Sarah Gigante Q&A: On her recovery from a heart scare

The 21-year-old is back riding, but she has a long road ahead of her.

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At just 21, Sarah Gigante (Tibco-SVB) already has plenty of experience returning from serious setbacks. She’s come back from breaking both her arms in a fall, and earlier this year she recovered from three broken bones in a crash at Flèche Wallonne in time to represent Australia at the Tokyo Olympics. Now, Gigante’s in the midst of another recovery period, this time from a bout of myopericarditis – inflammation of the heart and surrounding tissue – which she suffered in late July.

The 21-year-old was in and out of hospital in Spain for a time, but now she’s back in Australia and slowly on the mend. Gigante spoke to CyclingTips from Melbourne on Wednesday and explained what the past few months have been like and what her immediate future has in store.

CyclingTips: How are you feeling now? Do you feel like you’re on the mend?

Sarah Gigante: Yeah, for sure. I’m actually off to Werribee to go for a walk with my sister and my mum. So yeah, I’m feeling better. It’s just … I can’t train, as a precaution. Everyone that has this sickness, for a few months after, you have to get your heart rate low just to prevent damage. But yeah, I’m feeling fine. I’m just taking it easy to be be safe long term.

How low do you have to keep your heartrate? Is there a set number you’re supposed to stay under?

Well, I’m keeping it under 100 [bpm]. I took all the advice of all the cardiologists and just went for the lowest one just to be extra safe. I don’t mind taking my time. I’d rather be cautious, and my team, Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank, they’ve been amazing.

As you know, I’ve hardly done any races the last two years, it feels like. I had some awesome times, especially the [Australian] summer of cycling both years – that was super cool. So I’ve enjoyed my time with Tibco-Silicon Valley Bank but it has been quite disrupted, so I’m really appreciative of their support the whole way through right to the end.

And then I’m also really grateful to Movistar because, yeah, when they signed me [for 2022-2024] I wasn’t sick. They’ve been amazing; so supportive. I’m really glad I have a three-year contract and they know I’m young and the plan was always focussed on my development long-term anyway. So they don’t actually seem too concerned, which is really great.

Hopefully I can still make a comeback not too far away. I’d love to race the Tour de France Femmes next year. I’m not sure if I’ll get picked, of course, but that would be a dream come true.

It sounds like Movistar hasn’t put any pressure on you – it’s just about taking your time to get better, right?

Yeah, for sure. That’s been really comforting and also really special knowing that they’ve got my best interests at heart. Even if I could be back a little bit sooner – or not – they’re not worried. They’re saying “just take your time and we’ll be here when you’re back and ready”.

When did the chest pain start?

I kind of felt sick quite soon after I got back from Tokyo [in late July] and then ended up in hospital less than a week after the Olympics.

What did it feel like?

It didn’t feel right, that’s for sure! I mean, yeah, not the worst pain I’ve had because I’ve broken a lot of bones but anything to do with your chest – we tend to be pretty cautious. As soon as I had the chest pain I stopped riding and then I haven’t ridden much since then, but now I’m back out on an e-bike thanks to [retail chain] 99Bikes which is so, so cool.

The chest pain was just at the start – I haven’t had that in ages, which is great and recovering well.

It took a little while for them to diagnose what was actually wrong, right?

Yeah, well, we were just concerned because it was so soon after the flight [from Tokyo], they wanted to make sure I didn’t have a blood clot or anything. I didn’t, which is good. So they were just checking me for that stuff. And then, yeah, it was frustrating – they were telling me I was just anxious and stuff. But it wasn’t. I mean, I was worried, but yeah, it was a bit frustrating. But I guess it was a nice, mild case [of myopericarditis] – sort of hard to pick up.

It looked like you took a lot from having your brother and your mum come over to visit you at various times?

Oh, I was so lucky. It’s never nice being sick, but being sick in another country … I felt quite alone, even though I wasn’t really alone. There are lots of Australians in Girona and Rory Sutherland was really nice and his wife, Cheynna. They were really lovely. I remember a couple of times Rory came to the hospital with phone cords and things like that, which is so nice.

So yeah, everyone was really supportive but there’s nothing like having your family by your side when you’re pretty worried. So, yeah, my brother came from America, which was really cool because I hadn’t seen him since before the pandemic. So that was actually really special. I think the last time I saw him was when I won my first national time trial championship. So this was a bit of a different circumstance, that’s for sure, but it was super special.

And then Mum came over later. Scott was awesome. Mum came to save her sleep, I think. It was hard being on the opposite side of the world.

You mentioned you’re back on an e-bike at the moment. What sort of riding are you doing? No training yet right?

