Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

Champion cyclist stresses importance of friendship

Joe Watson receiving the captain of the year award presented by cyclist champion Stephen Wooldridge

Presenter for the 2014 Warrane Sports Awards Dinner on 29 October 2014, Olympic cyclist Stephen Wooldridge OAM, surprised his listeners when he starting his talk by throwing away his speech and speaking about friendship.

He stressed the importance of lifelong friends, like those that many of the College’s residents would make during their stay at Warrane.

“Since I arrived here at the College,” he said, “I have realised how much I missed at university by not going through a College.”

“I have worked here at the university for four years now and I have never actually walked into one college. I guess I am blown away at the camaraderie. You can feel it as soon as you come in here.”

Mr Wooldridge is one of Australia’s most experienced and successful cyclist, competing in elite international competitions from the early 2000s to 2007 and becoming an Olympic gold medal winner and four-time world champion on the track.

He said that although it had been only 10 years since his Olympic success, his sporting career seemed to him like it happened a long time ago.

“It seems more like 30 years now,” he said. “Children have come into my life and I have started a new career. I was in property for a while and now I am at the university.”

Mr Wooldridge said cycling in Australia had grown “massively” in terms of overall participation, growing by around 3 to 4 percent each year, but at competition level Australia was still very small by world standards. Nevertheless, the nation was “well and truly batting above our weight” in international competition.

He had his own start “as a kid” when he “loved racing around the streets” on a BMX bike. Then one day he discovered there was a racing track in his neighborhood, joined the local bike club and a few weeks later started racing.

Although he became very enthusiastic about the sport and competed for several years, he missed out on qualifying for the World Junior Championships. Studying at university then took up much of his time but when he completed his degree he decided to “have a really big crack” at making it into the national team for the Sydney Olympics.

Initially he was included in the nine-member team for the Olympics, but then it was decided to drop the number of cyclists to seven and he was one of the ones who missed out.

“That put fire in the belly and I literally rubbed my nose in it for two or three weeks and I came out the other side, knuckled down and four years later I was fortunate enough to be Olympic champion in Athens.”

Returning to his original theme, Mr Wooldridge said he had intended to talk about experiences in sport but he decided it was more important to speak about the parallels between cycling and life in College.

“Although I wasn’t able to come to a college,” he said, “I think I lived a parallel experience with sport. I was in the Australian Institute of Sport and was in and out of Adelaide and Canberra.

But just in the teams I was in I lived for close to 10 years on the other side of the world because that is what you have to do to ply your trade in cycling.

“The teams pursuit was what I specialised in and won my gold medal in and had so much success in.

“It was around 2000 that I was trying to crack into that team and there were older guys and in some ways it was like the first-year students coming into a college. There was an established unit, coaches, older guys…

“Then, after 2000 some of the older guys retired – that’s like the older guys (in College) moving on at the end of this year – and I moved through the system.

“I was looking after the younger guys coming through – about two or three each year. My college was like a moving aeroplane – it was all around the world, so it wasn’t set in the one place but the friends you make will remain friends all your life.

“We still catch up. It is similar to your (old boys) dinner on Saturday night in the city. Old boys events get better every time

“That has grounded me and made me life-long friends. You are at a fantastic institution and you will make life-long friends here.

“All of this is not what I wanted to say, but I just wanted to draw on the parallels because I have actually missed something not being in a College.”

In the Q&A session, Mr Wooldridge said he still rides two or three times a week.

“It is part of life. I won’t go out in the rain any more and in winter I wear as many clothes as possible.

“But the transition from competitive cycling was not easy. You go from being the top of your game to having to start again. That was hard. I didn’t mind the hard work but it takes a bit of getting used to.”

Mr Wooldridge said one of the hardest things for him was getting used to winter after nine years without experiencing a single winter season.

“My first winter almost killed me,” he said. “It wasn’t the cold, but the lack of light did my head in.”

[Warrane College offers more than just accommodation to students at UNSW: Details of other guest speakers are available here]