• Emily Watts at the 2020 Road Nationals (Emily Watts Instagram)Source: Emily Watts Instagram
A year to the day a horrendous crash left Emily Watts with six shattered vertebrae, a fractured collarbone and nasty gashes to her face, the 19-year-old conquered Everest from her family home.
Jamie Finch-Penninger

15 May 2020 - 2:05 PM  UPDATED 15 May 2020 - 2:27 PM

On a training camp in the mountainous region surrounding Bright in Victoria, Emily Watts was descending the fast side of Tawonga Gap when she lost control and crashed at high speed.

“I just had the best week I had on the bike,” said Watts. “I had just come back from the Tour de Brisbane with a good ride there with the Sydney Uni team. 

"I took one of the corners too fast and came unstuck from the road.”

“I remember lying there - I didn’t have a concussion – and it started raining, and remember thinking ‘well, that sucks, it’s raining now’. My coach (Mick Kejda) was holding me, holding my neck the whole time and asking what hurt.

“I was like ‘oh, my collarbone, that’s probably just fragile and I’ve broken it again. My mouth is bleeding, that hurts. I guess my back a little bit, but that’s probably just because we’re in the gutter’.”

Subsequent examination at hospital found the issues were more extensive than originally thought but Watts first struggled through some misdiagnosis.

“I was going to get the surgery done until the doctor asked if I had got a certain scan. Turns out, I hadn’t and it was for my spine.

"I had a haematoma in one of my back fractures and I was like ‘excuse me, spinal fractures? I thought I just had a broken collarbone’.”

“They were asking me whether I could feel my legs. It was the most daunting moment of the whole thing, to think that it was that serious that I might not have been able to feel my legs. It was crazy to experience at that age –I’d just turned 18.”

For rising star Watts it was never a question of if she was coming back, but when and where.

“The day after the crash, Dad and I decided what we were going to do, and we decided we were going to be back at the form from nationals,” said Watts.

“That was eight months away from where I crashed, that was the goal.”

“It didn’t come across my mind (to quit riding) but my Nan did bring it up. We were speaking on the phone after I got back home and she said ‘you’re not going to get back on the bike are you?’.

“I said that there was not a thought in my mind that I wasn’t getting back on the bike and racing. She said that as long as I didn’t tell her when I was riding that would be fine.”

Going from immobile to a back brace for three months was some way from the condition she hoped to achieve by January 2020.

“I couldn’t go more than 45 degrees up on my bed for three or four days when I was in hospital,” said Watts. “I got my brace and that got me up seated… that was immense.

“With a lot of help from my specialists and coach… it was doing a lot of small things. At the start, I couldn’t do anything for myself, mum and dad had to get me out of bed, put my brace on and after that I’d be able to walk around and do stuff.”

“I wrote goals down in my diary that I wanted to achieve… walk five kilometres by this date, do pedal strokes by this date. It was that and checking with my coach if I could achieve this. It was self-driven but making sure I wasn’t going to put myself into the ground.”

“It was going really well. I started the Zwift Academy (the online competition for a World Tour contract) towards the end of my back brace stuff, I pushed the limits just a little bit and that’s when we noticed that my collarbone wasn’t together.”

Surgery wasn’t initially possible on the broken collarbone as the brace kept it from fusing. 

“I ended up getting surgery and was actually on the bike within a week,” said Watts. “Yes, I’m that athlete! Plus, I spent three months off the bike and was keen to get back on.”

Watts’ seemingly endless verve and enthusiasm helped her channel months of preparation into a solid performance in the ITT at nationals in the Under-23s category.

“The time trial was in the afternoon and I spent the morning just thinking about the 40 minutes of pain I was about to experience.”

“I crossed the line and a girl from my team came up to me and said I was in seventh. I was like ‘seventh, that sucks’, but she was like ‘no, in elites’. All the rest of the girls finished and I was heading back to cooldown and Dad told me ‘that’s everyone, you’ve got third’.

“I remember bawling my eyes out and everyone being around me. Dad’s getting my protein shake ready and I look over at him and he’s crying. I was like ‘oh my god, this is the best race ever’. I remember my Dad saying to me about how unexpected it was and how we planned for it to happen but with what a good result it was and to actually pull it off was crazy.”

A career-high: when only Everest will do 

2020 was shaping up as a big year for the Subaru-Giant rider from the Blue Mountains before the coronavirus pause. But ITT nationals bronze and finishing 13th overall in the women's ITT elite category was still not enough of a high point.

Only Everest - or Everesting, riding up and down (then back back up etc) a climb until cyclists complete 8,848m of ascending - would do.

Mark Cavendish conquers virtual Everesting challenge
The Manx Missile spent just over 10 hours and 37 minutes in the saddle conquering 8,851m of climbing, roughly the same height as Mount Everest.

Riding indoors on the virtual cycling platform Zwift for over 11 hours isn’t most people’s idea of fun, but an on-road attempt was scuttled by the pandemic's restrictions.

Watts’ attention turned towards the virtual Everest peak, a year to the day after the crash consigned her to months of rehabilitation.

“It was actually on a podcast talking about someone else that had done it and I was like ‘why would anyone do that’,” said Watts. “Dad said ‘why don’t you do it’, I said I wasn’t that crazy. But then it got in my mind and I decided that I’d do it after all.”

“It ended up being not as hard as I expected for 11 hours on the indoor trainer. Obviously, there were points when I just wanted to get off the bike and was questioning why I was here, but heaps of people face-timed me and Nick, our team manager, was riding with me for two hours.

“Afterwards, my Dad and I were looking through messages in his phone from a year ago and it was crazy to see how far we had come, further than we had imagined.”

Watts’ journey isn’t one many would have chosen, but the 19-year-old from Hartley is one of the more positive people you’re likely to meet.

“If you didn’t think I was strong enough, I can show it to you now,” exclaimed Watts. “It’s good to show to other people that a crash isn’t an ending, it can be a good thing if you have the mindset to turn it into something not bad.

“Although it wasn’t the best thing that happened to me, I’m grateful for the person I have become. I wouldn’t have been able to achieve anything that I have this year without that.”

With a personal and literal Everest conquered, the sky seems to be the only limit on Watts’ future, with the youngster inducted into the Cycling Australia high performance pathway as a developing prospect and also signing with the new AERO virtual racing team on top of her commitment to road team Subaru-Giant.

“I want to go well on the road, well on the track and obviously there’s all this virtual racing at the moment,” said Watts. “I don’t know, I just want to go fast.”

Watch Emily Watts in action this Saturday (16 May 2020) LIVE from 9am on our Cycling Central Facebook page during the NRS on Zwift - Event 2.