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04 May, 2016

Fresh Off The Comeback Trail

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After being diagnosed with the Coxsackievirus in 2015, Roybn de Groot of Team Ascendis Health and Lange Sports was faced with a tough path ahead, and it was a case of stopping, taking a step back and learning. Now in 2016 she has come back stronger than ever, and is showing the true power of never saying never! By Roxanne Martin

It all started at the recce of the Absa Cape Epic Prologue last year: “My heart rate was way above where it should have been, but I didn’t want to worry anyone, so I kept quiet,” says Robyn. The race itself then pushed her far beyond her limits, leading her to question everything about why it went so wrong, but the subsequent diagnosis of Coxsackievirus put things into perspective. “Epic really hurt me last year,” says Robyn, but she says determination to bounce back quickly took over as she started working on her comeback.

“I knew I had to make a change, so I changed my approach, the way I did things,” explains Robyn. Up until then she had been neglecting a key part of her training, her recovery. “I was burning the wick at both ends.” It was this that caused the over-training, the pressure on her immune system and the ultimate strain. “I was enjoying riding so much, I overdid it,” she says, adding that she did not want to be constrained by too much of a scientific approach, where everything became a numbers game.

When asked why recovery was so hard for her, Robyn’s reply sums up what many athletes struggle with, as many reading this will understand the pressures of riding on top of having a full-time job, families and other commitments: “It’s really difficult to do nothing. I think that when you get on the bike, there is always that sense of I need to push the limits,” explains Robyn, “while we then forget that sometimes recovery is the best thing we can do for ourselves, that it makes you stronger when you can recover well.” And Robyn’s journey back to health and form really proves it.

 

In Fine Form

Starting the season with a win at Attakwas, and then a great performance at Twanka Trek, in spite of her partner Jennie Stenerhag riding with a fractured wrist, the duo were in top form going into this year’s Absa Cape Epic. However, even with the feeling of strength, they remained as humble as ever. “We were ranked fifth on paper, so we were going to race, but had no real game plan going in,” says Robyn.

Their performance at the prologue told a different story as the pair dominated and beat favourites Ariane Kleinhans and Annika Langvad. “At the start I didn’t think we would even get a podium,” admits Robyn, “so we were as surprised as everyone else,” The pair had started the event riding as they always do, by feel, agreeing on the start line that they would ride within themselves and see how it went, and were rewarded with the top step on the podium and the orange women’s leaders’ jerseys, but with Stage 1 the following day, they weren’t convinced that they could hold onto them.

That stage saw the women start in their own batch, changing the dynamic of the race and making it more competitive, but Annika and Ariane, keen to defend their title, raced to the front, leaving Robyn and Jen in second and hearing the time gap of five minutes at the water points. It looked like a repeat of last year, but close to the finish they heard the leading helicopter nearby and decided to go for it. Well, not only did they catch the two leaders, they passed them and took the stage win comfortably. “We were expecting to have a sprint finish, but then we hit the grass alone, and again we were as surprised as everyone else,” says Robyn.

 

Disappointment…

It was here that the team strategy changed as the two became more focused on the possibility of winning the overall title. Racing hard, however, the pair didn’t have the same luck on Stage 2, with Jen taking a hard fall, but they were still in the game, and Robyn says that their attitude was simply “every day is a new day” as they hit stage 3 hard. “I thought we were doing really well, and I was sure we could take it,” says Robyn, but with 20km to go the wheels came off. “Jen fell off my wheel and I knew something was wrong.”

Crossing the finish line later it all became a blur as Jen collapsed and was rushed off by the medics. Robyn already suspected that it was over, but it wasn’t until later when she saw Jen and had it confirmed that it really hit her… “The disappointment was real, and having to get up on the podium that day was hard, because I realised that tomorrow wasn’t going to happen,” says Robyn.

And just like that their Epic was over, but in many ways what they had lost brought them even closer together. Having suffered the experience of poor health before made it possible for Robyn to be there for Jen, because she understood how she was feeling, and says it cemented their bond as teammates in ways others can only dream of. “We trust each other,” she says, and more importantly, they know themselves and each other in good and bad, so it makes them a stronger pairing with greater potential going forward.

 

Bouncing Back

Moving on from Epic, Robyn says motivation was easy to find as she prepared to defend her SA Marathon Champion title, with the 2016 champs taking place in Clarens on 16 April. Her preparation paid off as she took the title easily to give her a fourth victory in the National Champs and cementing her position as one of SA’s leading riders. And having placed sixth in her last World Championships outing, on home turf in Pietermaritzburg, many eyes are watching with anticipation to see what she will do in this year’s World Champs.

But it is when she speaks about her journey to recovery from illness, and her willingness to try help others that find themselves in the same situation, that this humble champion’s true colours shine through. “I know how it feels to be struck down, that feeling of helplessness, and if I can do something small to make their recovery faster, then I’ll do it.”