McGrory and Aitken: Facing tragedy on the road to golden glory

Scott McGrory and Brett Aitken made history when they became the world’s very first Madison Olympic Champions at Sydney 2000, but their golden victory was tarnished by heartbreak with McGrory losing his firstborn, Alexander, just 10 weeks out from the Games, while Aitken came to terms with his two-year-old daughter, Ashli’s tragic diagnosis.

McGrory and Aitken joined forces a year out from Sydney 2000 saying the pairing was just common sense.

Aitken, already a dual Olympic medallist from Barcelona 1992 and Atlanta 1996, and McGrory, the experienced veteran who won bronze at Seoul 1988, was one of the best Madison riders on the international circuit.

“When we look back on it, I think we were the perfect pairing from the group that was available,” McGrory said.

“Brett and I had raced a few events together beforehand, but not very many and we were both very good at what we did in terms of the Madison event, we were both very skillful riders.”

Aitken’s introduction to the two-wheeled sport was via cycle speedway, a form of bicycle racing on a very short-track, where the bicycles have no brakes or multiple gears, it wasn’t until watching the Los Angeles 1984 Olympics that he decided he wanted to become an Olympic cyclist.

“The skills that Brett gained doing bicycle speedway were instrumental in everything he did, especially in the Madison.

“He’s a very skillful rider and there’s no question as to why, because he started in one of the most skillful sports you could do on two wheels,” McGrory continued.

“For me, I wasn’t part of the national program leading into Sydney 2000, I was a professional rider and the type of racing I was specialising in, was based around the Madison event which was making its debut at Sydney 2000.

21 Sep 2000: Scott McGrory and Brett Aitken of Australia celebrates winning the gold in the mens madison during the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games at the Dunc Gray Velodrome, Sydney, Australia. Mandatory Credit: Mark Dadswell/ALLSPORT

“From the group of Australians that were racing at the highest level of Madison events, I was probably on top of the list when it came to skill and ability at that time, so I was asked to come into the program for the Sydney Olympics.

“Of the riders who were part of the Team Pursuit squad, Brett was the outstanding rider in that group, so for us, I think it was just common sense that we were paired together.”

“The first time Madison was at the World Championships was in 1995, and I rode in that one, then Scott rode in 1996 and I rode in 1997, but we never rode together in those years,” Aitken said.

“We came together in 1999 for the first time as Madison partners and gelled from there.”

“We realised pretty quickly that we both had some really good experience and had a lot of respect for each other as riders, but to finally come together cemented that and proved how good we could be together.”

The pair got off to a strong start, winning their first two international competitions.

They went on to the World Championships to ride together but McGrory was relegated from one of the intermediate sprints for accidentally infringing another rider. Had he not, the team would’ve been in first position.

Aitken rode and the team was in second position, but with 10 kilometres to go, he crashed and was knocked unconscious therefore unable to finish the race. McGrory finished the last 10 kilometres on his own and the team finished in 13th place, just scraping in to qualify for the Olympics.

21 Sep 2000: Scott McGrory and Brett Aitken of Australia celebrate winning the gold in the mens madison during the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games at the Dunc Gray Velodrome, Sydney, Australia. Mandatory Credit: Mike Powell/ALLSPORT

“I remember after that performance, the media saw as ranked in 13th place and we were rated as a ‘possible’ chance to win a medal, so there wasn’t much fanfare around us,” McGrory said.

“But we knew we were a gold medal chance.”

They were able to prove to naysayers that their self-belief was justified, becoming the world’s very first Madison Olympic Champions winning gold with 26 points.

“It’s funny because even though we are such similar riders, we had very dissimilar roles during the Olympic gold medal race, which worked perfectly,” Aitken said.

“Looking back now, if you could have a near-perfect race, that would be it.

“It’s pretty rare for a team to go into the last sprint and not have to sprint to win a gold medal but that was the sort of scenario we are able to set up in that race, so the final points don’t really do it justice.

“There are double points in the final sprint, but that wasn’t necessarily what we were going for, we just wanted to ensure we were in a place where we didn’t need those points and focused on not crashing.

“It was a unique situation because I was really confident in Scott’s ability to shut down the breakaway moves that often happen straight after the sprints, I just needed to put him in the right position for the sprints.”

Their connection was one that extended off the track, helping each other through the hardest times of their lives.

21 Sep 2000: Scott McGrory and Brett Aitken of Australia celebrate winning the gold in the mens madison during the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games at the Dunc Gray Velodrome, Sydney, Australia. Mandatory Credit: Mike Powell/ALLSPORT

McGrory was about to become a father for the first time, while Aitken’s daughter, Ashli, had just been diagnosed with Rett Syndrome.

