Belfast Telegraph

Commonwealth Games: Robyn Stewart on right track after living her cycling dream

 

By Robert Jones

Of all the Northern Ireland competitors at these Commonwealth Games, cycling sprint star Robyn Stewart's journey to the Gold Coast is surely the most unconventional.

She is now a seasoned international rider, with national records achieved and having carved her name into the history of Irish cycling. But she has, literally, come from nowhere; in cycling terms at any rate.

Four years ago, the Commonwealth Games were in Glasgow. Belfast's Stewart was there, but as a spectator.

She was playing club hockey at the time and went along to watch some of those matches. Less than 12 months earlier, she had married Team GB track cycling coach Kevin Stewart.

And at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, her brother-in-law, British cyclist Mark Stewart, was competing on the track for Scotland.

Stewart, then 24, went along to the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome in Glasgow's East End to watch him in action.

It was then that the first sparks of an idea ignited. What if she put away her hockey stick and took up a track bike instead?

Could she get the hang of it? Would she be any good? It was a dream, but might she get to the next Games in four years' time?

Those questions have since been answered very much in the affirmative.

After a whirlwind affair with track cycling, Robyn savoured the electric atmosphere of the Gold Coast Games.

But unlike four years ago, she wasn't in the crowd, but recording very creditable results in her two events - one of which was the women's sprint in which she reached the quarter-finals before losing out to New Zealand's Emma Cumming in their head-to-head heat.

Stewart also progressed from her heat of the women's keirin and even made it through round two to reach the final stage, eventually finishing 12th.

Prior to that, she told how she recently came across the photos of herself riding the track in her early days and the change in her physique reminded her how far she had come.

Of late she has reduced her work life, as a Manchester-based dentist, to just one day a week. And she has used her time to get into the shape of her life under the experienced and watchful eye of British Cycling sprint coach and husband Kevin.

It's a long way from her hockey days with Hillhead Ladies in Glasgow or playing football during her time at Dundee University.

But it's a journey that's been as enjoyable as it has been rapid. And though reaching the Commonwealth Games is an incredible achievement for any athlete, especially someone who only took up cycling seriously three years ago, she sees it as a stepping stone along the way. She wants further improvement and bigger things in the future.

"From day one when I told my hockey team I was going to put my hockey stick away and commit to cycling, I've followed a programme and taken myself far too seriously," she said.

"It was hard not to treat it like I had been doing it a long time when my husband's job is to coach and write sprint programmes.

"So I was thrown in from day one with a training plan. Kevin initially thought my change to cycling was a mad phase - especially because I was so, so terrible for the first few months.

"I guess it's a mad phase that I'm still on. I'm constantly striving to train harder, to get bigger, stronger and faster.

"And I'm nowhere near where I want to be. But it's so funny to step back and look at the change in the three years that I've been committed to cycling; even my change in focus and goals.

"I found this old photo from one of my first sessions on the bike and I realised I had a recent one to compare to - the change is mad.

"I really hope I can look back in two years on the most recent photo and think, 'Look how weak and slow I look'."

Weak and slow are not words that now fit with even a hint of credibility into any sentence that includes the name Robyn Stewart. She has blazed a trail for Irish women's sprinting, with records and several important firsts for Irish female sprinting.

She holds the 200m, 500m and team sprint national records, lowering those markers multiple times. She has been the first Irish woman to ride the sprint at UCI World Cups, the European Championships and at the World Championships; the latter in Holland in February.

She is currently a four-time national champion in the 500m TT, sprint, keirin and team sprint. But while she has excelled on the boards, switching from the team dynamic of football and hockey to the individual sport of track cycling was not easy.

"I didn't start cycling initially thinking I would be doing what I am now," she said.

"I certainly had no initial intention of setting my career to one side and spending all my money on bike trips and equipment. But I got too much of a bug.

"I was inspired after watching the Commonwealth Games four years ago and how absolutely fun it looked. I started because I loved it; the thrill from going fast and trying really hard.

"Of course I'd always dreamed of being a professional athlete; that was my dream as a kid.

"In truth I wanted to be the girl from Bend it like Beckham!" she joked of her early football days.

"But from very early on as a cyclist I had a goal of wanting to get better and better. And every time my times improved, I wanted more. And so it goes on.

"I want more and more right now. I'm still not happy with where I am at, though I'm still loving it. So in that sense I am winning."

After the Gold Coast she is hungry to get stronger and faster. Where that takes her, only time will tell. But her hunger is strong and Tokyo 2020 is now coming into view.

Belfast Telegraph

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