Feature, July 29, 2005
It was a day that brought together her family, friends, supporters, current and former teammates from the two sports where she excelled - cycling and rowing. It was a day, to quote Pastor Murray Lydeamore, the cycling chaplain of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), "to celebrate Amy's life with gratitude."
On July 29, the funeral of Australian cyclist, Amy Gillett (nee Safe) was attended by 300 mourners from around Australia and the world, at the Doveton Park Funeral Centre in Ballarat, Victoria.
Amy was struck down by an out-of-control car on July 18, 2005, while on a training ride in Germany, reconnoitring the course of the opening time trial of the Thüringen Rundfahrt stage race which was scheduled to start the following day. Amy died at the scene, while her five team-mates were seriously injured and taken to hospitals where they are still recovering (see previous stories).
The death of this Australian rider sent a cold chill through the global cycling community, and it has also reached into the wider Australian population. For an athlete to die while representing her sporting country is akin to being killed on public duty. On arrival in Melbourne from Germany, her coffin was draped in an Australian flag as it was transported to Ballarat and at the service, it was taken from the chapel to the hearse under an arch of honour, formed by rowing oars and lightweight racing bicycle wheels.
The national media was in attendance in numbers at the service, with the national broadcaster sending one of its outside broadcast units to cover the funeral. While many in Australian cycling privately wish this same attention had been directed towards this team when it had achieved its numerous triumphs overseas, it was not the time for such feelings.
The Australian Government was represented by Senator Rod Kemp, the Federal Minister for Sport, while senior sports administrators, such as Peter Bartels, the chairman of the Australian Sport Commission and Graham Fredericks, CEO of Cycling Australia, were also among the mourners. (The government and the sports bodies reacted swiftly to the tragedy, with immediate financial assistance, including quickly-arranged flights to Germany for the families of the six cyclists.)
There were also many Olympic medallists and world champions from rowing and cycling at the service, who'd all trained and competed with Amy throughout her dual careers.
Such was the effect on the community, it was standing room-only in the chapel, and a marquee and widescreen television with PA system was set up in the gardens for many who were unable to fit inside.
But despite the high-profile guests, it was a day for her family and friends. Mourners were presented with programs - in pink - and most wore red bracelets that read, "In loving memory - Amy Gillett". Inside the chapel, the funeral service was led by Pastor Lydeamore and Monsignor Henry Nolan of St Patrick's, Ballarat, with poem readings and eulogies delivered by her family and close friends, and all fought back their tears as they spoke.
Her father, Denis Safe, said how he and his wife "were truly blessed" to have two beautiful daughters (Amy and Georgina), but how their family had been shattered by this unimaginable tragedy. "There are no answers," said the grieving father, "just wonderful memories of Amy to help us on our way."
Mr Safe chose to recount a memory of Amy that he thought captured his daughter's generosity and kindness. On her way home from a five-hour, 140km training ride, he said Amy encountered an elderly gentleman on his regular, gentle ride. According to Mr Safe, the man rode along with Amy, who'd slowed her pace to talk, and the man offered the elite cyclist many tips about how to become a better rider.
Instead of riding directly home, Amy continued to ride with the man. "Amy said, 'I think he just wanted someone to talk to'," was how Mr Safe recollected his daughter's reasoning for keeping the elderly cyclist company on his weekly spin.
"I have a little bit more to say than Denis," said Amy's mother, Mary, who gave her eulogy after her husband. "I usually do," she added with a warm smile. Mrs Safe spoke of how, when she last spoke to her daughter, it was just prior to the Australian team leaving their base in Italy to attend the stage race in Germany. "Amy said 'my body feels good and my head is strong'," as she had been training in Italy and was keen for competition. "A few days later, our lives changed forever."
Mrs Safe recalled what her parents, and Amy's grandparents, has always said to her, "Remember to count your blessings." There is the blessing of her husband's love, her daughters and her grandparents. They extolled qualities of honesty, compassion and respect, "and these same values were reflected in Amy's life, every day." Mrs Safe paid tribute to their family and friends, "who've cradled us in their arms" and supported them with love, unending flowers and home-cooked meals. "The love we've felt would not fit in our letterbox anymore, so the postman has to leave bundles of cards on our doorstep," she said.
