New Zealand multisport legend Steve Gurney reckons his toughest challenge didn’t come during any of his record-breaking nine Coast to Coast wins – or while adventure racing in far-flung jungles and deserts.
It wasn’t even when he clawed his way back from a life-threatening Leptospirosis infection he caught in 1994 from bat dung in Borneo’s Mulu caves.
Gurney’s biggest test came when he was forced to accept his days of top-flight competition were over.
The former professional athlete had to retire in 2004 because of an ankle injury and he slumped into a deep depression that took him two long years to shake off.
“That was the hardest moment because it was definitely the end of my racing and I had to question what was really important to me,” he says.
“Most of my career had been a very lonely existence, racing and training on my own.
“I realised that to get over this depression I needed some help and I needed to be connected with people.
“That was a big breakthrough and now I hate doing things on my own. I’ve even taken up dancing and all sorts of stuff.”
These days Christchurch-based Gurney, 45, gets a buzz out of passing on his experience to others through public speaking and taking training and motivational courses.
His 2008 autobiography Lucky Legs is also a bestseller. In his role as an ambassador for Sport and Recreation NZ, he paid a whirlwind visit to Queenstown last Monday to give a talk at Wakatipu High to sports-minded kids from the region.
He stresses to youngsters that being in the right frame of mind is just as important as having natural talent.
“It’s not always the most gifted athletes that make it,” Gurney says.
“I’m not a natural athlete. I’m not physically talented. I’m short and I run funny.
“Hundreds of people could have beaten me in races if they wanted to. But that’s the key – do they want to?
“The older I get, the more I realise it’s your attitude that gets the win. It’s sorting out your priorities, setting goals then achieving them.”
Gurney insists he regards Queenstown as his “second home” and visits as often as he can.
“It’s a very sports racing-orientated community here and the Queenstown area is an inspirational place to train because of the fantastic peaks and beautiful lakes and rivers.
“People think that athletes like me never get a chance to enjoy the terrain because we are concentrating so hard on going fast.
“But we love it out there and I’d always have a good look around whether training or competing.”
While here, Gurney hooked up with Queenstown’s multisport king Mark Williams. And Williams believes Gurney is the ultimate role model for winners to look up to.
“Steve is probably quite unique in that he devoted himself totally to his sport,” he says.
“There are probably more naturally gifted athletes around but his determination and desire to succeed is second to none.
“If you put the hard yards in over the years, you get the results – and that’s what Steve has shown, for sure. At his best, no one could even come close.”