‘I should be dead’ – Years after his horror crash, Keagan Girdlestone is now an actor

The now-26-year-old knows he's lucky to be alive, and he's making the most of it.

A screengrab from Girdlestone’s appearance in the 2022 amateur film, “Businessman”.

On June 5, 2016, up-and-coming road racer Keagan Girdlestone came perilously close to death. The 19-year-old South African-born Kiwi was racing for the Dimension Data development team at the Coppa della Pace in Italy when he was chasing back to the peloton after a crash. When the convoy stopped suddenly in front of Girdlestone, the young rider collided with the rear windshield of his team car, severing his jugular vein, carotid artery, and brachial plexus (a bundle of nerves in the neck and shoulder). 

Doctors said Girdlestone should have bled out in two minutes. They said later he’d have little chance of escaping without serious brain damage. Girdlestone suffered several strokes and even a cardiac arrest on the operating table. Nerve damage left him partially paralysed on one side, and learning to walk again would be a considerable challenge. Racing a bike again? That seemed like a distant dream.

After three days in an induced coma, Girdlestone spent most of a month in intensive care. His weight dropped from an already lean 64 kg at 186 cm down to 50 kg. But slowly, he started to make progress. A month after his crash, he managed to stand up for two minutes – a triumph.

In August 2016, three months after the crash, Girdlestone returned home to New Zealand, and was greeted in the Christchurch airport by a stirring haka from his schoolmates.

In November 2016, six months post-crash, he rode his bike outside for the first time, for half an hour. As the months passed, Girdlestone continued getting stronger. Remarkably, in January 2017, he managed to race again.

Ever since he’d been a kid, Girdlestone had wanted to ride the Tour de France. And as he continued to recover and get stronger, that goal came back into focus. 

He’d certainly been on track for that goal pre-accident. In 2015, at 18, Girdlestone raced in Australia’s National Road Series, where he won stage 1 of the Battle on the Border ahead of future WorldTour pros Paddy Bevin, Chris Hamilton, Chris Harper, and Ben O’Connor. 

Later in 2015 he won two big junior stage races (the Rhône Alpes-Valromey Tour and Ronde des Vallées), beating the likes of Derek Gee, Ide Schelling and Nils Eekhoff along the way. And then he was fourth in the U19 men’s time trial at the Richmond World Championships, beating Gino Mäder (RIP), Jasper Philipsen, and future elite TT world champ, Tobias Foss in the process.

After signing with Dimension Data’s development team for the 2016 season*, it seemed like Girdlestone was on his way to the top of the sport.

(*Girdlestone originally signed with the Dimension Data professional team but when they signed Mark Cavendish and received a WorldTour license, the team decided Girdlestone – as a first-year U23 – should race with the development squad, rather than going straight to the WorldTour).

Getting back to the highest level post-accident would prove a considerable challenge. After racing at lower levels through 2017 and into 2018, Girdlestone suffered a significant setback. In mid-2018, a few weeks after arriving in Europe to do some local racing, Girdlestone started experiencing post-traumatic stress.

“I was training well, and then just one day I went out for a training ride and I was doing some sprints,” he told in 2019. “I felt a massive kink in my neck. When I felt that kink, I was really freaked out,” he said. This uncontrollable process of thinking happened. The whole time I was thinking, ‘has my carotid artery ruptured, has that graft in my neck ruptured?’”

Girdlestone soon returned to Christchurch where he spent four months battling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“It prevented me from doing anything,” he told Stuff. “It was taking over my life and put a strain on my relationships with my friends, and that’s probably the worst thing that’s come from this.”

As you’ll read in the Q&A below, it was that PTSD that spelled the end of Girdlestone’s time as a bike racer. Nowadays, he’s in Melbourne where he’s pursuing a new career as an actor, while working part time at a bottle shop (liquor store) to pay the bills. Now 26, Girdlestone spoke to Escape this week about his journey in the past few years, how he’s changed as a person since his near-fatal crash, and more.


Matt de Neef: Most people reading this wouldn’t have heard much about you in the last few years. I think you stopped racing in 2018 – can you tell me about how your time as a racer came to an end?