"And then there is the blessing of Simon's love for Amy; you were the light of her life," Mary said of husband Simon Gillett. Mrs Safe said there were two words for the day of remembering her daughter, and they were love and optimism. "Amy was always looking onwards and upwards. And this is the foundation of our memories."
Mrs Safe was followed by Amy's father-in-law, Max Gillett, who said how he always believed "actions spoke louder than words", and how this beautiful woman who'd celebrated her engagement at his country home, was later in her boots, shorts and shirt, out in the fields helping with the harvest in "green fields of wheat and canola."
The poem "All is Well" was read by newscaster and close family friend, George Donikian, who was then followed by Rachael Kininmonth, a former teammate from when Amy was a world-class rower (she represented Australia at the 1996 Olympics).
Ms Kininmonth's emotions went from tears to joy as she recounted memories of times spent with her friend, who was nicknamed "Betty or Princess, always affectionately". When rowing, Amy always wanted the bow seat, "because it crossed the line first". But instead, Amy called it the "sun-deck". While other girls at regattas would sleep in tee-shirts and boxers, "Betty" had designer lingerie and beautiful red silk pyjamas, courtesy of Simon. Another "Princess Amy signature statement" was her stiletto-heeled shoes, and then came diamond ear-rings and finally the diamond ring. Rachael said, "she was probably the only cyclist getting around in Europe with designer underwear and $30,000 in rocks."
Amy always took the front seat of their van when they were traveling to regattas and did in fact have excellent skills as navigator. Apparently her consistent demand to be in the front passenger seat - due to travel-sickness - was never challenged by any teammates, despite the frequent stops as, "Amy had the smallest bladder in the world."
Rachael also told of how her friend, who'd been courted for years by Simon, had finally decided to marry, but two days before the wedding, her eye became inflamed from an infection. Rachael's solution was humour; she stuffed some table napkins down the back of her shirt, and told her, "she'll be right, Quasimodo."
"But nothing was going to stop her from marrying, 'I'm just so happy', she said to me."
Rachael told how she was "deeply honoured" to be a part of the wedding party for Amy and Simon. On the day, she presented her friend with a special tiara, befitting a princess, to wear on her wedding day. It was this same tiara that she placed on her late friend's coffin in the chapel. "To my beautiful, beautiful friend, who radiated energy," she said. "May you ride on the rainbows, Betty, now the halo will protect you."
As an acoustic version of Mark Seymour's love song, "Throw your arms around me" was played to the congregation, joining Rachael was Rhys Gillett, who carried Amy's cycling jersey, and close family laid roses on the coffin.
The final blessing was read Monsignor Nolan:
May the road rise to meet us;
May the wind be always at our back;
May the sun shine warm upon our face,
The rain fall soft upon our fields
And until we meet again,
May God hold us in the palm of his hand.
Simon Gillett was joined by pallbearers - close family and friends - to carry his late wife's coffin outside, through an arch of honour formed by rowers and cyclists with oars and bicycle wheels, respectively, as Pachelbel's "Canon" played on the public address system. As the coffin was placed in the hearse, the finality of the gesture was clearly overwhelming for her family and close friends.
The funeral was followed a memorial service in Ballarat, at the Golden City Hotel, where mourners gathered to hear more tributes from Amy's close friends, who recounted many charming anecdotes that gave insights into the character of Amy Gillett.
Or, as MC George Donikian said, "they say you can tell a lot about people by the company they keep". Each of the bridesmaids from her wedding presented heartfelt tributes to their departed friend.
Amy had stayed friends with the same children that she grew up with on her street, such as Tammie Ebert, who said how Amy "always signed off her messages with 'Mrs Gillett'," she said. Theirs was "an elastic relationship", she said, "it stretched from one side of the world to the other".
