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Last week, I visited South Africa, my homeland, where my parents spent the majority of their life, and a place that all their family and closest friends still call home. The visit was humbling and it gave me a little wake-up call, a change of perspective.
At the age of eight, I was lucky enough to move to Australia, where opportunities are endless if you choose to pursue them. I could never thank mum and dad enough for leaving everything behind for my brother and I. There are no words that can express that kind of gratitude. I’ve seen some things this week that have me shaking my head, dumbfounded about the how and why? Injustices that make me angry, sad and guilty that I live such a blessed life. But mostly, I realised just how fortunate I am.
At times, I have been one to sit back and complain that I deserve a better income, that I deserve this, that and the rest…but what actually makes me so damn special? I’m racing for one of the best teams in the world, I get paid, my travel is paid, I have insurance and I have a bloody good support network. I’m actually pretty damn lucky.
I realise I also chose this path. I could have graduated university like my friends, gone into the work force, been earning some dollars, potentially buying property and owning a car. That isn’t the path I chose, and it wasn’t ever the path I wanted. I think I need to remember that sometimes when I’m feeling underappreciated or hard done by. I’m happy, I have the most wonderful family and friends, I have money in the bank, and possibly the greatest job in the world. I really get to do what I love, which is so rare in this world.
Inspiration can come from the internal or the external. I often draw inspiration from others, and not the people you would think. Not your champions, but rather your everyday people. They are the ones who inspire me and push me to achieve greater things, and have an impact. There’s one such young lady I want to talk about here, someone who deserves a mention.
I rose to the world tour because I got a bit lucky, and had some noticeable results. Sometimes the stars align and that’s how I found myself on Specialized Lululemon, the team that was the equivalent to the NBA Allstars of 2012. I was given a development role on the team, largely because I was young. The old UCI rule of “the average age must be 26 years of age on a UCI team” is what essentially got me the gig. To be fair, I had proven myself as a good rider in Australia, but I had yet to prove myself overseas. As I said, I got lucky. Most young riders fight tooth and nail to get to the WorldTour.
One young rider in the midst of that battle to get to the top level of cycling, is a South African girl named Hazel Magill, who I met in September last year at the Holland Ladies Tour. Hazel made her way over to my race hotel just to come say hey and meet me. It was dinner time, and getting quite late, so I asked Hazel and her bestie Angela, an Aussie funnily enough, to stay for dinner. Turned out I had just met the younger version of Carlee and I (if you don’t know, Carlee Taylor is my very very best friend, my person).
As we parted, I wished her well with her upcoming race in Ireland, “the Ras”, and a happy birthday for her 21st. We had planned to meet up in South Africa in November, as I’d made plans to holiday and see family and friends.
Two months on, I’m the one on the side lines watching Hazel race. She finished fourth; so, so close to a podium. I could see the disappointment and hunger in her eyes, and was reminded of me at her age, trying to make my way up the ranks in the Aussie cycling scene.
When I first met Hazel, I didn’t really know anything about her, where she came from, how she found herself in the sport of cycling, in general, her story. And I’m sure Hazel wouldn’t really have shared if I hadn’t prodded and poked, like I do with people. A simple question about her 21st birthday and her experience at the Ras, left me starring at her blankly. I’ll elaborate:
On the fourth stage of the Ras in Ireland, Hazel crashed fourth wheel. A frustrating place to crash, as usually the reason you stay near the front is to avoid such instances. The crash was quite bad and Hazel suffered from a concussion. She didn’t know what day it was, let alone the fact her 21st birthday was the next day. In her state of confusion, she forgot where she had left her credit card. Her only source of cash was the 4 euro she had in her pocket. After calling the bank and ordering a new card to be shipped to Europe, Hazel turned to her bestie Angela who, after running out of money completely had a 20 euro left. So with the race done, the girls got sent back to the team house with only 24 euros between them to feed themselves … for 10 days. I couldn’t even begin to imagine being in that situation. So for 10 days, during a heavy training block, the two girls, “borrowed corn” from fields, which was actually animal feed, not your usual run of the mill corn, and onions, oh and they bought some rice too.
The amazing thing is that these girls were still able to train, smile and laugh about it. While others would have thrown in the towel, they didn’t, because they both live by a saying “make the best of every situation”. There is so much truth to those few simple words.
My first question from this was why the hell couldn’t you call on someone for cash? I think Hazel is simply too humble, determined to make it on her own, and accept full responsibility for all situations.
This determination started when she was just 18 years old and took herself over to Europe to compete as a mountain biker with zero support from the South African mountain biking association. A former hockey player, Hazel figured that if she ever wanted to represent South Africa, she would have to switch sports to escape the surrounding politics of South African sport. If you’re not familiar, I’ll leave it to you to go look up the current situation in that country.
So Hazel sought greener pastures in mountain biking, and ended up living in Germany in a guest house, working the kitchens to earn her stay. Whilst doing that, Hazel was also working as a mechanic for a German mountain bike team — yup, she is handy this one!
After trying the mountain biking scene, Hazel soon realised that there wasn’t much opportunity, and that South Africa’s mountain bike association wasn’t going to help at all, not even with the entry fee at a world cup. She was on her own, and it’s a hard sport to do with no support. With road cycling, if you at least get on a team, you can get equipment, race entry, travel (hopefully), and if you’re super fortunate, a salary or stipend. Hazel made the switch about a year ago, and wanted to throw herself right into the deep end, in Europe. She figured if you want to be the best you have to race the best, so she took herself to Europe (again), to race on a small amateur Dutch team.
Of course, in order to save up and pay for this trip, she had to work, because this world ain’t cheap. I know a lot of girls who got to Europe or America because daddy or mummy funded it. That’s awesome, if you have wealthy parents, but if you don’t, you’re on your own. Hazel worked and trained her butt off so she could earn enough to survive in Europe. If you know anything about the rand, you would know the exchange rate is shit. Sorry, but there is no more suitable word. It’s about 10 – 1 to the AUD. Just imagine trying to live in Europe on that!
So what did Hazel’s average day look like? Well, she would get up at 3am, train at 4am, get home, quickly eat and shower to get to work on time at 8am. Clocking off at 6pm, Hazel would head home, possibly squeeze in another training session, eat and sleep. Repeat. If that isn’t commitment to a cause, I don’t know what is.
And here I thought that studying part time, training and racing was hard! Again, it all comes back to a little bit of perspective.
There you have it, a little inside look into what it might take to make it to the top. The thing is, Hazel knows that once she makes it to the top, it’s not as glamorous as it seems. It doesn’t matter though, because she loves the sport, and all she wants to do is “inspire a nation”, to “dream big and make it happen” (quoted from Carla Swart, a South African cyclist who sadly passed in 2011 whilst training).
I think that is what resonated with me, the fact she wants to have a wider impact, and it isn’t just about her and her personal ambitions. I look forward to mentoring Hazel, and watching her rise up though the ranks and who knows, maybe we will be competitors in 2020 in Tokyo.