“When my wife, Donna, fell pregnant with our son, Alexander, it was a difficult pregnancy and she spent the first six weeks in hospital,” McGrory said.

“I had been back and forth to Europe trying to keep my preparations going, while also feeling really guilty for doing so, but fortunately, I was back at home when it was decided that due to certain indicators, Alexander needed to be delivered via cesarean.

“Once Alexander was born, they picked up a heart condition and sent him straight to the Royal Children’s Hospital which he never left.”

Alexander spent three months at the Royal Children’s Hospital and while he was stable, McGrory’s wife encouraged him to return to Europe to continue training and preparing for the Games.

“We were waiting for Alexander to have some more surgery, he just needed to get a little bit bigger so Donna said to me, ‘Look, you need to go back to Europe if you want to have a chance at going to the Games and still be competitive,’ and I’m still torn by that decision,” he shared.

“But I went back over there and after about three weeks, I got a call saying he needed emergency surgery and I had to get back for it.

BREMEN, GERMANY – JANUARY 09: RADSPORT: SECHS TAGE RENNEN, Bremen, 10.01.2002, Scott McGrory (Photo by Anja Heinemann/Bongarts/Getty Images)

“I jumped on a plane the same day and flew to Singapore airport knowing that the surgery would have already happened,” he continued.

“I called Donna to find out how things were and that’s when she told me that they’d nicked a valve in Alexander’s heart that put him into cardiac arrest.

“He was on life support, but they didn’t expect him to make it through the night, so effectively, he was gone, they were just keeping him alive hoping that I’d make it back in time before he passed.”

“I had to spend three hours at Singapore airport dealing with that before I got on the flight to Melbourne where they’d been alerted which meant I was able to get through customs quickly and straight to the hospital.

“I was nervous because I didn’t think I’d make it, I thought I’d be too late but amazingly, Al was able to hold on and we had 45 minutes with him before he passed away in our arms.

“The day after Al passed, I gave up. I had just been given the biggest reality check and my sport suddenly became insignificant. I just didn’t see any reason to continue.”

Aitken said that even though competing at Sydney 2000 was a dream for both of them, he knew and understood it was a real possibility that he may not have his teammate by his side.

21 Sep 2000: Scott McGrory and Brett Aitken of Australia celebrates winning the gold in the mens madison during the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games at the Dunc Gray Velodrome, Sydney, Australia. Mandatory Credit: Mark Dadswell/ALLSPORT

“Obviously, I knew the chaos that Scott was having to deal with,” Aitken said.

“We spoke numerous times throughout it and competing at the Olympics was just something you didn’t even want to talk about considering the circumstances.

“Even though this was my Madison partner and the one I wanted to ride at the Olympics with, I was ready at any moment for Scott to say, ‘I’m done, I’m not going.’

Aitken was also dealing with his own struggles, as his two-year-old daughter, Ashli was diagnosed with Rett Syndrome, a neurodevelopmental disorder, the year prior.

“I was fully aware of what was going on with Ashli and her diagnosis and that Brett was still investigating, absorbing and trying to come to terms with that, while I was also trying to deal with my stuff at the same time,” McGrory said.

In the end, it was his family, team and teammate that supported McGrory to get to the start line at Sydney 2000.

“My strength came from my family and the team around me,” he said.

“They helped me move forward each day and get on the bike to at least try and keep the dream alive.

21 Sep 2000: Brett Aitken and Scott McGrory of Australia celebrates winning the gold in the mens madison during the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games at the Dunc Gray Velodrome, Sydney, Australia. Mandatory Credit: Mark Dadswell/ALLSPORT

“It was such an emotional rollercoaster, one day I would feel inspired and train incredibly hard, the next day I’d struggle to achieve anything and because of so many ups and downs, I started to seriously doubt my fitness would be good enough to be competitive.

“Regardless of what I had started to think about my condition, I have everything to thank my family and close friends, including Brett, for helping me stay somewhat on track.

“I remember it was Donna that said to me, you at least have to try, you’ve got two-and-a-half months left to try and get to the Games, and regardless of if you try, or if you don’t, Alexander is still not going to be with us.

“It was really hard because there were some days I wouldn’t get out of bed and others where I’d ride but have to stop every 20 minutes because I was crying my eyes out, I couldn’t see where I was going and would crash into a car.”

McGrory said that he went from being confident of a gold medal finish, to not even expecting he’d be able to perform on the day.

“Through everything that happened with Alexander, there was so much self-doubt, I hit rock bottom and by the time we actually got to the Games, I felt like I hadn’t done enough and I was going to let Brett down, I was going to let my family down.

“It wasn’t until I got to the track that I realised I had to try and turn it around. I thought to myself, no one is going to take it easy on us because my son passed away, this is the Olympics.

