April 23, 2016 10:30am,
HE’S the top kayaker in Australia, a gold medallist from the London Olympics and a huge chance for more glory in Rio.
But until now, Narrabeen’s Murray Stewart has kept a secret about his Olympic preparations — known only to close family and friends — that will leave athletes of all skill levels shocked.
The secret: He doesn’t take supplements.
That’s right. Whether it be a protein shake or a simple vitamin C tablet, all supplements are off the table for Stewart. And it hasn’t hindered his performances one bit.
In a revealing interview with the Manly Daily, Stewart said he made the bold decision two years ago after he was deeply affected by the positive performance-enhancing drug test — and subsequent two-year ban — of good friend and fellow kayaker Tate Smith.
Smith, of course, also won a memorable gold medal with Stewart — along with Dave Smith and Jacob Clear — in the K4 1000m event at the London Olympics.
The quartet kept their 2012 medals because it was two years after the Olympics that Smith tested for the steroid stanozolol at a training camp in Hungary.
Smith has maintained throughout that he didn’t knowingly take the banned drug — and Stewart is adamant his friend is telling the truth.
So much so that he reveals it’s the reason he has ditched supplements and become ‘paranoid’ about what he puts in his mouth.
“I’ve perhaps had an extreme approach, but to see someone first-hand go through what he has gone through and to see what his family have gone through is heartbreaking,” he says.
“If you believe he is guilty and he has got what he deserved … you may not be affected by it.
“But for me, you’re talking about one of my good friends. I give him the benefit of the doubt, I take him at his word.”
Stewart is also reluctant to return to the Hungarian training facility and says it’s not just supplements that have caused him to be extra cautious.
“To be honest it has made me paranoid about a whole range of things,” he says.
“I’m very conscious about whether things are sealed, how things are sealed. I make sure my bags are locked. If I am in an environment I’m not in control of, then I try and take as many precautions as I can. I will be conscious about what goes in my body.”
To those who know the story behind the K4 1000m crew’s win in London, it probably doesn’t come as such a surprise that Stewart trusts Smith as much as he does.
After all, Smith — along with the other two crew members — put enormous faith in Stewart ahead of the race final.
Stewart had been struck with a chest infection on the eve of the Games’ kayak program. The following day, in the individual K1 1000m race, a “devastated” Stewart crashed out of the semi-final as the sickness began to take its toll.
But Stewart’s teammates still backed him to race in the K4 final three days later after he battled through K4 heats and a K1 B-final during the two days in between.
“My crew members, who could have subbed me out at that stage, all backed me and said: ‘If you think you can do it we believe you can do it’,” he says.
With a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity on the line, Stewart — the competitor that he is — was never going to let down his crew, his Olympic brothers.
“I could only remember the last 50-100m of the race and that’s because we actually had a bit of a wobble in the boat,” he says. “It was like waking up out of a dream and realising you’re winning an Olympic final and all you have to do is get through 100m of absolute pain. You can see it on my face after the race, it was like a delayed onset.
“That last portion of the race I could hardly breathe but we kind of limped across the line.
“I will always be incredibly proud at what I was able to push my body to do, despite the obvious setback.”
But while August 9, 2012, was a golden day for Stewart, there have been many darker days since then.
Along with Smith’s suspension, fellow crew member Dave Smith looks set to miss Rio with a back injury, meaning ‘The Beatles’ — the term Stewart uses to describe the crew, who re-enacted the band’s famous Abbey Road crossing photo following their win — are now disbanded. Then there was tragedy for Stewart away from the sport with a devastating blow for him and wife Rebecca.
“My whole perspective on life probably shifted in December (last year),” he says.
“My wife and I lost a baby (five months into pregnancy).
“I think the only reason for me bringing that up now is that after a year or so of paranoia about sport … for me it was like, well, at the end of the day, it’s only sport.
“Something like that will give you a bit of a reality check.”
For those who have had the privilege to meet Stewart, you will know he is very well-mannered and quite reserved.
Aside from those in his inner circle of friends and family, you likely wouldn’t know when something’s affecting him or not.
But for a period between London and Rio, the two aforementioned situations did affect him.
“Probably my darkest time was from 2014 through to the end of 2015,” he says.
“There was a lot of bitterness in me about the sport in general.”
Stewart says December’s personal tragedy gave him a new view on what’s important in life and caused him to re-evaluate why he was doing the sport. He realised he had fallen out of love with kayaking and used the past few months to approach it from a different perspective.
“Maybe I was doing it because I was good at it and I’m a very competitive person,” he says.
“Now I’m doing it because I love paddling and I love the Olympic movement.”
It hasn’t been decided what events in Rio Stewart will compete in, but his complete domination at this year’s Oceania Championships and National Championships suggests the new approach to kayaking is paying off just in time for the Olympics.
“At the end of the day, I will go out there and give my very best for my country,” he says.
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