fter placing third at the final race of the UCI Track World Championships in early March, Australia’s Stephanie Morton told the press surrounding her in the bowels of Berlin’s velodrome: “It is slowly coming together.”
Following an injury-hampered previous 12 months, her performance in Germany – silver in the team sprint and bronze in the keirin – marked strong progress on the road to Tokyo 2020. Morton had previously won four Commonwealth Games golds and a clutch of world championship medals; finally, glory at the Olympics was within grasp. For a sprinter who had emerged in the shadows of Anna Meares, Australia’s most enduringly-successful individual Olympian, the prospect of Tokyo triumph was particularly enticing.
Last week, Morton announced her retirement. The 29-year-old’s premature exit is yet another Covid-induced blow for the Australian Olympic program. In a statement, Morton was characteristically clear-eyed. “In an ideal world, it would have been nice to go out one more time wearing green and gold, but we aren’t in an ideal world any more,” she said. “I feel like if we have gone through a global pandemic and the worst that happens to me is I miss a bike race, then I’m doing OK.”
Born in Adelaide, Morton excelled as an athlete throughout her childhood – albeit in a different sport. She grew up in a badminton-mad family; her father coached the South Australian team, her mother was its manager and her older siblings represented the state. It just so happened that when Morton was 15, her uncle suggested she test her power output on an exercise bike. “I always say cycling picked me, I didn’t pick cycling,” Morton told The Saturday Paper last year.
Morton joined the national program midway through the reign of Meares, who won a medal at every Olympics between 2004 and 2016. It was an unusual relationship; Meares was Morton’s mentor, her roommate during international competition, her teammate in the team sprint and her rival in the individual sprint and keirin. The road leading to Australia’s high-performance training centre in Adelaide, where Morton trained every day for years, is even named after Meares.
But Morton quickly blazed her own trail. Advised that as a junior member of the team she was unlikely to be selected for the London 2012 Olympics, Morton instead went to the Paralympics as a tandem pilot for Felicity Johnson. The pair won gold, and were subsequently awarded Order of Australia medals.
In 2014, Morton beat Meares for the first time at the national track championships. After the race, Meares tweeted an image of a cap she had signed for Morton five years earlier – on it she had written in jest, having expected to have retired long beforehand, “Steph, maybe one day you’ll beat me.” That same year, Morton won one gold and one silver medal at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
But it was after the 2016 Rio Olympics, Meares’ last and a disappointing overall campaign for the Australian track team, that Morton really began to shine. Two silver medals at the 2017 world champions were followed by a remarkable three golds at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. In 2019 Morton claimed the rainbow jersey of a world champion for the first and old time, winning the team sprint with Kaarle McCulloch.
All of which put Morton, and McCulloch, in pole position for gold at Tokyo 2020. The pair went the extra mile – undergoing rigorous rehabilitation to shake off niggling injuries, and flying to Berlin business class at their own expense to be well rested for competition, when the remainder of the team flew economy. With this year’s world championships considered a staging post en route to Tokyo (the Australian team trained right up to competition, rather than tapering), Morton’s two medals were an ominous marker for the rest of the field. Come the Olympics, she was going to be the sprinter to beat.
Morton’s comments aptly contextualised her decision; compared with the pandemic’s global death toll, a sporting retirement might seem insignificant. But for Morton, the Australian Olympic team and cycling fans across the country, it is another cruel reminder of the indiscriminate turmoil caused by Covid-19. In its small own way, Morton’s premature retirement is a tragedy.
But for this pandemic, Morton would have almost certainly represented Australia at her second Olympic Games. It is possible, perhaps even probable, that she would have won gold in one or more of the three sprint events. Instead, with Tokyo postponed and no guarantee that it will go ahead in 2021, the sprinter’s career concludes with a lingering question: what might have been?
Morton is not the only one. In June, endurance rider Amy Cure announced her retirement. Several other members of Australia’s track squad could follow – some are reaching the later stages of their career physically, while others might be tempted to jump ship to the relative economic security of professional road cycling. If Tokyo 2021 proceeds, the rapid transition offers both risk and opportunity – a new generation of Australia track cyclists could shine, or falter, under the harsh glare of the Olympic spotlight.
For Morton, the next phase of her life now begins. The cyclist studied criminal justice part-time throughout her cycling career and has previously indicated an intention to join the police. “I would love to be on general duties – on the street, in the community,” Morton said last year. “I want to be an active, positive role model.” Throughout a stellar cycling career and with last week’s dignified exit, Morton has been just that.