When Emily Watts rides she starts a conversation.

Emily Watts is a young Australian cyclist with ambitions to reach the top and to inspire people in the process. She recently won the best young rider category at the Tour Down Under and rides for a team with a mission to advance women’s sport and promote positive mental health among the wider community.

Emily’s cycling career began on the quiet roads of Hartley on the edge of the NSW Blue Mountains, and the 21-year-old is now a familiar sight on her long, lonely training rides whenever she makes it back home.

While the dream of world championship and Olympic success dictates Emily’s strict daily routine, she is acutely aware of the need to ensure her general wellbeing and holistic development. She is currently studying a Bachelor of Education / PE Teaching at the University of Sydney and teaches swimming part-time, and is looking for a well-rounded World Tour team to join in the future.

“I’d like to ride for Canyon Sram or Trek Segafredo, because they seem to have the same values that I have. Each individual rider in the team is supported and they look like they enjoy being in the peloton, and it’s important for me to ride for a team with the right atmosphere.”

Emily is a General Classification rider with Knights of Suburbia, a team which actively promotes the wellbeing of its riders and the general community.

“KOS is a team with a strong meaning behind it. We’re a competitive cycling team and we race to win, but we’re more than that. The team was established with the specific goal of providing opportunities for female cyclists who don’t have the financial resources or other resources to race full time.

It’s also part of a community with a strong focus on supporting people through mental health struggles, and the values of the team align with my personal values. Everyone in this team is supported and this is something that I really enjoy about racing with them.”

KOS is aligned with the Love Me Love You Foundation, which promotes positive conversations about mental health and helps people through those challenges in life. The group runs social rides from Melbourne to Mt Isa, with the goal of bringing people together to remove the sigma around mental health and to promote wellbeing.

It also creates an extra element for the members of KOS.

“Riding for a team like this does carry more responsibility. The way we carry ourselves, the way we speak in public and the way we conduct ourselves is very important because when we pull on the jersey, we’re not just representing ourselves but also a community and the team which has a purpose. When we ride, we’re advocates for LMLY.”

Emily has also faced mental health issues in her own life, from specific challenges in elite sport to negotiating adolescence. As recently as January her mental fortitude and flexibility was tested.

“At the Tour Down Under, I was road captain on stage 1, which was a new responsibility for me. Normally I get pretty stressed before a stage, but this time I had to stay calm for the sake of the team and relax into the race.”

It worked, as Emily won the stage in a sprint against riders from some of the world’s best teams.

She also overcame challenges during high school.

“I went through mental health issues, some which affect all teenage girls going through high school like identity, and high academic expectations.”

Emily’s dedication to sport, and her passion for cycling, also caused some issues, even in a sports-mad nation like Australia where sports stars are adored.

“Some students saw my sport and dedication to cycling as bizarre and I was seen as a bit of a weirdo. There was definitely an aspect of tall poppy syndrome. It might also have been because I developed a greater sense of maturity than the average teenager, because when I was in high-school I was already racing and training with cycling squads and many of them were adults.”

“Or maybe it was just jealousy because I was beating the boys in the cross-country races.”

As a future secondary teacher, Emily is also very aware of mental health issues in teenagers, and in particular the impact of social media, especially because today’s elite athletes are required to have a presence on social media. They use social platforms not just to communicate with fans, but to promote themselves, their sport, their team and especially their sponsors.

“I’m very aware of the dangers of social media and how it affects young people. What matters is the way we use social media, and not putting everything on it, and being careful about what we see. For teenagers, it’s vital that they learn how to self-manage.”

Being a female athlete also forces Emily to spend more time on social media than she otherwise might.

“It’s also a bigger part of the sport in the women’s peloton because there’s not as much coverage of our races on TV or in the media in general. We need to be active on social media to get our story out there and to try to attract support for ourselves and our teams, and even for a foundation like LMLY.”

Images: Getty Images, Knights of Suburbia

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