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From Being America’s Most Talented Cyclist to Being Homeless

By Tereza Antonova

She was once considered America’s best cyclist. If you try to find her these days, check one of Seattle’s night shelters or a Woman’s Day Center, as that’s where she resides now. Rebecca Twigg, a holder of six world championship medals, represents both the story of great success and promising future, and the dark side of professional cycling.

Becca was a gifted child. Aged 14, she entered the University of Washington to study biology and computer science while immersing in cycling and conquering national championships within just one year of entering the world of athletics.

Unfortunately, Rebecca’s future was not as bright as she was. Before turning 16, Rebecca’s mom kicked her out of their home. The young teenager waited the night out at a train station and called her team leader the next morning, asking if she could crash at his home. The following years were marked by a similar scenario. With no real basecamp, Becca would stay at hotels on the road while travelling to races or back “home” in Seattle, staying at friends’ places.

The photo was taken on August 26th 1987 on the occasion of the Indoor Cycling World Championship in Vienna and shows Rebecca Twigg, who set up a new world record. © Klaus Titzer / AFP / Profimedia

A famous Polish-American coach, Eddie Borysewicz, took Becca under his wing. We’re at the beginning of the 80s, which, in a way, brought a breaking point to women’s cycling. The upcoming 1984 Olympic Games would be the first Games to include a women’s cycling race. In 1982, Becca triumphs at the world championship and Eddie invites her to live and train in the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. And so she does.

Twigg wins a silver medal, finishing just a few inches behind her colleague Connie Carpenter-Phinney. That feat opened the door to a promising future. In the following years, Rebecca will become an American cycling star, conquering numerous national and world championships, making the covers of cycling magazines, and setting world records.

Unfortunately, aged 25, Twigg crashed her bike in Texas and got 13 stitches to her head. The recovery took some time and Becca realized the previous years left her feeling burnt out. She decided to take a break and finish her studies. After getting an associate degree in computer science, the excellent cyclist became a programmer.

Rebecca Twigg triumphs at the Indoor Cycling World Championship in Vienna. © M. Leckel / AFP / Profimedia

Three years later, however, Becca came back to cycling. A nine-month training for the 1992 Olympics earned her a bronze medal in the 3,000-metre pursuit – the last success if we count it in metal. The ultimate dealbreaker came with the 1996 Olympic Games (Becca left after an unsuccessful start). In 1997, she raced in the world championship but finished eighth. That put an end to Twigg’s cycling career.

Becca took up a programming job, which wasn’t the greatest fit. The fixed work hours, limited flexibility, and a sense of solitude behind the desk resulted in a somewhat fragile state of mind. In her fifties, Twigg finally quit the last IT job and stopped searching for another one. Feelings of anxiety occupied her mind enough. For the second time in her life, she became homeless.

Rebecca’s story startled many, including the Day Center staff, her friends, and family. Her stunning intelligence and friendly yet introverted personality combined with the promising life story left everyone wondering. Why and how could this happen?

Rebecca Twigg waves to the crowd after finishing first in the three-kilometre Individual Pursuit competition and setting a new world record in this category. Twigg clocked a time of 3:36.081 minutes. © ROBERTO SCHMIDT / AFP / Profimedia

Becca herself claims there is a certain feeling of guilt, preventing her from taking up offers of assistance or permanent housing. She wouldn’t accept any of them as she feels she had advantages in life she did not deserve. Why should I have a bed and a home, when others cannot?

Along with Tamara Garkuchina, Rebecca Twigg is the most successful rider in the history of UCI Track Cycling World Championships – a holder of six gold medals. For the last five years, she has also been a homeless person. Maybe this is an important reminder to all of us: there is no certainty that a great success at one point in our lives guarantees happiness for the rest of it.