From tragedy to triumph: Christian Ashby’s return to life
At last week’s Australian National Championships, amongst the procession of Mitchelton-Scott victories and elite road skirmishes, there was a quieter, more unassuming, but altogether more extraordinary achievement taking place in the men’s paracycling C2 division.
In Wednesday’s time trial and Saturday’s road race, Ballarat local Christian Ashby claimed dual national championships, a year on from the road race bronze medal he picked up in his first ever race. And from a superficial look at a results sheet, that’s where this particular story starts and ends. But that doesn’t do it justice.
To understand what last week’s results really symbolise, you need to go back to April 2015, and every agonising, transcendental moment of Christian Ashby’s return to life since then.
There was nothing particularly remarkable about Good Friday, 2015, when Christian Ashby went out for a morning bike ride. As he did most mornings on the quiet tree-lined road running beside the banks of Ballarat’s Lake Wendouree, the fit, lean figure of Ashby pedalled meditative laps.
That morning, he’d woken up whilst it was still dark, left a note on the fridge for his family – “Hope you slept well! Love.” – and headed out for a ride. That morning, Ashby had 10 laps planned of a 6km circuit – part of the 25 hours weekly training he was putting in as a triathlete.
In the moment before everything changed, perhaps he was thinking about the camping trip he was about to leave for with his family. Perhaps he was looking forward to the hot cross buns that were waiting for him. Perhaps he was simply lost in the pure joy of physical exertion – of the ‘good pain’ he relished as an athlete, that would be so different to the other pain that he was about to learn the depths of. Ashby doesn’t know, because he doesn’t remember the collision.
Driving a stolen Mitsubishi Lancer with a suspended licence, ice-affected and on the way to ask her dad for money to buy more, 23-year-old Rebekah Stewart crossed the centre line of the road and slammed into Ashby. His body slid up over the windshield of the car, before landing on the road behind it, broken and bleeding in the early-morning gloom. His silver Cervelo was snapped in three by the impact.
Stewart didn’t stop. Instead, she returned home to try to conceal her crime, removing her damaged car boot and covering her car with a tarpaulin while first-responders frantically worked to keep the 36-year-old father of two alive. Following the incident, she told friends that she’d hit a kangaroo and “had to wash [off] the blood” spattered across the silver sedan she was driving.
Ashby doesn’t remember the flash of blue and red lights in the waking light along Wendouree Parade, or the helicopter ride to the Royal Melbourne Hospital. He doesn’t remember the 48 hours that his life hung in the balance, or the hushed, urgent conversations by his bedside as an endless succession of medical professionals wondered how to put him back together.
At the point that he landed in the Royal Melbourne Hospital ICU, his survival was uncertain, with Ashby’s wife and parents warned to prepare for the worst. Intensive care specialist Dr Simon Iles told the Herald Sun later that Ashby was the sickest person in the entire hospital when he was admitted, saying “I’ll never forget when I first met him.” Ashby’s wife Karen later recalled the questions she was forced to confront: “Will the kids have a father? If he does survive, what will his life be like?”
An abridged list of hurdles facing the unconscious patient – extensive bleeding, a shattered pelvis, countless broken bones, punctured lungs, brain and neurological injuries, a ruptured kidney and spinal damage.
For 17 days, Christian Ashby lay in an induced coma, undergoing seven operations while his family wondered what version of Christian they’d get back.
And then, finally, he woke up, to a life that would be forever different.
A long road back
“I’ve tried and tried and tried, but the only thing I remember [about the crash] is waking up out of the coma,” Ashby told me in December 2019, a few days before Christmas, with the sound of children playing in the background.
For six weeks, he stayed at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, before his condition had stabilised enough to transfer to the Epworth in Richmond to begin his lengthy recovery. At the time he arrived, he couldn’t walk or even sit unaided, and suffered ongoing neurological complications. He was, according to his neurological physiotherapist, so weak in his right side that “he could hardly use it.”
Ashby stayed at the Epworth for four and a half months, telling me that over that time he “learnt to walk, talk and eat again. [There was] a lot of physio, a lot of speech pathology, a lot of neuropsychology … it’s about finding different neural pathways in your brain, for which I still have monthly appointments.” He’d lost significant muscle mass through his convalescence, his weight dipping as low as 58kg before he was able to begin to rebuild condition.
His family in Ballarat, an hour and a half’s drive to the west, tried to maintain as much normality as they could, given the circumstances. “Our main priority was the family, obviously. So we just decided to keep the kids in their sport, keep them at school… it wasn’t ‘don’t worry about me’, but our first priority was them,” Ashby explains.
