Jelenia Góra, the “Maja Race”. How much are you actually really involved in that?
The idea for this came up when I was honoured for my Olympic medal in 2008 in the town hall. We thought it would be a good time to use my popularity and bring the sport closer to the people in my city. I was looking for an organizer, but the first years were hard. I looked for the track, looked for people to set it up, invited all the riders, took care of all the logistics and was responsible for all the media work. And I first had to show people how to organize a cross-country race, because until then they only organized marathons. Instead of warming up, I had to show the marshals where to stand. That was pretty stressful (laughs). Organizing, racing and taking care of the audience and the media, after that I was always exhausted. But every year I’m happy when all the riders from all over the world come and feel comfortable in my home region.
You have studied financial and insurance mathematics. What was the idea behind it when you decided to take this course of studies?
When I chose it, I was 19. At that age, you don’t know how your sports career is going to go. I had also thought about studying sports marketing, but especially my mother encouraged me to study something that would give me a secure future. From today’s perspective, I wouldn’t say it was the right decision. Sports marketing would probably fit better now. But I don’t regret it. It was five hard years, but it was good for my personal development. It forced me to keep my eyes open and not just stare at my handlebars. I came in contact with people who weren’t interested in cycling and I had to use my brains harder.
Do you want to work in this industry after your career?
To be honest, even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t be able to. I finished my studies twelve years ago and have no practice whatsoever. I would have to study for another year or two before starting this career. On the other hand, as a sportswoman I am in a pleasant situation. There are a few opportunities for me to stay in the world of sport, which I want to do with all my heart.
Do you already have plans what you will do after your career?
Yes, I have a bucket list of things I would like to do (smiles). But it’s not a job. I hope I have some savings to enjoy my life a little. I have always taken sports very seriously and especially with my weak immune system I always had to avoid all risky activities. Actually I am in quarantine all year round (smiles). There are a few things I would like to do. Ski touring or kite surfing, horseback riding, go to big concerts. That’s what I plan to do. But as for the job, I will try to use my prominence while it’s still there. I already have many requests from companies for bike events and speeches. Maybe I can also use my experience around the world to organize bike camps. We will see.
Have you already made a decision as to when to stop?
Yes, 2020 is to be my last season. But it will put me in a big dilemma if the Olympics are postponed. I would like to end my career with the Olympics. We will see. If they take place this year, then I will surely end my career as a World Cup rider. Maybe I will ride some hobby races, maybe the BC Bike Race (in Canada) or in Colombia.

Maja Wloszczowska also experienced some dramatic disappointments during her career. As a junior in 2001, she was on her way to the title until barely 200 metres before the finish. In Vail, Colorado, she was in front of the British Nicole Cook when she rode in the wrong direction. This had to do with the fact that the male juniors were on the track at the same time. Two days before the start of the MTB World Championships, the World Trade Center was attacked on September 11, 2001. As a result, the original schedule was pushed together and all cross-country races were held on one day. When asked about this, Maja Wloszczowska still reacts emotionally today.
In 2011 she lost the World Championship title due to a defect in the last round, in 2016 she lost the silver medal, also due to a defect in the last round, and then bronze in a close sprint against the Canadian Emily Batty.

Six million people in Poland are said to have seen the Olympic women’s race in Rio. How much are you known as a mountain biker in Poland? Are you recognised by people on the street?
Hmm, it depends where I am. In my city, most people know me. Jelenia Góra has 70,000 inhabitants. When I go to Warsaw, I can usually still walk around the city and not be recognised. Sometimes someone recognizes me, but it’s not like it’s so bad I suffer. As a mountain biker you usually wear a helmet and goggles, so it’s only natural that people don’t recognize you in normal clothing. If I have to show my driving licence, the reaction can be: ‘oh, Maja’ (laughs). I would say that I am popular to the point that it makes my life a little easier after sports, but not in such a way that it bothers me.
Probably the two Olympic silver medals in 2008 and 2016 are most responsible for your fame.
Yeah, they turned everything upside down. But I was also lucky enough to be on a popular TV show. That certainly made me known to a larger audience. But it was surely the medals, yes…although when I think about it now…when I came back from the training camp in Spain they measured my temperature at the airport because of the corona virus and checked me. Then someone said: “Oh, are you the one with the broken leg”? (Laughs)
He hinted at London 2012 when you broke your ankle in training camp two weeks before the Olympic Games.
That was in all Polish media for three days. You don’t have anything like that, even with the gold medal. I am now the one with the broken leg.
It must have been a huge disappointment, but – sorry – from this perspective it was the best time to break your leg. At the end of the season, probably half as many people would have been intrigued.
(Laughs). Yes, but it was even better that I came back and won another medal in Rio. That was the perfect story. It’s also available as a video, by the way, 40 minutes long and it’s about my way to Rio.

