Grit. It’s a word often used to describe elite sportsmen and women. In just four letters, it captures the hours of training they endure, the pain of red-hot competition and the all-consuming commitment they have for their sport.
According to this definition, it could more than easily be used to describe one Cadel Evans. He is, after all, the winner of the gruelling 3430.5-kilometre, 23-day epic that is the Tour de France. Even his name, which in Welsh means “battle,” echoes the cold determination he has behind the handlebars.
Much has already been written about Evans’ grit. Where does one go, to avoid repeating the sportswriters’ biking stereotype—a muscular machine with a mind and body solely devoted to the road atop a fragile contraption designed for speed.
While Evans certainly has passion, determination and commitment—there’s no way he could win anything if just one of those traits were absent—there is more to this lithe cyclist than what the headlines suggest.
During Evans’ 2011 French Tour win, some of the loudest cheers came from his hometown of Barwon Heads, Victoria. It was there that his mother, Helen Cocks, cheered her little “Del” across the line. And it was to there that Evans returned first after taking the podium.
“It’s always nice to get a hug from my mum,” Evans said on his return. “I usually go away 10 months at a time, so just to be back in Melbourne is always special.”
Despite, or perhaps as a result of, his parents’ separation when he was young, family is now high up Evans’ priority list. So it was no surprise when he made things official with long-term girlfriend Chiara Passerini seven years ago.
Evans proposed to Passerini at the end of the 2005 Tour de France. His mind must have been clear, focused on the asphalt ahead for those 23 days. But his heart? It was obviously set on the classical pianist and music teacher who stood waiting for him on the other side of the finish line.
While still planning to have children naturally, the couple have, in their words “always felt a strong wish to adopt.” And so, through a three-year process of applications, heartache and patience, the Evans family became three when Robel, an orphan from Ethiopia, joined their family early this year.
It was a costly and drawn out process, but it was never about the money or the time. Evans has offered new hope and life to Robel, who was found by police in a cardboard box on the side of a road. And Robel has changed Evans’ life too.
“Being a family now, we’re more than happy,” he said. “It’s one thing being a couple, and another thing having a kid.”
He laughs as he recalls “wasting time” at home before he became a father. “Most of all, I appreciate my time at home. At home, I spend time either on my bike or with him. I used to waste time doing other stuff, but now I spend it with him. It’s so relaxing being with him, watching him grow and learn.”
A Private Affair
Evans admits that with his healthy income and international competition and training schedule, he might choose to live anywhere. Although his home of Australia or Passerini’s Italy would seem the most likely choices, the family have decided to call the relatively small Swiss town of Stabio home.
Privacy played a major part in the decision—they even moved from a home fronted by a public courtyard in town to their current villa to avoid prying eyes and persistent autograph collectors.
But the scrutiny at home is nothing compared to that of competition. The fever pitch reached by public and media attention during events such as the Olympics and Tour de France is a constant challenge to Evans’ naturally introverted nature.
“I used to lock myself in the bathroom with my noise-cancelling headphones on. It was the only way I could escape,” he said.
“The constant ‘come here, do that’ and never having five minutes to yourself in the day used to really get to me. I was born in Katherine in [Australia’s] Northern Territory, so I’m kind of used to being left alone.”
Paying It Forward
A media stir surrounded Evans during the 2008 Tour de France when he sported a shirt in support of Tibet’s struggle against China.
“I have a long, strong passion and interest for Tibet and its culture,” he said. “The connection started when as a birthday present, Chiara gave me a sponsorship for a Tibetan child living in Nepal and studying in Kathmandu.”
Since then, Evans has visited the school and committed countless hours to raising funds for Asia Onlus, a social development charity working in Tibet.
“We’re proud to know that a little bit of effort on our part goes a long way to help.”
When accepting the The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald’s Sports Performer of the Year award, Evans surprised many by announcing he would not be keeping the $50,000 award—rather, he would be giving it to the Amy Gillett Foundation. The foundation, in honour of cyclist Amy Gillett who was killed during a training ride, advocates for cycling and road safety.
“Like Amy, every day I risk my life while doing what I love to do. This is my way of saying thank you for the support everyone has given me here,” he said. “I think the Amy Gillett Foundation would be a much worthier benefactor of the money than me.”
More Than A Star
Evans was born with a broken nose and at age seven was placed in an induced coma after a frightening accident with a horse. In some lives, such occurances might be the begining notes for a grand “against-the-odds” story, an inspiring narrative of one man standing amid adversity, scaling mountains and reaching the heights of success.
But Evans’ life is testament to the fact that sports stars are never so one-dimensional.
Australian social commentator and columnist, Mia Freedman, didn’t expect the backlash she received following her appearance on the Australian breakfast TV show, Today, shortly after Evans’ 2011 Tour de France victory.
During a five-minute panel discussion, she took issue with what she called the “gross glorification of sports people” who, as she saw it, contribute little to society or the general good. Others, she pointed out, volunteer time and money, and expend unquantifiable amounts of energy on causes that bring a lot of good to the world, but go uncelebrated by the world’s media.
The amount of time and energy spent celebrating sporting victories is worryingly disproportional to the celebrations of volunteers, medical scientists, philanthropists and others who are making the world a better place. But Freedman is also wrong.
Evans and many of his highly successful sporting comrades are more than just the muscular machines we see and celebrate. They are people with unique backgrounds and stories, and in many cases, partly thanks to the fame and fortune their successes have brought, are making a positive impact on the world.
The stage for celebrating sporting achievements is never bigger than the Olympics. And so we are hearing much about records and personal bests, heroes being born and dreams being crushed.
But as Evans demonstrates, those we cheer and celebrate are likely to also be caring mothers or fathers, philanthropists and academics—people in their own right with stories to tell. They just happen to be good at sports as well.
Athletes With Heart
It seems British cyclist Chris Boardman may spend more time working for charity than he does training. he helps organise and promote, and takes part in countless charity rides each year, including a 1500- kilometre loop of the UK.
Kiwi speed-skater, Blake Skjellerup, is throwing his weight behind new Zealand’s premier fundraising event, febfast. As a teetotaller himself, he is proud to encourage others to give up the grog, if only for a month.
Australian olympic swimmer, Michelle Engelsman actively volunteers for organisations, including Amnesty international and BoDhi (Benevolent organisation for Development, health and insight), and she currently works for greenpeace. She was also a member of team Darfur, a coalition of athletes raising awareness and calling for an end to the Sudanese crisis.
SOURCES: Herald Sun, The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, cadelevans.com.au.