We know the story: April 2018 - Sarah was descending a small hill at 50 kilometres per hour when her year took a dramatic turn.
“I was right in the middle of the peloton, so when a very big pothole came up, I was not prepared at all and fell straight onto my left elbow. The impact broke my left shoulder, and I also managed to break my right wrist and need some facial stitches thanks to all of my roadside tumbling,” Sarah said.
Sarah’s mother Kerry was in the lead car when the radio crackled to life, …there’s been a crash.
“There she was, my beautiful girl, bloody, broken and in so much pain, lying in the middle of a 100 kilometre per hour road. My heart still sinks now, thinking about it.”
After the first surgery to fix Sarah’s elbow, which didn’t go well, a team of eight medical staff stood around Sarah’s hospital bed deciding what to do. Things were looking pretty bleak, but Sarah was focused, saying she needed to be back in time for the World Junior Championships in August.
“But I need to go to Worlds in August.” Sarah Gigante
After a second operation, Sarah declared she was missing too much school and started reading through her chemistry lectures online. Her studies continued from her hospital bed. “I think the nurses were astonished at the academic diligence from a young trauma patient,” Kerry said.
As soon as she was released from hospital, Sarah insisted on going straight back to school. “With her shoulder, elbow and opposite wrist out of action, I carried her books, opened doors, transcribed and took her home for lunch where I needed to help fed her,” Kerry said.
Sarah was also keen to return to cycling, which was no easy task given the extent of her injuries. Her mother set up a harness, rope and ladder to support Sarah’s upper body and attached her to a tree so she could cycle in ergo mode. “It was a crazy situation”.
“I strapped my daughter to a tree.” Kerry Gigante
‘Each time we visited the surgeon he would give a wry little smile and say, ‘Yes, I think you might be on track for Worlds.’ They were words Sarah needed to hear,” Kerry said.
By August, Sarah was well and truly back on the bike, winning silver at the Junior Track World Championships, then representing Australia at the Junior Track and Road World Championships.
Balancing sport and study
“It was tough to miss so much school in Year 12 by going over to Road Worlds. I was away from home from mid-July until the start of October, which meant I had to independently learn a large portion of the curriculum and also revise it well enough to sit my exams in November,” Sarah said.
“The track camp in Adelaide was the toughest part, because we trained for so many more hours than I was used to, which meant that there was hardly any time left for studying. I often had to get up earlier than the others and go to bed later, so that I could fit my schoolwork in.
"I also took my textbooks to the velodrome and studied there in between cycling efforts, and also studied while travelling there in the bus. The excitement of Worlds was also quite challenging to balance with Year 12, but I was able to keep motivated and focused on my goals and complete at least some homework every single day I was away, even on race days.
"If my race was in the afternoon, I studied. Learning some Latin grammar is a sure way to keep your mind off the race. It can actually help with pre-race nerves!
"My mum looked out for me and was my rock throughout the whole year. I had a lot of support, which was absolutely essential!”
Melbourne Girls Grammar School were particularly supportive, going above and beyond to support her study while she was overseas competing. Her teachers corresponded with her email to mark practice exams and essays. She also set up Skype sessions with her French teacher so she could practise her speaking while overseas.
Sarah’s mother Kerry said the school was flexible with test dates.
“A lot of the tests are more flexible than you might expect at first.” Kerry Gigante
Sarah and Kerry worked with the Education Director from Cycling Australia so she could sit tests in Europe over video correspondence.
“I’m very grateful for my wonderful teachers, classmates and my supportive family, who believed in me, especially when I chose to chase my cycling dreams in Europe on top of my studies.”
“My cycling club, Brunswick Cycling Club, has been amazing. They always keep the emphasis on having fun, and this has definitely set me up to be able to balance school and sport so well.”
Break out win
Sarah certainly had fun at the 2019 Cycling Australia FedUni Road National Championships held in Ballarat in January, where she beat star riders Amanda Spratt and Sarah Roy.
Spratt rode a near perfect race, over the 104 kilometre course, but Sarah sensed she had a chance.
“I opened up a little gap and I thought, it’s now or never—I may as well try. I didn’t want to think, what if. I just went for it,” Sarah said.
A bright future
“Cycling has taught me a lot about time management, not just in sport but in my studies too. I’ve learnt how to work hard and push myself,” Sarah said.
The hard work has paid off, with Sarah awarded a Chancellor's Scholarship to Melbourne University for her undergraduate degree, allowing her to study for free and receive extra support for living expenses each year.
Melbourne University is part of Australia’s national Elite Athlete Friendly University Network, which supports elite athletes while studying. The university’s Elite Athlete Coordinator will work with Cycling Australia’s Athlete Wellbeing and Engagement Manager and the Australian Institute of Sport Careers and Education team to help Sarah balance her sport and study.
“This year I am starting a Bachelor of Science, and a language diploma at Melbourne University and I plan to do a Masters of PhD in the future.”
When asked whether she is now aiming to make the 2020 Tokyo Olympic team, Sarah humbly replied, “It’s easy to get carried away with all the glamour. I’m only 18, I think I’ll just keep having fun and trying my hardest and see where it takes me.”
“Cycling is a real passion of mine, so I want to take it as far as I can”.