By Rebecca Formston, Matt's wife, and number 1 fan
As the 2016 Paralympic Games nears closer, I’ve found myself being asked this question numerous times. I’ve always struggled to come up with an answer that I feel, not only gives the question justice (I think people are sometimes expecting an answer filled with lots of drama and excitement) but is also a true representation of how I do really feel about being married to an athlete! I guess it’s not something I’ve put too much thought in to; it’s our life, my husband has been training for his spot in the Australian Paralympic cycling team ever since I met him six years ago, however with the Olympics in full swing right now, I am getting more excited and emotional about the thought of seeing my husband compete soon after witnessing him go through so many hard years of training, I want to finally answer the question properly.
A little background for those in the unknown; my husband, Matt Formston, is a Paralympic cyclist for the Australian team, competing on the velodrome and in road events. He rides on a tandem bike as he is legally blind with only 5% vision which he has had ever since he was five. He’s an absolute lunatic and throws himself into any challenge, he doesn’t believe in the word can’t and proves everyday that a disability doesn’t have to be a hindrance! It’s not rare for people to meet him and question if he really does have a disability as they see him walking/running/charging about unaided and seemingly looks very “able”. I think sometimes people are expecting him to be tapping around with a cane, have a guide dog or at least need someone to be guiding him about. He goes out surfing in big waves, uses power tools around our house, used to play representative (able bodied) rugby and ice hockey and even takes our two year old son out for local bike rides, so it’s not surprising people may question his disability. People sometimes ask him “but how much can you actually see?” and the factual answer is “only 5% peripheral vision” but he usually follows this up with an explanation on how it’s all relative; he has lived with his limited vision for nearly all his life, this is the norm for him, the same as how a sea eagle with it’s vision would be shocked if it saw an average human’s 20/20 vision. (Apparently if sea eagles could read, they would be able to read a newspaper headline up to a kilometre and a half away!)
For our family and day to day life, Matt’s disability isn’t something he’d want us to focus on. Some days, I almost forget he’s blind and perhaps am not always as helpful and understanding as I should be as he is just so able in nearly everything he does. Sometimes I will see him doing something crazy such as hammering a tiny nail or using a drop saw and I think “surely you can’t be blind?!” but then I’ll see him do something so simple such as walk into a cupboard door that was left open that he didn’t see and my suspicions are shut down. On one of our first dates he took me on a walk up to the Barrenjoey lighthouse at Palm Beach in Sydney. The walk includes a very narrow footpath, filled with protruding tree roots, uneven rocks and steps. He mastered the walk better than I did and it was then that I knew life with Matt wouldn’t be average!!
When we first began living together, Matt’s training really began to kick in. He focused his sights on a Paralympic gold medal and began the gruelling task of getting fit. He needed to lose some upper body muscle and some weight and build up his fitness levels to be able to ride long distances on a bike so every morning he’d wake up about 4.30am and jump on a stationary bike trainer. As we lived in an apartment with two other roommates, the bike had to be in our bedroom and it was sat at the end of our bed. Matt would snap the light on, jump on the bike and begin his training session, which often sounded like a Boeing jet plane taking off. I’d pull the covers higher over my head and try to ignore his grunts and groans!!
Every weekend we’d travel over an hour up the coast for Matt to be able to race and train with his pilot, who steers and rides on the front of the tandem bike. The first time he raced at the local club race, Matt and I were both excited to see the outcome, both convinced that as he had a Paralympic Dream, he would obviously smash a local club race. One lap in and Matt was at the back, struggling to keep up. He ended up being lapped but finished the race and proceeded to vomit all over the footpath. It was then clear how much work needed to be done to get to the Paralympic Dream!
Six years later and I look at what my husband has become. A dedicated, hard working and passionate athlete, his Dream so close. He has swapped large biceps for huge quads muscles and glasses of beer for protein shakes! He now knows every little technical word and element one could ever know about the ins and outs of bikes and riding. His face is currently being shown all over national Australian television on an advertisement for his main sponsor. It’s been six years of non stop training and early starts to be able to get to this point and during these six years we have also acquired a mortgage, got married and had two children. People often innocently remark how wonderful it must be for Matt to be paid as cyclist for a job. This is unfortunately not the case, so throughout all the gruelling training, Matt has also been working full time in a corporate job. After a two hour early morning training session, he will then have a quick shower and dash off to catch a train to work for the rest of the day. He has somehow found time to juggle work and training and be a husband and dad too. He’s built himself up as an athlete and spent many hours pitching himself to companies in order to gain much needed sponsorship in order to be able to buy essential things such as equipment, gear and new bikes, whilst working to be able to support his family too.