“I knew that I wasn’t at my best, but what if, at even 80% fitness, we could win this? Wouldn’t that be incredible?”

The pair did the incredible, they rode the rollercoaster of emotions together and supported one another along the way to becoming Olympic Champions.

Once he realised they were about to beat Belgium and Italy for gold at the Dunc Gray Velodrome, McGrory was overcome with emotion and remembers tears streaming down his face while still racing.

21 Sep 2000: Brett Aitken and Scott McGrory of Australia celebrate their gold medal win in the Men’s Track Madison Final held at the Dunc Gray Velodrome during the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, Sydney, Australia. Mandatory Credit: Mike Powell/ALLSPORT

“I remember crying with 10 laps to go, once I realised that the race was done and we had accumulated enough points to win,” he said.

“At that stage, I knew we couldn’t be beaten, even if I crashed or if Brett crashed, we’d still be able to get a result and win, then I got really emotional about everything we’d been through and I started to cry.

“Going around the velodrome with a whole bunch of other riders probably scares most people, so if you’re crying and bawling your eyes out, it’s probably not ideal. I had to quickly compose myself and after that it was just elation.”

But with the elation, was also the obvious pain of losing Alexander. McGrory said that he was able to achieve his Olympic dream, it will always be bittersweet.

“The emotional stress never really becomes evident until sometime later, but when people would ask how it felt to stand on top of the Olympic podium at a home Games, I really struggle not to be honest in that moment and say I was quite torn,” McGrory shared.

“Obviously when the presentation was happening, I was so happy. We’d done an incredible job, we’d come through some hardship for both of us and won.

“That was our goal, to win gold at the Olympic Games. To do that on home soil was certainly not lost on either of us, what a privilege that is for an athlete to actually win the Olympic Games on their home country, so that was amazing.

“It was a childhood dream to win the Olympic Games, but I was still torn.

21 Sep 2000: Brett Aitken and Scott McGrory of Australia celebrate their gold medal win in the Men’s Madison Final held at the Dunc Gray Velodrome during the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games, Sydney, Australia. Mandatory Credit: Mike Powell/ALLSPORT

“Torn between the tragedy, the loss and the sacrifice and what I labeled selfishness because I still struggle with the fact that I think it was incredibly selfish for me to at least try and continue, when everyone was telling me it was okay to be selfish, we’re going to help you get through, but it really took a toll,” McGrory reflected.

“I’ve really struggled emotionally with everything that went on that year because the highs were the highest of highs, but they were smacked with the lowest of lows all at the same time.

Although Ashli was able to watch her dad win gold at Sydney with her smile spurring him on to win, she tragically passed away in 2009 when she was 10-years-old.

Aitken says that during her time on earth, Ashli taught him to take the time to appreciate the little moments.

“Ashli taught me to appreciate the little things in life and sometimes even now, I still need to kick myself in the guts and remind myself of those things, because she certainly did,” he shared.

“Ashli had a condition where it was the littlest things that were hardest to do.

“She couldn’t talk and she struggled with the fine motor skills, even just picking up a spoon, but she spoke through her eyes like no one I’ve ever met and they’re the things that I miss so much about her.

“When Scott was saying that he and I can communicate with just a look, that’s exactly what it was like with Ashli as well and I’m in a fortunate position like Scott, that I’ve also got two kids and I’m really just appreciating every little moment with them.”

McGrory said that being able to experience Alexander’s life for the short time he was here, made him determined to cherish every moment.

“Cherish the moments you have and who you have. I have two beautiful daughters and I really do cherish them both, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for them and I will always cherish the memory of Alexander,” he continued.

“As crushing as it was to lose him in those circumstances, I’m also thankful that we had him and I don’t know if I would have it any other way.

“He was named after my dad who we lost in 2011 and I think regardless of what we do as adults and the highs and lows we endure, we’ve got a real obligation to be the best that we can for our children and cherish the time that we have with them while knowing that we are the ones who nurture and help shape their futures.”

Even to this day, 20 years later, McGrory and Aitken still share a special bond.

“Our experience together is just something you never forget, and we are bonded as a result of that,” Aitken said.

McGrory echoed Aitken’s thoughts, sharing that even 20 years on, there is still a mutual understanding and special connection between them.

“Even though we live in different states, if we ever walk into a room and see each other, there’s always a head nod across the room and a non-spoken word, and for me, there’s a look or a handshake or a ‘hello’ that just has 1,000 words attached to it,” McGrory said.

“It’s never just, ‘Hello, I haven’t seen you for a while,’ there’s this understanding of what we both endured to come away with our childhood dream.”

Originally published for olympics.com.au

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