What inspired Kiwi rower Emma Twigg to join The Long Way Home and cycle 2,200km across Europe? Find out the highs and lows of her epic adventure.
If you’d asked Emma Twigg a couple of years ago what she’d be doing in 2018, she probably wouldn’t have said cycling all the way from Switzerland to Istanbul.
Having caught the rowing bug at a young age, the Napier-born athlete spent the majority of her early life competing in the rowing world. With a World Champ title and three Olympic Games under her belt, she recently took a break from the sport to finish her Masters degree and work for the International Olympic Committee.
So what inspired her to get out of the office and cycle halfway across Europe? We sat down with Twigg to find out.
From boat to bike
Joining fellow Olympian Rebecca (Bex) Wardell and Sarah Van Ballekom on the Long Way Home, Twigg set off in April this year to cycle from Switzerland to New Zealand.
What persuaded her to ditch the oars for the pedals and sign up for this cycling journey in the first place? “At the time, we were all working together at the IOC (International Olympic Committee). Bex and Sarah had quit their jobs and my contract was coming to an end, so we were all thinking, what next?” Twigg recalls.
“Riding from Switzerland to New Zealand was something that Bex had suggested a couple years earlier, and it was always something I’d been interested in. When she said she wanted to do it, I thought, why not?”
Originally, Twigg planned to cycle the whole year-long journey, but inspired to get back into competitive rowing, she ended up biking for 6 weeks, from Switzerland to Istanbul.
From torrential rain to never-ending hills
For Twigg, so used to being out on the water, cycling on the road was a new challenge. “Our first week was probably the most challenging,” she tells us. “We started off feeling awesome, we had all this adrenaline and ended up riding 160 km on the first day. But then we started getting caught in torrential rain. We’d get absolutely drenched but had no choice but to keep going.”
One of the hardest days, Twigg recalls, was cycling over the Simplon pass, a gruelling 2,000 metre climb through the Swiss Alps. “We were climbing up a hill at about 6 km an hour, with 40 kg kits on our bikes. We got to the end of the day, thinking the rest would be flat, but it ended up being another hill.”
“We were so knackered and decided enough was enough. So we ended up finding a piece of grass on the side of the road and camped there. That experience was tough but we learnt a great lesson from it. The next time, we took more notice of topography maps, for sure!” Twigg laughs.
Sticking together through thick and thin
Despite the ceaseless rain, arduous hills and 40 kg kits, the three women pushed on, riding over 2,000 kms from Lausanne, Switzerland, to Istanbul.
Now, back in New Zealand and resuming her rowing training, Twigg tells us that she couldn’t have done it without the two women beside her. “A trip like that, there’s not a lot of people you’d do that with. We were lucky that we got on so well. We each had different roles: Bex did navigation, Sarah sorted accommodation, and I ended up riding as the windblocker in front. After a few days, we really found our rhythm.”
“The whole trip was extremely rewarding,” Twigg tells us. “You pick a town, and just ride towards it – there’s no looking back. We achieved so much in those 6 weeks, by the end of it, 100 km just seemed like a standard day.”
For Twigg, it was the people she met along the way that made the journey so rewarding. “Everyone we met along the way was so welcoming,” says Twigg. “One of the most touching memories was when we were in Slovenia and were joined by a whole bunch of cyclists and Olympians. Among all these young, professional athletes, was this 80 year old cyclist. He could hardly walk off the bike, but cycled along with us. Those kinds of moments were really special.”
Twigg’s rowing journey: the ups and downs
Before she was cycling across Europe, Twigg spent the majority of her life committed to rowing. Her passion for the sport started at a young age.
By the time she was 16, she was competing internationally at the World Rowing Junior Championships. By her 20s, she’d made a name for herself in the rowing world, and took home gold at the 2014 World Champs in Amsterdam.
Already having proved herself at the World Champs, Twigg was determined to take on the Olympics. After her debut at the Beijing 2008 Games, where she came ninth, she returned for the 2012 London Games, coming fourth overall and narrowly missing out on a podium spot.
Disappointed but not defeated, Twigg returned to the Rio Olympics in 2016, determined to get a medal this time. After a strong semi final qualifying round, Twigg was well-placed to earn her spot on the podium. But after a gruelling final race, she ended up placing fourth once again. “Coming fourth at London, and again in Rio, it was tough,” she says.
“I think one of the worst places you can come at the Olympics is fourth.”
Finding new inspiration
Defeat at the Rio Olympics was tough for Twigg, and feeling disappointed, she unofficially retired from the sport. Taking a step back from the rowing world, she went off and completed a FIFA Masters degree and worked in Switzerland for the IOC.
“I think those years away have given me a lot to learn from,” Twigg remarks. “I realised that having the ability to try and be the best in the world and inspire people – that’s a real privilege. It’s something you can only do for a limited time in your life, and I feel like at the moment, I have more to give.”
Learning from her experiences, she’ll take a different approach if she ends up competing at the next Olympic Games. “I think my motivations this time round are slightly different. It’s about inspiring people and being a role model as an athlete. I believe that if I’m enjoying it, I’ll start to see results on the water.”
Championing the next generation of female athletes
The desire to be a role model was a huge part of her initial motivation for the Long Way Home journey. “Raising money was always the drive behind the Long Way Home,” Twigg tells us.
“Bex and I both remembered how we’d benefitted from grants and scholarships. Getting a thousand dollars for a boat, or a set of oars, that kind of stuff made a huge difference to our careers. It allowed us to train hard and ultimately represent New Zealand at the international level.”
Wanting to pay it forward and support female athletes in the same way, they partnered with The Forward Foundation, a charity that’s helping young Kiwi women get involved and excel in sport by funding development programmes and scholarships.
The goal, upon Bex returning to New Zealand, is to have raised $20,000 and be able to offer scholarships to girls throughout New Zealand.
“When I think back to my childhood, the people I looked up to were very strong, female athletes. I think it’s important to have those kinds of role models to inspire girls to get out there and do it.”
Having been inspired by female athletes like the Evers-Swindell twins and Mandy Smith, Twigg is now excited about supporting the Forward Foundation and the prospect of being that role model for the future generation of female athletes.
“Supporting young female athletes is something that’s really close to our hearts. It’s so important to have female role models in sport and to get girls not only competing, but competing at the highest level.”
Getting back in the boat and rowing fit
Back from her cycling adventure and ready to dive into her rowing training, Twigg has a few boxes to tick before she can say she’s officially on her way to the Olympics. “Right now, I’m focussing on getting rowing fit,” she says. “I’ve got trials in a couple months, then there’s national champs in February.”
Despite her results from the previous Games, Twigg is taking a lesson out of her Long Way Home journey and teaching herself to not look back. “I’ve got a few hurdles to overcome, but I’m optimistic and excited to just crack on!”
This post was made possible by ASICS New Zealand. Whether you’re an elite athlete or a weekend warrior, ASICS provides performance women’s sportswear and men’s sportswear that supports you as you take on your next adventure.