But there’s only so much ‘normality’ you can build into a situation that starts with the possibility that a seven year old and a three year old face a life without a father, because of the irresponsible actions of a motorist.
After 17 days in a coma and an interminable stretch in hospital, Ashby was finally able to return home to his family for the first time. When he walked into the living room, hanging above the TV was a heart-ringed banner in crayon saying simply, ‘Welcome home Dad’.
— The Courier (@ballaratcourier) July 19, 2016
While Ashby was fighting for his life in hospital, the net was closing on Rebekah Stewart, with the Victoria Police Major Collision Investigation Unit having uncovered critical evidence – big leads like CCTV footage, microscopic leads like flecks of paint left on the bitumen – that would lead them to a car, in the process of being stripped in a backyard.
Six days after she left Christian Ashby to die by the side of a lake in Ballarat, Rebekah Stewart was arrested in suburban Melbourne.
In April 2017, two years after a Good Friday that was anything but, Stewart went to court. There, the Ashby family relived the trauma of the crash, with Christian delivering a forceful 12-page victim impact statement saying “I will never recover from this. In time, I will be forced to find a new normal. Every single day I am reminded.”
— Shannon Deery (@s_deery) May 12, 2016
In the years following the incident that had reshaped his life, Ashby had spent five and a half months in hospital, undergone 12 operations, lost a kidney and had a permanently disfigured hand, along with a plethora of other chronic issues. In his statement, Ashby poignantly noted how he would never be able to play with his children again without discomfort.
Stewart pleaded guilty to the charges of culpable driving causing serious injury and leaving the scene of an accident. Out of a maximum ten year sentence, she received a six year prison term, and will be eligible for parole in April 2021.
How do you begin to move on from an incident as cataclysmic as that which tore Christian Ashby’s life asunder? Could you forgive? Could you rebuild your life? What shape would you form it into? Would you have the will to let your new life grow tall, or would it become gnarled and twisted by bitterness?
Once the fundamentals of his rehabilitation were completed, Ashby began looking toward the future. One of the pillars of his life pre-crash was his work as a podiatrist, so it was a major milestone when he was able return to work at the Beaufort and Skipton Health Service.
“I’m back part time, three days a week and I won’t be able to … that’s probably it,” Ashby tells me. “It’s been a great thing to go to work. If I stayed at home being pensioned off for the rest of my life, I would probably be sitting there wondering ‘why me’? but going back to work has really enabled me to realise that everyone has a story.”
“Being a patient was, for me, probably the best thing in being a practitioner,” Ashby continued. “Doctors and nurses – they’re amazing people, but they’re not just medical practitioners, they’re like counsellors as well. They’re there for you in tough times. That’s been a real eye-opener… it’s really enabled me to be like that for my patients, and basically allowed me to realise that their problems don’t just stop at their feet – they may have mental issues or things that refer on, and I can talk it out to help them.”
The case and the context
Left crumpled on a road by a drug-affected driver, Ashby’s endurance was called on not just by the physical recovery but in the legal proceedings. In January 2018, the case was back in court again, with Stewart appealing the six year jail term she’d received on the basis that Ashby didn’t die.
In the Supreme Court of Appeal, the original decision was upheld, with the judges finding that the sentence was almost “favourable to the appellant”.
In his remarks post-sentencing, Ashby noted how the case had been hard on both him and the defendant’s family, while also placing the case in a broader context. “[The appeal] was a bit of a worry as I know of at least 10 other hit-and-run cases which are before the courts in the coming year and a reduced sentence would have set a precedent,” he said in March 2018.
Talking to CyclingTips last month, Ashby discussed his feelings toward Stewart. “My incident was one out of the box, and unfortunately I met a very callous person and she’s obviously doing time,” he said. “[But] I don’t hate the woman. I hate what she’s done to me, but it could have been anyone that day. The biggest thing I grapple with daily is there’s never been an apology.
“She chose the wrong choice. We all do the wrong thing [sometimes], but you’ve gotta own it. And she hasn’t owned it. And that’s what really hurts. If she’d rang me up and said, ‘mate, I’ve stuffed up, I’m so sorry …’ I don’t think I would have forgiven her, but I would have respected that a lot more.”
An OK outcome – Rebekah Stewart has appeal rejected. She probably deserved to have it increased, as Christian Ashby’s survival was not her priority when she left him to die on the road while she hid herself. @AusCycle @MichaelOReilly_ https://t.co/NyrUr6Gc0v
— 💧Rob Stephenson FRSA (@RobBendigo) March 8, 2018
In 2015, when the story of a cyclist fighting for his life in Ballarat hit the headlines, Christian Ashby’s story was frightening in part because it was so unusual. When I was hit by a car a few months later, it was Ashby that I often thought of when I assessed my relationship with fatherhood and risk and riding on the road in the days after.
