When Macey Stewart lined up in her Wiggle High5 jersey for the first time in January, the then-21-year-old believed she was starting a career reboot with the form of her life. The former junior track and road world champion had moved so far beyond the cycling malaise that led her to walk away from the sport two years earlier.
Stewart, who had raced with Orica-Scott in 2015, learnt a lot in her two years away. She grew as a person, strengthened her resolve, and found the joy in riding again. However, it was no easy path — her decision to take a break from cycling came just before her father was diagnosed with cancer. It was not long before the disease took his life.
But instead of being hobbled by the tragedy Stewart used it to spur her on. Life could be all too short and the Tasmanian decided she didn’t want to be looking back later with regret about what could have been. Looking back proudly seemed like a far better option.
With nearly a year of hard and determined comeback training in her legs, Stewart lined up in January to help her team fight for victory on stage 1 of the Santos Women’s Tour Down Under in South Australia. She was well and truly ready for that new beginning — her ambitions on the road looked set to fall into place, so too on the track. The crucial final selection camp for those vying for Commonwealth Games selection was on the books that month. Stewart was confident that the work she had put in was showing through in her form.
But then her career reboot came to a screeching halt, just a few hundred metres from the line on the first day of international racing for 2018. As her teammates celebrated the sprint win of Annette Edmondson, Stewart lay on the road having clipped a barrier in the chaotic run-in to the sprint. Stewart, who had picked herself up after her father’s death and steeled herself for a year to get into this position, now had another one of life’s blows to deal with. Injury meant she had another fight for fitness ahead and another comeback to get ready for.
Now, several months later, Stewart is set to make comeback number two, at the Women’s Tour of California. Ahead of the race, which starts on Thursday, Ella CyclingTips talked to Stewart about the challenges of the past two years and her hopes for the future.
Everything happens for a reason
It wasn’t easy for Stewart to walk away from a sport she’s been part of since she was just eight years old. In 2015, at 19, she’d worn the rainbow stripes as a junior and was off racing in Europe with Orica-Scott. It may have looked like a dream come true, but it didn’t feel it.
“I just wasn’t happy when I stopped riding my bike,” said Stewart as she looked back to her mindset in 2015. “Life’s too short not to be happy and it just got to the point where I didn’t want to continue each day.
“I still remember now the months and weeks leading into that choice and it was a really really hard decision to make but looking back and seeing how the last few years have panned out I don’t think I could have made a better decision. Everything happens for a reason.”
These are words she finds herself repeating again and again, especially given her decision to break away from cycling couldn’t have come at a more crucial time.
“Literally a week after I made that call my father was diagnosed with cancer,” said Stewart. “That next year was a really hard year, easily the hardest of my life.
“I was with dad pretty much every day for the last three months of his life,” said Stewart. “It was then that I realised that life is not waiting for me to be ready and I don’t want to be 54 years old — which is how old dad was — and look back on my life with regrets about what I could have done when I was young; at how I could have made the Olympics one day but thought it was too hard.
“It gave me that motivation and I thought ‘well, screw it’. It’s four years of my life before the next Olympics or even eight years to another. I’m still so so young and I may as well make the most of this dream while I’ve got the chance. Otherwise I will look back one day and regret it.”
Macey Stewart 2.0
It was with this strong motivation that Stewart returned to the bike in 2017, returned to competition domestically with a leadership role at the TIS Racing Team, and returned to the track.
“When I first came back and decided to switch on they called me Macey 2.0,” Stewart said. She speaks with justifiable pride at the determined way she went about picking up her life and cycling career after her father’s death. “I have a very different outlook and I came to TIS (the Tasmanian Institute of Sport) and requested a meeting with everyone — strength coach, training, sports science — and just said ‘Look, I want to make the Commonwealth Games team. What do I have to do to get there?’
“After losing Dad I had that deep desire and motivation and I thought after a couple of months that would die off. But six months in, a year in, I still just had that. I feel now like it’s something that’s never really going to go.”
That strong motivation and hard work through 2017 looked set to pay off as she started 2018 in contention for a home Commonwealth Games berth on the track and with a contract at a top-tier professional road team, Wiggle High5.
Instead, this comeback, at an age when many are still working toward their first break in the sport, turned out to be painfully short.
On the first day of the Santos Women’s Tour, Stewart had done her job for the squad and was slipping back through the field as teammate Annette Edmondson wound up a powerful stage-winning sprint. But Stewart didn’t get to celebrate the victory with the team.
“Initially we didn’t think it was too bad,” said Stewart of her injuries. “I had a suspected broken elbow but that ended up being just a lot of skin off and bruising. But a couple of days later we found a fracture in my foot and then a fracture in my eye socket.”
UPDATE: Turns out things were a little more serious than first thought following my crash on Thursday. I’m now in a moon boot and awaiting plastic surgery on my eye socket within the next week or so. Lucky I asked to be double checked… I don’t have much to say right now other than I’ll write a f***ing good autobiography one day. #comeback9742
Her vision wasn’t right, she couldn’t ride, and the recovery timeline just kept blowing out. It wasn’t the state she expected to be in when celebrating her 22nd birthday mid-January.
“It went from a week off to a month and then …,” Stewart said, trailing off, the frustration still evident in her voice. “I had to have a couple of operations on my eye socket and one operation went wrong and I had to wait another month and then have another operation to fix that operation,” said Stewart. “It just lingered for a little bit too long.”
And that took a toll.
“I’ve come back from things before but this time was different … this time I felt a bit defeated,” said Stewart. “I had only just come back, I worked so hard and I was in easily the best shape I’d ever been in. I finally felt that I was nearly back where I needed to be, and then to just get knocked down again … the last few months have been really tough.
“Constant little knock-backs along the way slowly chipped away at my confidence … it got harder and harder to keep pushing.”
After all she’d been through over the past couple of years, and all the injuries she’d bounced back from, this one felt, at times, like it was getting the better of her.
“With my eye, I had no control over it,” she said. “That unknown was a really tough mental battle … just sitting on my couch not knowing what was next, not knowing what was going to happen.”
Then once she got back on the bike, close calls on the road didn’t make things any easier.
But she made it through the recovery and used her newfound perspective and motivation to reboot her training – again. Now, Stewart is ready to embrace another new beginning.
First stop California, final destination Tokyo
When Stewart spoke to Ella CyclingTips, she had just recently arrived at her new home in Girona, which she is sharing with Mitchelton-Scott rider Georgia Williams. The Spanish city of Girona is home to so many cyclists and Stewart spoke excitedly about this new chapter, her new environment, new places to explore, and new riding buddies to explore with.
But first and foremost she spoke about the welcome dose of positivity, the return of that on-the-bike-confidence, and the progress toward her cycling goals.
“I keep telling myself that now, as everyone gets tired towards the end of the year, I’ll be coming good,” said Stewart. “Who knows what great things are going to happen toward the end of the year.”
She’s looking forward to actually getting a full race (and more) in on the road with her Wiggle High5 teammates and working toward track goals. The Tasmanian will be building up her track racing level as the year continues, aiming to put herself in a position to represent Australia at the World Championships next year and start throwing her name into the ring for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
But first, she’s set to line up at this week’s Amgen Tour of California Women’s Race.
“I’ve done one club race since my crash in January so I’m very prepared for it to be extremely hard,” Stewart said of the three-stage Women’s WorldTour race. “As long as I can contribute to the team at least once each day I think I’ll be happy.
“California is warm-up for me and a learning experience and hopefully, after a couple of races, I should be able to be a bit more confident, as long as I get through without crashing. That would be great. That’s actually probably my number one goal at the moment,” she concluded, with a cheeky laugh.