Maja Wloszczowska was coached by Marek Galinski. Her fellow countryman was one of the best Polish mountain bikers in his active career himself and also achieved some strong results in the World Cup. Galinski’s name is closely connected with the Polish mountain bike sport, he was one of the formative figures, not only in the saddle. In March 2014 he died in a car accident at the age of 40. Maja Wloszczowska always refers to the work and a credo of Galinski.

You have studied mathematics, but you also like books by Paulo Coelho. One is very analytical and logical, what Coelho writes is very spiritual. How does that come together in your personality?
I believe in energy and that believing that you can achieve something makes it easier. I would say it’s psychology. It opens your eyes to the possibilities that lie ahead. If you don’t believe in the possibilities, for example in something like an Olympic medal, then you don’t see the options. I see more of a psychological side to it than a magic one.
Are you an athlete who gets more motivation from training data, from pulse, watts and so on or is it more about believing in yourself?
I’d say everything is important. During training, I look at the watt numbers, sure. But watts isn’t everything. If you take all cyclists and compare their FTP (functional threshold power), you won’t get the World Cup standings. It is also about technical skills, it is about mentality. I would say that is even more important. Now the level has become so high, everyone is talented. The differences are so small that you really need your head to win. One thing is to suffer, but the other is to stay relaxed. When you are relaxed, your body works better.
Sounds easy, but it probably isn’t.
Before Rio, I really worked very hard on not getting crazy about the Olympics, because the pressure is very high. That’s something Marek taught me. To simply do my job.
Whenever someone on my team says we have to do this or that, I always say stop, we don’t have to do anything. We do what we can, and take it as it comes. If I don’t win a medal, the world will still keep spinning and I will keep sitting on my bike. It’s nice to win a medal, but you shouldn’t think about that. Before Rio I didn’t think about the result, I just thought about what I have to do and how to enjoy it. Of course, it’s easy to say that, but not quite as easy to do that.
You seem to have succeeded.
I must say it was good that I went to Colombia to prepare. There was no other sportsman around me and no journalists. It was an unknown place, with good food, many enthusiastic people. That gave me a lot of energy. When you go to Livigno (like in 2012) you see the riders everywhere, one makes intervals, others pass you in training and you drive yourself crazy. So Colombia was really perfect. I trained and the rest was super relaxed. I didn’t follow the media too much and didn’t look too much into the social media, but was rather focused on myself.
But you have to be able to preserve this when you arrive in Rio.
Yes, I was lucky that my technical coach is a very relaxed person. I remember that we looked at a small change in the course that they made on four little jumps. He said while we’re here, let’s try this in flip-flops. At first I thought, hey, I don’t want to waste my energy in flip-flops, but then I did. And it was just the right thing to do because I enjoyed it.
When Marek died, what did change for you in the years that followed?
Phew, that was certainly one of the toughest moments in my career. I believed strongly in what he was doing. He was a perfect mentor to me. I’d say I feel more alone with everything since then. I always had great support, I can’t complain about that. But working with Marek was very special. You could always feel it was the project of the whole group. So, preparing for the Olympic Games, it’s not my preparation, it’s everybody’s. And the medal should be cut into pieces for everyone who worked for me. With Marek I always felt that my job is our job. Later I worked with his best friend Michal Krawczyk because I thought it was the same style. It worked very well, he’s a great guy. In terms of human values, he represents the same as Marek. There are not too many people like him.
That means you have continued the training philosophy of Marek Galinski?
Yes, we more or less copied it. I didn’t want to take any risks either. After Rio, we changed all that. Since Rio, I don’t have to prove anything. I have no more pressure and I can take risks. I’ve been working with my stepfather ever since. He’s not a cycling coach, but he’s always come up with ideas, it was just a matter of integrating them. He is 65 years old and always had a lot of problems with the computer. So it really shocked me when I opened my training tool. There I saw a perfect training plan, with my performance data, much more detailed than it was the case with Marek. That impressed me and it is also going very well. The only thing is that as soon as he sees it is going well, he presents something new and even tougher. But I am someone who quickly tends to overtrain which is why Michal has always slowed me down.
I have to be careful, I have 20 years of competitive sport in my body and my immune system is not so good.

