“We are all looking for answers.” Those are the words of the legendary Australian cycling coach Gary Sutton, but they represent the sentiment of the entire Australian cycling community. Cyclists, coaches and fans are in shock after the death of the much-loved former track cyclist Stephen Wooldridge.
In a sport often riven with division, no one ever had a bad word to say about Wooldridge. The 39-year-old won gold at the 2004 Olympics in Athens and claimed four world titles, all in the team pursuit discipline, during an illustrious career that concluded almost a decade ago.
“Steve was an absolute gentlemen and role model – I am just lost for words,” continues Sutton, who formerly coached Wooldridge. Scott McGrory, a former Olympic track cyclist and friend of Wooldridge, has similar recollections. “I have always had the upmost respect for Steve,” McGrory says. “He was one of the nicest people I have ever known – anyone who has ever met him would agree with that statement.”
Born in Sydney, Wooldridge secured a scholarship to the New South Wales Institute of Sport in his early teenage years. But he developed slowly, a tall physique inhibiting the translation of hard work into results on the velodrome. “Steve never made the junior world championships,” says Sutton, who recently stepped down as a national team coach. “He waved goodbye to all his mates as they went off to the junior worlds but would ultimately become Australia’s most successful ever team pursuit rider.”
Those initial disappointments would not deter Wooldridge. He studied engineering and later in life would become a member of faculty at the University of New South Wales. Yet his sporting perseverance eventually paid dividends and he claimed the team pursuit world championship in Copenhagen in 2002.
“Wooldridge was not a standout athlete physically – he had to work really hard to cement his position in that team,” McGrory says. “We called him ‘big Steve’ because he was a tall and muscular guy, which meant he struggled to convert his track success into road racing.”
Wooldridge was soon ever-present in a much-idolised team, alongside Brett Lancaster, Peter Dawson, Luke Roberts and Graeme Brown. World titles followed in 2003 and 2004, before Wooldridge travelled to the Olympics with a promising national squad. Their performance in Athens would be a highwater mark for Australian cycling, with 11 medals placing Australia atop the cycling medal tally for the first time.
If Wooldridge’s own Olympic journey was tinged with disappointment – he rode in qualifying but sat out the victorious medal race – it never showed. While he may have missed out on a ride in the final, his gold was testament to his vital role in a team of all-time greats.
After retiring from professional sport and returning to engineering, Wooldridge remained an active part of the Australian cycling community. “He always had time for the young kids in the sport,” says Sutton, who recalls receiving a phone call without fail from Wooldridge before each world championships.
In recent years, Wooldridge was involved with the governing body Cycling Australia, the regional confederation Oceania Cycling Confederation and several charities. “We were really happy to have Steve remain in the cycling realm, and not just disappear into the business world,” McGrory says. In 2015 Wooldridge was inducted into the NSW Sports Hall of Fame.
Australia has not won the men’s Olympic team pursuit since 2004. But after finishing fourth, second and second in the intervening campaigns, the national squad again appears on the cusp of team pursuit greatness. The likes of Sam Welsford, Michael Hepburn and Alex Edmondson have been compared to those of the golden era, and won gold at the last world championships in Hong Kong. A repeat of Wooldridge’s success in Athens appears probable at Tokyo 2020.
But McGrory suggests that this single-sighted pursuit of success might be having adverse effects. “We have always been a medal machine – to retain funding our high performance program needs to win medals,” McGrory says. “Unfortunately that machine only has forward gears – there aren’t reverse mirrors – so no one is looking back at the damage that might be being caused by elite sport to produce the next world champion.
“I do not think that was specifically the issue that led to Steve’s mental health difficulties but it certainly contributed. This will be a wake-up call for all of us, a catalyst to start the conversation about how we prepare future stars for the difficult transition into the rest of their lives. Athletes are retired far longer than they are involved in elite sport and we seem to have forgotten that.”
In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1-800-273-8255. In the UK, the Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. Hotlines in other countries can be found here