“I GET KNOCKED DOWN, BUT GET UP AGAIN”How Gabi Murray-Roberts’ biggest fall taught her some of her biggest lessons
Hot Heels Africa, 2014. The final race of the South African downhill circuit. Gabrielle Murray-Roberts, South Africa’s top ranked woman, was lining up to skate alongside two internationals. One of them, Marie Bougourd, was ranked No.2 in the world.
Under normal circumstances, Murray-Roberts wouldn’t give herself much of a chance against the overseas stars, but 2014 was different. She had competed in the USA and Canada. She had done a “borderline spiritual” road trip to Lesotho. She had beaten one of the more respected male riders in the Open category in an earlier race, and she was regularly beating some of the older guys in the Masters category.
Her reputation was growing. Her confidence was soaring. Her skill levels were at an all-time high. “I was going for it,” says Murray-Roberts. “Everyone was like, ‘You’re going to beat her’. And I had beaten her in a race two weekends before. So there was a lot of pressure on me.”
Murray-Roberts had her gameplan and strategy set out. She knew that she could beat Bougourd. She went for gold. And then disaster struck.
At a notorious bend in the road known as ‘Lloyd’s left’, Murray-Roberts got sucked into a double draft – where the lack of resistance behind a competitor can cause an increase in speed – and in an attempt to take the inside line, Murray-Roberts fell. Hard.
“I stood up and my finger was like this,” says Murray-Roberts, pulling her little finger at an impossible angle across the back of her hand. “It could have been so much worse. But I haven’t had a lot of big falls. And even though it was just my pinkie, it was still a big fall. For a couple of months, it messed my head up a bit.”
Murray-Roberts is a fierce competitor, she thrives on pressure, and she skates her best in a race situation. But she is also a naturally cautious skater. So in taking the inside line at Lloyd’s corner, Murray-Roberts was deviating from her regular style.
“I’m a what-if kind of person,” she says. “When I’m skating down a hill, I’m like: ‘What if I fall, what if I break my leg, what if I break my neck? What if he falls, what if, what if…’ That’s how my brain works. I’m not able to turn that off. So I don’t always push myself. But on that day I really pushed.”
A ‘what-if’ person is the last one you’d expect to see bombing down a hill on a skateboard at 80km/h in leathers and a helmet. But for Murray-Roberts it’s all about pushing personal boundaries.
“It’s a personal achievement each and every time I skate down a hill,” says Murray-Roberts. “You’re taking on your own mind. I don’t know if other people think of it that way, but it’s quite a big part of it for me: to challenge myself. To keep pushing past what I thought was possible. That’s a really good feeling.”
So how much of a psychological setback is a major fall?
“I’ve been going over and over it in my mind,” says Murray-Roberts. “And it has kind of thrown me off my skating this year. I’m slowly coming right but it made me realise that there’s always been quite a lot of pressure on me – and most of it has been self-inflicted.
“Every time another girl appears on the scene, people are like: ‘Hey, more competition.’ But I don’t want to see it that way. I want to be like, ‘Yay, more girls skating.’ So I think it has been an important turning point in my skating career.”
It’s one of life’s great ironies that personal growth often requires a significant setback. And it looks like Murray-Roberts is grabbing this one by the rails.
“Now I’m at a stage where I’m finding the enjoyment in it again,” says Murray-Roberts. “I’m skating because I want to, not because I have to. Because that’s what I love doing.”
Coming to a hill near you soon.