It was Amy's close friend from her days as an elite rower, Bronwyn Thompson, who provided the background to her nickname of "Betty" (Amy's middle name is Elizabeth). The pair became close friends as rowers, and regularly roomed together at regattas. They discovered they shared the same favourite comedy; the British sitcom "Some Mothers Do 'Av 'Em", featuring the lead characters of 'Frank' (played by Michael Crawford) and "Betty" (Michelle Dotrice). Consequently, Bronwyn became known as 'Frank', and Amy was 'Betty'.
Bronwyn told her how Amy had been upset when a rowing official "told her (that) her heart was too small". Apparently, Amy's quick response was to say back, "well, what the f*** can I do about that?" Rather, rowers knew the size of one's heart was measured by how much effort they put into their oars, and on that measure, Amy was never found wanting.
"She later went on to prove that coach wrong."
Rosealee Hubbard, a track cyclist who'd trained and roomed with Amy at the Australian Institute of Sport (Amy also excelled on the track) read out tributes from the cycling community, and said "she was a joy to be around.
"I always hoped to share a room with her," she said. "She was an amazing athlete and believed everything is achievable." Rosealee said her influence remained "whether you were in her presence for 10 minutes, or 10 years."
A tribute was read that was sent from her AIS teammates, still recovering in the hospital in Germany. "She knew she was the most loved woman in the world, by a very special man".
It was then time for the final tribute, from her husband, Simon Gillett, who'd shown great strength to maintain composure throughout the emotional roller-coaster of so many close friends and relatives grieving over the death of his wife.
However, Simon preferred to speak only of the happy moments, of how he first met his future wife in the early '90s as a rowing coach, and she was his pupil, and "how she was, without doubt, the most difficult person to coach". He apologized for recalling his anecdotes in no particular or chronological order, as he spoke without notes, but from heartfelt memories. He told how Amy was asked by a flight attendant on an international flight "if she was a celebrity". Apparently, her new hairstyle and natural beauty most likely would have resulted in an upgrade. "But she said 'no', the idiot," Simon said affectionately.
"Amy was so trusting and honest you could easily take the piss out of her (an Australian term to play practical jokes), and we did," he said.
He recalled how they had dined out "at many fine restaurants" throughout the world, but Amy was still to find a menu that didn't need some kind of alteration to suit her taste.
"She became more beautiful each year, and I don't know how she did it."
With those closing remarks, a specially prepared video was played, featuring Amy's performances on the water and on the road, and also scenes from her wedding and with her family and friends. It ended a beautifully-staged service, brought on by a tragedy that was unprecedented in Australian sport, and in world cycling, when a whole team was taken out by a single vehicle, leaving a trail of destruction that is still being counted.
However, many at the service were buoyed by the news that is emerging from Germany, where Amy's teammates continue to astound doctors with the speed of their respective recoveries. It was Simon Gillett himself who said that a greater tragedy had been averted, and that Australia may have been facing a multiple-fatality had there not been such swift action taken.
The priority remains on the welfare of the living, and supporting those left behind, with the Amy Gillett-Safe Foundation being launched to raise funds to assist with the rehabilitation of the five injured riders, and provide assistance and support for future cyclists.
By the strength of spirit and community that was present at the funeral of Amy Gillett, then it is fair to say that Australian cycling - and women's cycling in particular - will certainly prevail, and the amazing, talented women of the AIS will once again retain their rightful place in the peloton.
Condolences and tributes
Cyclingnews has now published four pages of tributes from cyclists and supporters from around the world who've been affected by this tragedy. Please see: Amy Gillett: Tributes, 1976-2005, Part 1, and Part 2, Part 3 (posted July 21), Part 4 (posted July 22), and Part 5 (posted July 29).
Cycling Australia has also established an email link for people who wish to send condolence messages to the family of Amy Gillett or to pass on their thoughts and wishes to those injured. Go to Cycling Australia's web site and follow the link on the home page.
July 28: Rhodes and Yaxley recovery 'amazing'
July 24: Yaxley improving, Rhodes still unconscious
July 21: AIS head 'optimistic' about recovery; 'Brownie' tries his best
July 19: Unprecedented carnage in GermanyJuly 18: Amy Gillett dead after crash in Germany