Mel Pemble's journey from Winter Paralympian to Para-cycling world champion

Canadian Para-cyclist Mel Pemble burst onto the scene last month in France at her first Para-cycling track world championships, where she broke a world record and won a pair of gold medals. (@CyclingCanada/Twitter - image credit)
Canadian Para-cyclist Mel Pemble burst onto the scene last month in France at her first Para-cycling track world championships, where she broke a world record and won a pair of gold medals. (@CyclingCanada/Twitter - image credit)

Mel Pemble is an athlete on the rise.

The Canadian Para-cyclist burst onto the scene last month in France at her first Para-cycling track world championships, where she turned heads by breaking a world record and capturing two gold medals.

A former Para-alpine skier who competed at the 2018 Paralympics, Pemble is now racing toward the 2024 Paralympics in Paris while quickly rising to the top of a different sport.

The 22-year-old resident of Victoria, B.C., was just as surprised by her breakout debut as anyone else.

"I kind of had a goal of podiuming at world championships maybe next year, maybe two years down the line kind of thing. I just came to this one wanting to see how I stacked up against everyone and just having some personal-best performances," Pemble told CBC Sports.

"The whole result came as such a surprise and a very nice one for sure."

Pemble won gold in both the women's C3 scratch race and the multi-event omnium, which included a world record performance in the women's C3 200-metre sprint. Pemble's time of 12.666 seconds announced her presence to the world on the first day of competition.

For Pemble, all the success was an amazing bonus after already achieving the main goal of reaching her first worlds as a Para-cyclist.

"I'd already made the world championships, and if anything else happened I was just over the moon with the result. That whole first day was just such a blur. I was super excited to see that I had not only come first but also set a world record in the meantime," Pemble said.

Making the transition to Para-cycling was a natural path for Pemble to follow after being identified as a strong prospect as a teenager. It's a decision she couldn't be happier with, especially after almost retiring from competition.

"I am so glad I made the switch. I was just talking to my parents and saying how I almost didn't, I almost decided to stop sport altogether. The fact that I've had this happen so early on in my cycling career is very exciting," Pemble said.

"I'm so glad that I ended up making the jump."

Born in Lancashire, England, Pemble's sports journey began after moving to Victoria at the age of nine. Pemble was born with cerebral palsy affecting her right side, and her parents convinced her to try skiing again in Canada after an earlier lesson in France left her with a twisted knee.

She began racing two years later and developed into one of Canada's top Para-alpine skiers, posting two top-ten finishes at the 2018 Paralympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Paul Hanna/Reuters
Paul Hanna/Reuters

Feeling ready for a major change, Pemble made the decision to switch sports after the 2020 skiing season — a period that gave her an opportunity to focus solely on training as the world entered the pandemic.

"It was a pretty quick decision. I just kind of felt like I had got to the point in skiing where I made my goals," Pemble said.

"I always kind of thought I might transition into doing that full-time and 2020 seemed like a good year to do it. A lot of people said it was a terrible year to transition because there was no competition, but I enjoyed getting some cycling fitness, because it's so different in such a different sport, and having a good year to train."

Introduction to Para-cycling at 14

Pemble was originally identified with Para-cycling potential through the Canadian Sport Institute Pacific's Podium Search program when she was 14. She began competing at the provincial level the following year, and would also use cycling as cross-training during her skiing career.

Former Olympic cyclist Kurt Innes was instrumental in Pemble's development in the sport. He helped identify her potential through Podium Search, and was her original coach when she decided to switch sports in 2020.

Innes works with the Canadian Sport Institute Pacific and served as technical lead for RBC Training Ground from 2015 to 2021.

"I was very blessed to start working with her then and just give her some basic introduction to the sport of cycling, and right away I identified her as somebody with tremendous potential," Innes told CBC Sports.

"When she was 14 she was already demonstrating and exhibiting lots of great qualities that would have led to her being a successful cyclist had she chosen to do that right away."

Innes says even at that early age, Pemble was posting times that were not far off from the world champions in the same distances.

"Her first year on the track she was already almost at 90 per cent of the gold-medal performance in that event as a 14-year-old," Innes said. "So right away it's like, this kid has got something special. She understands how to apply pressure on the pedals and how to steer really well, and read and react technically and tactically."

Pemble reconnected with Innes and made the full transition to Para-cycling after a five-year break from the sport, kicking off her exciting new chapter. She currently works with Cycling Canada coach Phil Abbott.

"It was just as exciting as when I tried it before and I knew immediately that I wanted to do it competitively and to kind of aim for the next Games," Pemble said.

Pemble got off to a strong start and had a phenomenal year leading up to worlds, including new national records in the women's C3 500-metre time trial and individual pursuit at the Canadian championships in September.

Pemble made her Para-cycling debut on the world stage at a road World Cup event in May. But with her love for speed from her days on the slopes, she always knew she wanted to compete internationally at the velodrome.

"I knew that there was a lot more work to do on the road side of things, but I always had track in my mind and it just kind of accumulated from there," Pemble said.

Innes isn't surprised at all to see her thriving in the sport, describing her as someone who doesn't shy away from challenges.

"She just had to kind of find her way and double down on herself on wanting to make this happen," Innes said.

While Pemble knew long ago that she wanted to be a Summer Paralympian, her goals are evolving in the wake of her quick success.

The sky is the limit.

"It seemed like a bit of a stretch or a dream to be on the podium [in Paris], but now I'm definitely solidifying that as a bit more of my goal to podium at those ones as well," Pemble said.

Pemble's next big goal on the road to Paris is to add another world championship debut to her resume in 2023.

"Next year I would definitely like to be able to compete at road world championships, as well as the track world championships," Pemble said. "I skipped out on road worlds this year just to focus on track, but hopefully with the added fitness and experience on the road I'll do both."

But beyond the medals and records, Pemble's inspiring story is a testament to how important it is to foster opportunities for disabled athletes to try different sports.

"I think for the Canadian sports system, and for us as coaches, to be able to embrace athletes to try things out and to take a little bit of risk and step laterally and even be a multi-sport athlete, it's such a beneficial thing for us to reinforce and encourage," Innes said.