Keagan Girdlestone: I went to Europe in 2018 to race over there. And then what happened was I got post traumatic stress over there, from the accident, and then I couldn’t really touch my bike for a while.

I eventually got over that hurdle and I was riding my bike again. But I think at that point, the passion had dwindled down. I did some tests for my lung capacity and whatnot, VO2s and what not, but with the paralysis, what we didn’t actually realise was my diaphragm was partially paralysed as well.

So when I’m breathing, one ribcage is lifting and one’s just staying still so there’s just not enough volume of oxygen going into my system. And I’m just never ever going to be able to perform at the level I once was. So at that point, I was like, “Well, I’m just fighting an uphill battle that I’m never gonna win.”

How did all that make you feel?

I’ve just gone “Well, it’s just the cards I’ve been dealt.” My dad took it harder than I did. His stance was always “It must be your choice. If you’re going to not cycle I want it to be your choice. I don’t want it to be because you can’t.” And so, it was my choice.

I mean, I probably could have been a very, very run of the mill domestique, but that was never what I wanted out of cycling. For my mental health, knowing where I was, it was just never gonna work me trying to be a cyclist, knowing what the potential was.

What do you think your potential was? How far do you think you could have gone in the sport?

I don’t think it’s up to me to say, because you can never really know. Anything could have happened. I believe if all things went perfectly, I could have been a Grand Tour contender. That was always the end goal.

You mentioned some VO2 tests. Do you remember what they were before and after the accident?

I did a VO2 test before my accident. That was when I was 16. I think it was somewhere in the vicinity of 83 or 84, something like that. Which was very, very high, especially for someone that wasn’t fully developed yet. The highest it got was 87.9, in March 2016 I believe.

My VO2max on December 14, 2017 was 69.53 [18 months after his accident – ed.].

So tell me about your acting. How’d you get started with that and what inspired you to go in that direction?

I always sort of wanted to do acting as a kid back in South Africa, but I never ever pursued it. I never did drama class in school. I never did any of that because back in South Africa, there was very much a stigma behind doing drama class for a boy, back in those days, especially if you were like a sporting person, which I was. Back in primary school, I played every sport under the sun, and it will be surprising but I played rugby and I was actually very good at rugby.

Once I was having my PTSD, I was talking to my therapist at the time. He was a cyclist  and he was actually a friend of mine, Michael Greenslade, and he said, “Try using the creative side of the brain.” My whole life has been so focused on this sporting aspect and training and maybe it’s just a good thing to try something more creative. And he’s like, “Do you like art?” And I was like “I’ve always wanted to act.” And he’s like, “That’d be great. Go and do that.”

So I went and did my first adult acting class with a theatre company in Christchurch and I loved it. And then I was like, “Well, let me keep doing this.” So naturally, if I’m going to do something, I want to do it to the best of my ability, thanks to competitive training my whole life. So I was like “I’ve got to do this properly.”

And so I went on this journey to get the best training possible. And about three, four months later, I found myself in Los Angeles, training at a studio there where the likes of Keanu Reeves has trained, Halle Berry – a whole bunch of very big names. I just fell in love with acting and just kind of kept training, I guess. 

Have you been trying to find work from it? Or is it more of a passion thing?

At this stage, I just love it now. It’s not therapy or anything like that. I love the creative side of me and pursuing that and meeting incredibly talented, incredibly creative, incredibly kind people in this world. It’s so vastly different than cycling, or just any other facet of life. 

So to answer your question, at this stage, there’s been some jobs that I’ve done where it kind of paid the bills but for the most part, at this stage, it’s very much passion that’s driving me, which is fine, because I think that’s the good part of it. If you love it, you’ll do it despite the money, and that’s just the case.

I’ve done many, many short films, mainly student films. I’ve done quite a few music videos, I’ve done some theatre stuff. And I’ve done some stuff since I’ve been in Melbourne, which has been great. Production value’s definitely increased a bit since I’ve moved to Australia. There’s just far more opportunities since I’ve been here.

For those that want to see your acting, where can people find your work?

A lot of it isn’t public. I think some of the stuff now in Melbourne that I’m doing, is going to actually be submitted to film festivals. I think there will be a release at some stage with that. These things just take time. They don’t really go public until after they’ve done festival runs.