Four years later, tragically, Ashby’s case isn’t such an outlier. In Victoria, major incidents involving the death of cyclists have hit the news with what feels like depressing regularity, each becoming flashpoints for the creeping dread that some riders feel on the road.
A few days before my first interview with Ashby, a 24-year-old cyclist in Horsham was killed in a hit-and-run. A few days before that, a sleep-deprived driver who fell asleep at the wheel and killed a father of two in Taylors Lakes was sentenced to 10 months in a youth prison. A month before that, the drug-affected driver who killed Dutch cyclist Gitta Scheenhouwer in a high-speed hit and run crash on Chapel Street was sentenced to 11 years in jail. The same week, the driver who killed local pro Jason Lowndes was given community service and a $2,000 fine.
Discussing these cases with me, a few days before a Christmas that none of these victims of road trauma would see, Ashby sounded weary when he said that “there’s so many [incidents] now with vulnerable road users, be it a cyclist or a pedestrian … it can be a matter of life or death.”
Reclaiming a love of cycling
Against this landscape of misery and broken lives, with chronic injuries to overcome, Ashby has spent some time grappling with the risk-versus-reward of getting back on the bike. At first, he says, he found it hard to overcome the feeling that every driver was going to hit him.
Coupled with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the crash, Ashby took baby steps back onto the bike, finding solace with riding groups through Lake Health Group physiotherapy and local shop Shaw’s Cycling Centre – riders who’d take the outside line to protect him from traffic. “That’s what I really missed, the social thing,” Ashby says. “Belonging to a group.”
Ashby had always had a competitive streak, so when he discovered there was an opportunity to participate in paracycling events, he was excited to have a goal to work towards. After being classified as a C2 – defined as riders with coordination impairments in two or three limbs – Ashby entered the 2019 National Championships at the Buninyong circuit just outside his hometown. He finished third in the road race, two places behind the world champion in his division, South Australian Darren Hicks.
A year later, having significantly ramped up his training both on Zwift and on the road, Christian Ashby won both the C2 time trial and road race at the National Paracycling Championships.
For a newly crowned dual national champion, he’s humble about his achievement, pointing out that Hicks – a personal inspiration of Ashby’s – was absent this year through injury. Nonetheless, he admits, you can only race against who shows up – and it occurs to me as we talk that in paracycling in particular, it’s perhaps not so much about who you’re racing against, as what you’ve had to overcome to get to the startline in the first place.
The titles, Ashby says joyfully, are “a dream come true. Obviously it’s not like winning the elite nationals, but it’s the next best thing, really.” It’s particularly special in the sense that he was able to compete in his hometown, and was buoyed by the support of those that had been there in the worst of times. “Having the Nationals in your hometown is incredible,” Ashby explains. “Not having to travel first of all, but all the support and family cheering as well is amazing.”
Four years after being left hovering in the murky in-between separating life from death, Christian Ashby’s most pressing concerns are finally a little less heavy. After the time trial win last Wednesday, Ashby tells me how his daughter claimed dibs on his national champion’s jersey. “My son was pretty peeved he hadn’t got one… so the pressure was on to get one in the road race so I could give him one, too,” Ashby says with a laugh.
Thankfully for the sake of domestic harmony in the Ashby household, Dad was able to deliver, winning the road race by over six minutes.
A new perspective
Ashby’s life isn’t the same as it was before Rebekah Stewart drove into him and then drove away. It never will be. For the rest of his life, he will be a road trauma survivor, wearing the scars of that incident. “My injuries are very chronic and they won’t get better,” Ashby says.
He can’t ride a bike like he used to – ongoing spinal and hip issues mean that he can’t bend over to reach aero bars; his gearing has to be altered so that he can operate the lever with his right hand, which is “pretty much buggered.” He’s got another hip surgery in the pipeline. His paracycling classification won’t change for the better, and, Ashby says, his injuries will probably get worse.
Those agonising days, months and years since he was almost killed doing what he loved has given him a new perspective on life, though. “Before the accident I didn’t realise walking without a limp, walking at all, running… it’s just such a fantastic thing. You don’t realise that until it’s taken away from you,” he tells me, his normally laid-back voice gaining a little more steel, a little more urgency.
“You’ve got to live your life. You can’t wrap yourself up in cotton wool.”