Yeah, not training at all. It’s just for pure enjoyment and to see my friends. Cycling is not just a huge part of my life, it’s pretty much my whole life. I study as well, so that’s been good. I’m still doing my degree, which has kept me distracted – until when I finished last week; I’m on holidays. But yeah, that was good, but cycling means everything to me.

I won’t lie. It was super hard to have it suddenly ripped away. And for a while I wasn’t doing anything really. Then I started going on walks and yeah, as soon as I could start I started indoors. I don’t know why. I mean, it’s pretty sad to go outside and go so slowly. Indoors it’s easy to get off if you don’t feel so good.

So yeah, started indoors but then when I came back to Melbourne I was feeling so good, I was walking tonnes and stuff, but I still wanted to just be safe and stay low with my heartrate. I posted on Buy/Swap/Sell Road Cycling Victoria if anyone had an e-bike that I could borrow or rent for a little while. And actually, I was overwhelmed by the kindness of so many people. I actually had multiple messages, not just renting options, but multiple people that were more than happy for me to borrow their bike.

One lovely lady messaged me … I don’t even know this person. Now we message more because she’s so nice, but I didn’t even know her. And she messaged me to say she’d buy a road e-bike and then she would sell it after I’m done with it. How kind is that? Complete strangers!

And in the end, 99Bikes Kew was super, super lovely and they’re loaning me an e-bike. I’ve had a lot of fun. I’m sure I’d [rather] be out there on my own bike, of course, getting ready for Nationals like a normal year, but after missing that feeling [of riding], I just rode home from the shop that first day with the biggest grin on my face. Everyone just looked at me crazily. I could see on the bike, I was just grinning away and everyone’s kind of just smiling uncertainly back, wondering why I was beaming at them. But I wasn’t, I was just so happy to have the feeling of the wind in my face. Nothing beats cycling, whether it’s an e-bike or not.

So it’s been fun. I went to the Brunswick Cycling Club. I hadn’t been there in ages, so it was lovely to see everyone. Even though it’s a hard time right now and it was a hard year in parts, I still had a fantastic time in that I was able to go to the Olympics and that was a childhood dream for me, come true. And it was only thanks to people like my family and people like Dave [Morgan] and Cam [Mcfarlane] at Brunswick Cycling Club … and Alf. Unfortunately I can’t visit Alf Walker – he passed away – but it was so special to be able to go back there and see the people that made it all possible.

And then I went to the start of Tour de Burbs [a hilly group ride in inner-eastern Melbourne – ed.] And actually Tour de Burbs are also awesome. It’s just a public group – anyone can show up. But I think next week, when the weather’s better, we’re going to ride a slow lap of the Kew Boulevard before Burbs – I think they organised it for me. It’s just so cool how awesome the cycling community is. Everyone’s been lovely the whole time.

You mentioned Nationals. In the back of your mind do you go “I’d love to be ready for that again”? Or is that off the cards for 2022?

Oh, of course, I’d love to do it. No question about it. I think that’s the thing I’m saddest about. Nationals, to be honest, has been my favourite race every year since I can remember. Even as a junior it was always Nationals, that I’d look forward to.

Yeah, I’m really sad to be missing Nationals. But the good thing about them is that they’re on every single year and I’m only 21 so plenty more Nationals to come and hopefully I can still win a few more! So I’m sad to miss it but no, I won’t be racing Nationals.

If you take it easy with your recovery, are there likely to be any long-term effects from the myopericarditis?

No, zero long-term effects as long as you’re not really unlucky and as long as you follow the doctor’s orders. But yeah, it looks like I’ll be fine. So that’s great.

That’s all the questions I had. Was there anything you’d like to add?

I’ve noticed a lot of people commenting on my posts that vaccines are dangerous. I don’t know what caused my illness (and there are lots of possibilities – some people in the comments section seem sure that it was the COVID vaccine), but no matter what it was, the fact is that I was incredibly unlucky. Myopericarditis is not a common side effect of anything.

I just want to say that vaccines work, and these vaccines in particular save lives. I’m very fortunate to have been able to be protected against the horrible disease that is COVID-19 and I encourage everyone who has the opportunity to embrace it with open arms and a raised sleeve.

I’d also just like to say thanks to everyone that’s offered their support, and yeah: bring on next year. I’m even more determined and I’m even more excited. I think that I’m going to have a wonderful time next year. And if anything, this will just make me stronger.

I’m just riding along the Kew Boulevard at 25 km/h, which is the e-bike’s limit, and I’m just enjoying riding my bike so much. I already did but now this has made it ten billion times more. I’m just so excited, and I can’t even imagine how amazing it will feel to line up in my first race.

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