Campbell Stewart lined up for the final round of the men’s Omnium at the Tokyo Olympic Games in seventh place, with a hefty number of points to make up, but with the scent of a medal propelling him the 23 year old was determined to dig deep so this time he could step up onto the podium for New Zealand.
Stewart wasn’t even expecting to be in the race the day before but that quickly changed after the squad’s hopes of a Team Pursuit bronze came crashing down along with the experienced Aaron Gate on Wednesday. Gate broke his collarbone in the fall so couldn't line up in the Omnium.
That left the 2019 Omnium world champion, Stewart, as a late addition for the event which is a series of four races – the scratch race, tempo race, elimination race and points race – where the overall winner is the rider with the most cumulative points. Stewart headed into the final round with 78 points, back in seventh with a deficit of 36 points to leader and eventual gold medallist Matthew Walls (Great Britain), and with 32 points between him and the strong starting Dutch rider Jan Willem van Schip, who was in the silver medal position after the third race.
"I met Walls, he was class and I had to chase from behind, and couldn't quite get to that,” said Stewart after the event. "He had a decent enough margin, but once I could sniff that silver and bronze I really went for it, and tried to play my cards right."
As the race progressed, Walls consolidated his gold medal position but the other medal spots shifted. With just 8 laps of the final 100 lap race to go Italy’s Elia Viviani had slotted into silver while Stewart was back in fifth place. Then the rider from New Zealand raced clear with Albert Torres (Spain) and Niklas Larsen (Denmark) and the trio picked up a lap in the very final stages and with it an extra 20 points. Then, with double points on the line for the final sprint, Stewart pushed his way into the silver medal position.
"There was another gear out there, and I surprised myself today with how deep I had to go to get there,” said Stewart.
Turning the tide
Going into the Team Pursuit the four-man squad from New Zealand, which Stewart was part of, looked like a serious chance for a medal and gold didn't look out of reach either. However, they were taken out of the running for the top steps of the podium by the eventual gold medallists, when in a thrilling battle – well above world record pace – Italy finished ahead of New Zealand by the finest of margins. Then they fell out of the running for bronze as well when Gate fell just as the team were heading into the final half of the race with a small but growing advantage on the Australian team.
After that experience in the Team Pursuit a medal in the Omnium couldn’t have been more welcome.
“We've been training for so many years for this,” said Stewart. “It's been five years, one year extra as well, and I had to make something out of that.”
Stewart said it also felt like he had his teammates up on the podium with him, as while it was an individual win it was a welcome celebration for the whole squad. That included original entrant Gates who, on the sidelines with his arm in a sling, was quick to give Stewart a congratulatory hug.
“I could hear them yelling for me. It kept me going,” Stewart said. “I was out there riding solo, but I had all that support.”
New Zealand had started the day on Thursday without a medal in the cycling at all, but after Stewart’s win walked away with two. Earlier on the Izu Velodrome 21-year-old Ellesse Andrews had delivered a fast finish in the women’s Keirin to claim the first of the two silver medals for New Zealand.
“Oh man, I just started crying,” laughed Andrews when asked how it felt to claim an Olympic medal. “I haven’t really stopped and I don’t mind because I’ve achieved a silver medal performance for my country. I couldn’t be more proud.”
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