In 2018, on the initiative of the Swiss Jolanda Neff and Maja Wloszczowska, almost ad hoc, a clip was created that can be considered a mountain bike advertising video for girls. The duo inspired quite a number of female competitors to take part, and the idea was realized during a World Cup weekend in Andorra. The result is a funny two and a half minute clip that has almost 300,000 clicks on YouTube and has been watched countless times in social media. It may have easily crossed the million mark, as Jolanda Neff alone has 300,000 subscribers on Instagram.

You have mentioned above the atmosphere, the culture in mountain bike sports. Is the impression that the scene is characterized by great, mutual respect and friendship more true than perhaps 15 years ago?
Sure, it is great. It’s hard for me to remember how it used to be. As you say, I was in my Polish bubble, with less contact. I don’t know why that is. Everyone speaks English now, that wasn’t necessarily the case before. That opens social borders. But definitely, the atmosphere is great. There are many friendships between the riders. That is also a reason why I love mountain biking so much and why I am not hurrying to stop.
An example of this is maybe the clip you co-made in 2018, “Girls on MTB”.
Yes. That was a great project. I was actually surprised that so many of the women immediately said yes. We finished it on two days at the World Cup weekend in Andorra. It was between short track and cross country races and everybody had to adjust their schedule for it. And we all paid for it ourselves. I can’t remember if it was 50 or 100 Euros. It was just an idea of Jolanda and me to get something cool going. We created a whatsapp group and asked people if they wanted to join. Everyone said yes and a small crew from Poland put it into practice. Anyway, the result was cool.
How many people have seen the clip in the end?
I don’t know. On Youtube, maybe 100,000, I don’t know. But on the social media channels of course many many more. I guess it could be a million. Jolanda and Emily (Batty) have many followers. By the way, thanks also to Rob Warner (MTB-commentator at Red Bull), whom we asked in the morning if he would participate and at noon he was ready to shoot.
How did the idea come about in the first place?
I think in the training camp with Jolanda. When there’s time to exchange ideas. We thought it would be something special to see all the personalities and wanted people to be able to see it, too. One idea was to bring the riders closer together and the other was to show what a cool discipline we practice. We just wanted to share what we experience. There was no bigger idea behind it, nothing to make money.
Let’s talk about the World Championship in Albstadt which may be your last world championship. Is it only one of 20?
Ah, certainly not, no. Especially since Albstadt is one of my favorite races. I remember the first time I went there, that was with Giant. It was a new World Cup event. I liked the course from the first lap on. And I always had good results in Albstadt. Twice I was very close to winning. In 2013, I had to start far behind because I lost points due to my injury. I kept getting further and further ahead and in the end I reached the leading group. But that cost me so much energy that Eva (Lechner) was stronger in the last half lap. In 2017 I was leading for a long time before Yana Belomoina came and snatched away my victory. The course suits me very well, especially the climbs. And the other point is that Albstadt is close enough to Poland for my fans to get there. I always have good support there. That always gives me extra energy in the climbs.
And what role does the World Championships play besides the Olympic Games?
Sure, Olympia is the most important thing, but I think it’s better for the head if you don’t focus on only one race. World championships are always special, no matter if Olympics take place in the same year or not. It is also difficult for us to prepare for Tokyo because you are riding in a different climate zone and time zone. So you can’t do an altitude training camp, which I have always done. Preparing for Albstadt is much easier. One week before the World Cup in the altitude of Andorra takes place and it is suitable to prepare in the altitude beforehand. I should be in a good shape for Albstadt.
What are you looking forward to most in Albstadt?
Definitely the race itself. Last year I couldn’t race because I had health problems after Cape Epic. Like I said, I like the track. And of course I’m looking forward to the spectators, it’s always great to ride in front of this backdrop. You can’t even hear your own thoughts, it’s so loud there.

Short profile Maja Wloszczowska
Age: 36
Born in: Warsaw, Poland
Raised and residing in: Jelenia Góra
Profession: Financial and insurance mathematics
Biggest success: Olympic Silver 2008 and 2016, Marathon World Champion 2003, Cross-Country World Champion 2010, Cross-Country-Worlds Silver 2004, 2005, 2011, 2013, Marathon-Worlds Silver 2018, 4 World Cup wins, European Champion 2009

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Photos: Marius Maasewerd, Armin Kuestenbruck