Cycling

Following Anna Meares’ retirement, Stephanie Morton has emerged as Australia’s new track sprinting star. This weekend the reigning world champion races in Brisbane, but her sights are firmly set on Tokyo 2020. By Kieran Pender.

Track cycling world champion Stephanie Morton

Stephanie Morton after winning the women’s keirin at the UCI Track Cycling World Cup in London last December.
Credit: PA

When Stephanie Morton started school, the precocious five-year-old told her class she would one day represent Australia at the Olympics. “I guess I have always wanted to be an Olympian,” she laughs, recalling this memory.

For most of Morton’s childhood, it seemed badminton would benefit from her sporting talents. “I have played since I could walk,” she tells The Saturday Paper. “My dad was the coach of the South Australian state team, my older siblings played in the team and my mum was the manager. Badminton was in my blood.”

But one Christmas, a 15-year-old Morton was encouraged onto an exercise bike by her uncle. “Badminton is a very explosive sport, so he was interested in the power I could put out,” she says. At the uncle’s suggestion, Morton was soon competing in the junior state cycling championships, where – despite having only just taken up the sport – she earned a bronze medal. “I was not very interested initially; I was pretty happy playing badminton,” Morton continues. But after she collected another bronze at the junior national championships, her true sporting potential became clear. “I always say cycling picked me, I didn’t pick cycling.”

A decade later, and two decades since her primary school pronouncement, she represented Australia at the 2016 Olympics. “In Rio I met up with my old doubles partner,” says Morton, who finished fourth in the team sprint in Brazil. “We were both at the Olympics – her for badminton and me for cycling. That was really special.” At Tokyo 2020, Morton will almost certainly be on the velodrome starting line for Australia.

The 29-year-old has tasted success before: she won Paralympic gold as a pilot rider for visually impaired cyclist Felicity Johnson at London 2012, and collected two medals at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. But it has been since stepping out from the shadows of the legendary Anna Meares – Morton’s teammate in Rio – that the South Australian has truly shone.

Following Meares’ retirement, Morton won two silver medals at the 2017 world championships, one silver in 2018, and gold and silver at this year’s edition. She was also one of Australia’s most successful athletes at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, collecting three gold medals and a silver.

Morton will therefore head to Tokyo as a key hope for an Australian cycling team eager to avenge the disappointment of Rio, where collectively they earned just two medals – neither gold. First, though, she will have an opportunity to test herself on home soil this weekend, at the UCI Track Cycling World Cup in Brisbane.

“It will be good to get back on the international scene and blow the cobwebs out,” she says. “To have a big event on home soil is really exciting – knowing that roar of the crowd is for us spurs us on that much more.”

Following knee surgery earlier this year, Morton is eager to return to competition and collect Olympic qualification points. “It has been a big grind for me to get back into form,” she admits. “We do not have all that many chances to rehearse our processes and tactics, so I am looking forward to getting out there and seeing where I am at on the international stage. And it is a good chance to secure my seat on the plane to Tokyo.”

The topic of Tokyo 2020 lurks ever-present during conversations with Morton. It is clear the sprinter is determined to add an Olympic medal to her collection. But pressed on these ambitions, she offers a more considered, almost philosophical, take.

“Everyone out there wants to win a gold medal – that is why we do what we do every day,” she says. “But my attitude has changed lately. You get so obsessed with that thought of gold, but at the end of the day, so long as I go out there, in my best form, and produce the best races I can, I have to leave with my head held high.

“To win would be incredible, but so long as I do my best I will be happy,” Morton continues. “I know that sounds a bit – hmm, what is the word… Clichéd? A bit like, ‘Everyone’s a winner’? But we can’t forget just how special it is to represent your country on that stage. It is an incredible journey, regardless of the outcome.”

Olympic glory would see Morton follow in the footsteps of illustrious compatriot Meares, a two-time Olympic gold medallist, five-time Commonwealth Games gold medallist and 11-time world champion. Meares has been a friend, teammate and rival, and Morton admits to being grateful to have learnt from Australia’s best-ever female sprinter. “It was an honour to train with Anna,” she says. Such is Meares’ profile that the host velodrome for this weekend’s world cup is named after her, as is the road to Cycling Australia’s high-performance headquarters in Adelaide.

While Meares and Morton remain in touch – “She is only a phone call away; I literally saw her yesterday” – the latter is keen to build her own legacy. “It is hard to compare. We are very different riders,” says Morton. “Anna was such an incredible athlete, and I want to be the best version of myself. Anna is Anna and I am me. As long as I can make my own contribution to the sport in some way I will be happy.”

That legacy will involve an active role mentoring future stars, just as Meares did for her. The latter once famously gave a teenage Morton a signed cap, with a message: “Steph, maybe one day you’ll beat me.” In 2014 Morton did just that, at the national championships. “The most important thing is to be available to the next generation,” she says. “Working hard and giving them something to work towards, like Anna gave me. I want to leave the sport with my head held high.”

Morton is coy when asked when that departure might take place. Still under 30, the sprinter could continue for another Olympic cycle – with world championships and the 2022 Commonwealth Games along the way. “I will cross that bridge after Tokyo,” she says. “I will see how I am feeling. As you can imagine the training is very physically and mentally exhausting.”

When Morton does put the bike on the rack for a final time, she intends to pursue a career preventing crime. “I am halfway through a criminal justice and criminology degree at university, so post-cycling I would love to finish my degree and join the police force,” she says. After spending her cycling career as a sporting role model, Morton wants to continue these efforts in a different context. “I would love to be on general duties – on the street, in the community. I want to be an active, positive role model.”

For now, thoughts of retirement remain in the distance. When Morton rolls around the velodrome in Brisbane today, her primary focus will be on Tokyo. She is preparing physically and psychologically to ensure she will not be overwhelmed by the Olympic Games hype, to give her the best possible chance of winning that elusive gold medal.

“When I am on the track in Tokyo, I need to be going through the same processes I go through at every race,” she says. “I want to get to a place where that becomes an automated thing, focusing on what has to be done. If you get distracted or caught up in the moment, that is when things go wrong. I can’t be thinking: ‘Oh, my gosh, I am at the Olympics.’ For us, it is just the same stage, with bigger lights.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 14, 2019 as "Sprint resolution".

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Kieran Pender
is a London-based freelance writer.

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