Undoubtedly, there’s been tough times throughout the climb to the top. As Matt’s wife, it’s hard at times to understand the necessity of all the regimented training sessions when I am so deeply involved in our life at home. We’ve rescheduled social events for races, cancelled an overseas holiday for the first time he got called up for an international cycling trip and even planned the month of both our children’s births in order to fit in with different world championships!! I’d often find it hard when he’d go off for most of the day to race or train long hours at a weekend and sometimes became impatient and even accused him of it being unfair. I sometimes lost sight of the future goal as I was living in the present, willing for him to stay at home with me and the kids more. Just days after the birth of both our babies he would be back out on the bike, training long hours and in my sleep deprived emotional state, I almost lost sight of the purpose of it all. At these difficult times, Matt would always ask me if I wanted him to stop, give up and come back to just being a husband, dad and business man but I could never have let him do that. He’s an athlete too and a damn good one and no matter how hard and lonely it’s sometimes been, he deserves to be heading to Rio to ride for gold and I feel guilty for even making him question it.
Despite those moments of weaknesses, I hope I’ve been a good support for him and played a positive part in becoming the athlete he is today. Seeing him go about day to day training sessions becomes just a norm but when he hits the big events such as world cups or world championships, it suddenly all becomes clear why he has had to sacrifice so much time and energy. Hanging on to the edge of my seat whilst I eagerly await news of race results is a feeling like no other or cheering him on whilst watching a dodgy Internet streaming of a race is exhilarating. When I was awake in the night feeding our newborn son and saw the news he had broken the world record and become world champion in the 4 kilometre track pursuit at the World Champs in Mexico, was a moment I’ll never forget. I whispered to our sleeping baby in the darkness how amazing his daddy was and how lucky we were to have him as ours.
Its not always been golds and winning however, athletes regularly have to deal with disappointment too and seeing my hard working husband not get the results he really wanted is tough. The final deciding race before the paracycling team was chosen for Rio, didn’t go as planned for Matt and instead of getting on the podium like he had intended, he finished fifth. Still an awesome achievement in my opinion, fifth best in the world, but Australia only had a small amount of bikes they could take to Rio so the better you did, the better your chances, plus my husband never goes away to race to come anywhere but first, it’s gold or nothing for him!! The agonising few weeks after this event where we waited for the deciding call were intense and I could see how much the pressure was bearing down on him. He couldn’t bear the thought of it all being for nothing, all the ruthless training, all the hours spent away from his family but I had a feeling that that wouldn’t be the case. I told him that I could still see him going to Rio, it’s what we’d always talked about for years, it was the dream and it had to become the reality. No matter what the circumstances, he was going, I just had a feeling. Finally, I got the call from him saying “Guess what? I’m going to Rio!” Relief, pride, excitement, so many feelings when I heard it!!
So what’s it like being married to an athlete? It’s our life and our norm and I guess pretty similar to most people’s in some ways; we have a mortgage to pay, nappies to change and deadlines to meet but there’s also insanely early alarm clocks for early training sessions, so many bike related packages coming in and out the door (the delivery guy now greets me with “another parcel for your hubby!”) and there’s the reality of having no husband for several weeks a few times a year whilst he’s away competing. It’s exhilarating but exhausting too, hectic and thrilling, exciting and emotional but it’s Matt, he’s an athlete and a crazy, mad nut who will always love the thrill of an extreme challenge. I knew when he practically sprinted up and down those Barrenjoey lighthouse steps that life with him would never be boring. Yes I’ll always have the odd moan (he will probably roll his eyes and say I have more than the odd moan) but I love it and I couldn’t be prouder of him and know I won’t be able to hold back any tears when I see him wearing green and gold, ready to fly out of the starting gate at the Rio Paralympic Games!