Mountain biker Jess Blewitt is back on the international competition circuit after recovering from a dramatic crash last year. Blewitt speaks to NZME about her difficult recovery, her unique path from alpine skiing to mountain biking and her rise in the sport.
Where you are right now?
I'm currently in Machynlleth, Wales attending a Red Bull performance camp at Dyfi Bike Park. I have also just finished a GT Factory pre-season camp with the team last week in Scotland at Fort William.
You were carving a path in alpine skiing, what made you jump to MTB?
I thoroughly enjoyed my years of ski racing with the Queenstown Alpine Ski Team from a young age, but wasn't that keen to pursue FIS racing – and chasing the winters! I dabbled a little bit in Freestyle for a bit, but decided it wasn't really my thing.
I had done a bit of riding over my earlier childhood years, in particular in Rotorua and Taupō, having grown up initially in Mount Maunganui. I was introduced to Downhill MTB in the ski off-season in 2018 in Queenstown and I easily got hooked. It was an easy transition to transfer some of my skills I learnt from ski racing, like speed and balance and picking the right lines.
And what's the attraction of MTB for you?
The adrenaline buzz and creativity you can have!
Do you still ski for fun?
Yes, I still do ski for fun and enjoy it.
You had a massive crash in the final World Cup of the year in the US in September. Tell us what you remember about the accident.
I don't wish to dwell on it too much – these things happen in this "on the edge" sport. I do remember everything that happened.
The recovery journey sounds tough – can you talk us through it?
It was tough being in a hospital in the US without my family being able to get to me because of the restraints of MIQ in New Zealand, but I was lucky enough to have my team manager stay with me in the first week I was in hospital. Then Katie Holden (who is the organiser of Red Bull Formation, where I was a rider in May 2021) offered to come and stay with me the second week. She was amazing, a great laugh and so supportive and I was constantly using FaceTime to connect with my family back home.
I was taken by air ambulance home to New Zealand two weeks later, and into hospital in Christchurch for a few days before I was moved into MIQ where my mum (an ex-nurse) joined me to look after me as I could not look after myself.
Physio began from the moment I got into MIQ with the help of Pete, from Remarkable Physios, in Queenstown. He sent a few things to get me started, there was a Game Ready system, which delivers constant cold compression, and a Complex Muscle stimulator to help get my quad muscle firing again as well as the exercises that the physio from Christchurch hospital had given me.
The past seven months have been all about gaining my strength/power and getting fitness back – I feel like I have constantly lived at the physio and the gym, but the hard slog has all been worth it to see where I have got to now.
What was it like being in MIQ with broken bones
All my main injuries – clavicle and the femur that were broken – had been surgically repaired in the hospital in the US. Mobility was the biggest problem.
Most people who fall off a bike will be a little hesitant about riding fast and the next time they're on a bike do you get the "yips' after a big crash.
I actually had a big crash last weekend at the British National Race during practice, but I guess you could say it was like "getting the monkey off my back" so to speak. I didn't actually compete the next day as I was too sore and I needed to be smart with my riding and listen to how I was feeling – this race was a bit of a warm-up to see what the Fort William track will be like for the World Cup there next weekend – so it wasn't a biggy not to race, just a sensible decision that I made.
How did it feel to win the elite woman title at the National Championships earlier this year?
I didn't actually think I was going to be able to race this year's National Championships back in March of this year in Christchurch. But Pete (my physio) and Ben (my PT) wanted me to as the "next process" in my recovery mentally on a familiar track with family and friends around to support me.
I went in without any expectations at all – and quite comfortably won.
You're riding with the GT Factory Racing squad, how did you land the contract?
I was supposed to go to Europe in 2020 as a Junior but because of Covid-19, Cycling NZ wouldn't enter us in any World Cup races – GT were going to help me with "privateer support" that year but obviously I never got to go.
In 2021, I joined the YD Racing Team. This is a parent-organised team focused on youth development and assisting MTB riders to enter races without relying on Cycling New Zealand for entries.
For the 2021 season, I initially went over as a privateer with the help of several sponsors from NZ: Rod Drury, from Xero, and Seadon Baker, from Illabb, and the bank of Mum and Dad as well as the assistance from Queenstown Rotary Club, The Skegg Foundation Sothebys Queenstown, Cookie Time Queenstown and HeliBike NZ.
I also got help from NZ Distributors like Worrels, Marleen's and Wide Open, who helped out with providing sponsored gear. And from Mark, from the Bike Fix, in Queenstown has been my mechanic from the beginning.
GT Factory Racing Team offered me support through the beginning of the season in Europe, which ended up being for the entirety of the season. In July, GT offered me a contract for 2022 for two years of which I had to keep quiet until the announcement was made in January 2022.
What sports were you into as a kid?
I played competitive soccer, netball and turf hockey during my school years. I was also a competitive surf lifesaver at Omanu Surf Club, Mount Maunganui. I also Alpine Ski raced with QAST for six years.
We are a very sporty family. I have a younger brother who is also a competitive MTBer and previous ski racer as well. I have been very privileged and lucky to have been brought up in a family that valued sport and gave my brother and I both amazing opportunities.
What are your goals for the year ahead?
Having come off a big injury, my first couple races I have no real expectations on myself. Later on, I obviously am aiming for some elite women podiums.