Amateur to Olympic medallist in two years: Marlen Reusser on her fast-track to the top

After a late entry to the sport, the Swiss champion has gone from cycling as a hobby to being one of the best female riders in the world in break-neck speed

Four years ago, Marlen Reusser competed in her first ever road race. “I was crying because I was so frightened. I was shocked,” she says. “How can you touch each other, how can you block each other? I called my coach and said, ‘What's this? How can you send me here and tell me nothing about what is happening?’”

As Reusser shares this insightful anecdote, the gravity of her rapid rise to the pinnacle of the sport becomes clear. By contrast, as the Swiss rider was tearfully struggling at the back if the peloton in 2017, Ellen van Dijk, who Reusser finished in second place behind at the World Championship ITT in 2021, was in her eleventh year as a professional, already with a world title and Tour of Flanders win under her belt.

So how did the 30-year-old Swiss champion go from never having raced to an Olympic and World Championship medal in less than half a decade? Reusser admits it's been a whirlwind, and, despite her outstanding results, she’s adamant that she is nowhere near having reached her full potential. It’s why she chose Team SD Worx as the place to continue her career in 2022.

Swiss National Champion Reusser at the SD Worx camp in Calpe (Image: Getty)

“I had quite a lot of offers but I understood I really need a team where I can learn something,” she says. “In the team I was on, I was not going to have the education I’m longing for. I asked myself: which team is able to give it to me as a 30-year-old rider who is quite new to the sport?”

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Watching Team SD Worx race with tactical astuteness and exemplary communication, Reusser found her answers in the Dutch squad. The Swiss rider’s management reached out to them personally to begin negotiations. “You see how well they work together, you see there must be something in this team.”

“Also, Anna [van der Breggen] is becoming a DS, she has seen me racing normally from the peloton and now she sits in the car so knows exactly my weak points,” she says. “For me that’s a huge advantage as I have to learn so many things.”

Reusser at the Tokyo Olympics (Alex Broadway/SWpix)

When looking back at Reusser’s career so far, it’s no surprise that she still has a lot to learn compared to some of her competitors. The Swiss rider’s first experiences on a bicycle came during mixed-relay triathlons, as a hobby, when she was at university. Reusser completed the bike section of the race because she was born with misformed ankles, making cycling one of the few sports she’s able to comfortably compete in. 

“I did all of these hobby things and I was always quite fast,” she explains. “For example, there was this alpine pass in Switzerland. I think there were more than 1,500 men who had ridden it and I was fifth or sixth among the men. I was not that skinny, just a hobby girl on a shit bike.”

In her last year of studying for her medicine degree, Reusser entered the Swiss Championships after encouragement from her peers. Having only received her racing licence a few months earlier, Reusser won the ITT and finished second in the road race. The result shocked many, and gained her selection for the Swiss team at the European Championships, her first international event.  

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Notable results in events like the Chrono des Nations the following year caught the attention of the World Cycling Centre team, who offered Reusser a place to train at their headquarters in Aigle. It was then, in 2019, that Reusser decided to dedicate herself full-time to the sport, rather than balancing work as a doctor with her training like she had previously.

“I was like, why not? I joined them and that's how I did my first road racing season,” she says. “I really didn't like it in the beginning, it's only last year that I started to like it.”

It was with the WCC team that Reusser began to gain results internationally, finishing 3rd in the BeNe Ladies Tour and 6th at the World Championships ITT in the team’s colours. Moving on to the now defunct UCI Continental team Equipe Paule Ka team in 2020, the Swiss riders journey to the top continued. Despite the uncertainty around the future of Equipe Paule Ka at the time, Reusser focussed on her own racing and secured a top 10 at Liege-Bastogne-Liege and finished second in the World Championships ITT that year.Reusser training with SD Worx in Calpe (Image: Getty)

When the team folded, it was Alé BTC Ljubljana who picked up Reusser in 2021. It would be fair to say that this was her most outstanding season yet. “I'm really happy with last season,” she explains. “I will never forget it.”

“I’d like to add, though, I was assuming I would be good for the time trial because I felt my body was good. I had better material and I’d really prepared for them. So for the podium places in time trialling I was almost expecting it. But the results I had on the road, they felt so much bigger. Those I really didn't expect. I was even winning stages, that was so cool,” she says.

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Though she’s grateful for the opportunities she had last year, it’s a well-known fact that Alé BTC Ljubljana was one of the smaller, lower budget teams on the world stage. With this in mind, Reusser secured her formidable results in 2021 with less support than she would have got on other WorldTeams. Riding for the notoriously professional Team SD Worx in 2022, Reusser will find herself on a level playing field with many of her top competitors and expects this to make a big difference.

“This is the first time I'm on a team that is this professional and strong. The way people treat each other, also the management and the directors, there is really respect for each other. These are topics that are brought to the table in these first team camps, and I've never seen that in any other team. So I really like it,” she says.

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Reusser’s background in medicine and her late entry into the sport helps her keep perspective on her results however. When asked if her silver medal at the Olympic Games changed who she was as a person, she replies: “I think it changed how people talk to me, which I really don't like. The Olympic Games are fantastic. But we're not like Gods or something.”

“Maybe if you ride from 12 years old and it's your life, maybe you lose a bit of this sense of how the world is. I don't define myself in sport,” she says.

The Swiss rider will turn 31 this year. In a sport where careers rarely continue after riders have reached the age of 35, bar some exceptions, Reusser is one of the older riders in the peloton. She hasn’t set limitations on the longevity of her career, however, and is focussed on taking year at a time, aiming to improve each race.

“I’ve signed with Team SD Worx for two years, we didn't talk about anything else,” she says. “For me personally, I want to go on as long as I have the feeling that it gives me something. If I get annoyed, bored, and I feel it's now time to stop, I will.”

Cover image: Alex Whitehead/SWpix