News & Updates

Catching up with Olympian, biochemist, and nerd, Gillian Carleton

We caught up to Gillian Carleton this fall to talk about sports, training, recovering from injury, and the life of an academic. Carleton won bronze in the 2012 Olympics in London as a track cyclist in the women’s team pursuit. She also took first place in the Omnium, Pan American Track Championships, in 2014. Since then she’s been studying biochemistry and other things.1

Thank you for meeting up with us! What’s keeping you busy these days?

Hi! These days I’m doing graduate studies in biochemistry. It’s through BC Cancer, via UVic, which is very exciting because my work is all pre-clinical and has the potential, if I do it well, of entering clinical trials eventually. I’m very lucky to be at a facility where promising research is being translated into clinical trials on real humans – not just mice. I also have interests in neuroscience but this program is so hands on and exciting and I love that my research could actually end up helping people in the next few years. I’m applying to extend my work into a PhD program.

So I’m in the lab. A lot!

For some people that might seems like a long way from sports. Is it for you?

Yes and no. I definitely have less time for training these days. [laughs] My research is in immunotherapy, and with CAR-T therapy (chimeric antigen receptors), and how we can train a patient’s immune response. We’re in an age of medicine where we can actually tailor treatment to individual people. And my field of research is about how to work with a patient’s immune response; to enhance it, to train it, to help it to work and help the patient compete. My background as an athlete has grounded me in the science of performance, of bodies, and physiology.2 Also, as athletes, we’re continually pushing and also recovering from injury.

Have you had many sports injuries?

I broke my pelvis eight months before the Olympics.

What? Wow.

Yeah. I was lucky because the fractures that I had were not super displaced. So I chose to not have surgery. If I’d had surgery, my run at the Olympics would have been impossible. But I laid in bed for four weeks. Then I got up on crutches and scooted around in a rolling office chair, for maybe two more weeks. I was getting x-rays every couple weeks. I was lucky and they healed.

I got back on my bike and the return to training was very difficult. I lost a lot of strength on one side. I had a whole team of medical professionals. Physiotherapy is one of the things I still do. It’s been seven years. Still to this day physio helps me a lot to strengthen, and getting coached to do the exercises that strengthen the tiny little supportive muscles – super helpful.

We hold up athletes as heroes and the narrative is heroic. But realistically, every successful athlete, whether olympic or weekend-type, can only succeed with a team. It takes a support network.

Even as a kid I would never have been able to do all those sports without the support of my parents. And then the layers of support from there: coaches, physios, teammates, doctors, massage therapists, chiropractors. Friends! Friend networks that supported me during training and traveling were crucial. So thanks everyone, for winning a bronze medal with me!

Have you always been into sports?

I ran my first 5k at nine years old.

So, pretty much. Was it always running and cycling?

My first sport was soccer. I think It’s good for kids to do lots of different sports when they’re young. It can be risky for kids to focus on only one sport, although some sports like gymnastics and swimming are sports that you need to focus on from a young age. The peak age for these sports is quite young. But I do think kids that do one sport their entire childhood and teenage years risk not getting to the level they want and then fall out of love with sport.

Doing a bunch of different sports is good for your body. And the range of skills you learn is much wider.

When did cycling start for you?

Well, I did triathlon when I was young. I was twelve-ish. I did triathlon for four years, and my dad did triathlon back then as well. I have always done sports with my parents. (Editor’s note: Nancy and David Carleton are, by the way, on the Human Powered Racing team.) And I had always been a bike rider.

But the velodrome is very different and very technical.

Right. When did you start track cycling?

I did my first track cycling race, on a velodrome, when I was nineteen. The velodrome is steep, and there are a lot of technical skills required, and the tactics are quite complicated. There are a lot of different kinds of track races, too. It’s a little like track and field this way. There are many events, with a range of skills and tests. Some races are about points, some about crossing the finish line first, and some are about not getting eliminated. So each race has its own strategies.

And it can be dangerous. The track is steep, there are no brakes and there are no gears. It’s a type of bike that is from an era before gears.

So, injuries can happen. Are there lots of tracking cyclists on Vancouver Island?

Yes, there’s an outdoor velodrome in Langford, the Westshore Velodrome. The challenge is that because the track is so steep, it can’t be wet at all. So racing is limited to the summer. People love it. There’s a really strong sports community, in general, on Vancouver Island.

Do you still do cycling?

I don’t do track cycling anymore. I ride mountain bikes now. And I support Ride Don’t Hide.

What is Ride Don’t Hide?

I do work with the Canadian Mental Health Association and we do this ride which raises money for local mental health initiatives. I’ve been involved in the Victoria iteration – I’m an ambassador. This past summer we had more than 500 riders. Fundraising happens by teams and individuals and it culminates in June.

It was started by a teacher in Vancouver who was living with bipolar disorder, and he decided to ride around the world to raise awareness about the stigma surrounding mental illness. Living with mental illness can be really tough. When riders show up to a Ride Don’t Hide event and connect with others who are also living with mental health challenges, it’s an act of solidarity. So many people can’t be open about the things they are experiencing and they’re forced into silence, but seeing other people showing up for them is hugely validating.

Gillian Carleton laughs out loud at the Atrium on Yates street, Victoria.

Gillian Carleton and team at the London Olympics in 2012.
Jasmine Glaessar, Steph Roorda, Gillian Carleton and Laura Brown at the London Olympics in 2012.
  1. Cycling Canada Press Release.
  2. “We can genetically engineer T cells to recognize cancer. If we make a tumour recognizable by your immune system, then at least your system can try and respond to it. This treatment has actually just been approved by the FDA for leukemia, which is pretty cool. My own work is in really early days, though. I’m anticipating that the project I’m working on now will take three or four years. My personal next step is to turn my project in to a PhD.”