What are your goals in this space? What would you love to be doing?

I don’t think there is a goal and that’s what I kind of like about it. I think the goal in itself was to just better myself, to continue improving myself and my abilities and broaden that. But I see myself doing bigger films. And I would like to work with some of the greatest, you know. I don’t do anything to half-arse it, you know?

I’ve had my whole life, people telling me “You can’t become a professional cyclist. Only the top 1% do it.” And well, I did that. And now it’d be a great story to do it again in another discipline, another thing where only the top 1% can actually really do it.

I’d love to do big films, and shows that actually matter, that mean something to people, that move them, entertain them, that teach lessons in life, make people think differently.

What have you learned about yourself through acting?

I’ve learned a great deal. I think there’s a lot of self-reflecting with acting, because you really have to know yourself in order to portray someone else. And I think there’s this constant feedback loop of delving into yourself and analysing yourself. And I think you become very self aware of all the things that you’re doing well, and the things that you’re doing wrong. 

You’ve got to be really honest with yourself, like “Oh, am I being lazy? How do I see the world? How do I see people? Why do I feel certain ways about things?” You get more, I guess, control over yourself. As opposed to being ruled by this subconscious pattern that’s developed over time because we’re not really aware of it.

Do you feel like you’re the same person you were as Keagan the Cyclist, or are you a different person now?

I would say I’ve absolutely changed. I’ve actually had this realisation recently where, with my cycling, my training, I always had a goal. I always had a race to train for. And so I was very disciplined in that. And I had my dad who was my coach and he was a fantastic coach and if it wasn’t for him I would have never been pushed that far or been held accountable the way that I was. And I think that’s such a big thing that I lost once I stopped cycling – that accountability to myself, holding myself accountable to do things, to pursue things. 

You really have to do the work yourself. No one else can. And I’ve lost that sort of drive to do the work like I did with my cycling. And I re-found it again, actually, right after moving to Melbourne a couple of months ago and now I’ve been working my arse off like I’ve never worked, even with my cycling days.

I think in life we get knocked down a peg and sometimes we can get lost along the way. But if you’re lucky enough to re-find yourself, it’s like being born again. There’s a great saying which is like “A man’s life begins when he realises that he’s only got one life.” 

Was there a particular moment that helped you to re-find that drive?

Yeah. I was staying with my uncle down in Patterson Lakes, which is quite a bit of a trip into town where I was going to my classes. I was travelling about two hours every Tuesday and Thursday to and from class. So a total of four hours a day. I’d be walking home from the train station at about, 11:30 at night, and I’d be getting home at about 12:30 then I’d have to eat some food, I was getting to bed, like one to two o’clock in the morning and then I’d be up in the morning to go to work.

It was midnight and I’m walking back from the train station and I was exhausted. But I realised in that moment “I’m doing what I want to do with my life.” There were no complaints. I was like, “I will do this happily because I know that it’s working towards my goal in life.”

Are you riding your bike much these days? Strava tells me you were riding back in March in Christchurch …

I’m riding every day … a whole two kilometres to the coffee shop and back. *laughs* I mean, I ride my bike. I’m so unfit it’s disgusting. I am not as fit as I once was. I definitely gym more than I ride my bike. But I do ride about 15 kilometres every other day when I go to the gym. 

So that’s about as far as my cycling goes at this stage. I would go and do some rides with my mates, do a Beach Road road or something like that. But at this stage, I’ve just been so busy. I’ve just had so much on that I am not really too concerned with riding.

I mean, my relationship is that I still enjoy it when I do it. But there’s no drive to want to do it every day, or even every week. I’m happy to go and ride when the sun’s out and it’s nice and warm. There definitely has to be a coffee shop somewhere along the way. 

Do you follow professional cycling at all these days?

I gotta say I haven’t really. I think the last thing I watched was the Tour de France last year but I mean, that was just a really entertaining Tour so I did watch that quite a bit. I’ve been more interested in the Classics, to be honest, which I just love watching. But a lot of the time I would just watch the replays, the GCN recap videos or whichever. I’m not as passionate about it – I’m not going to sit watching it for four or five hours like I used to.

Girdlestone’s most recent ride on Strava.

You spoke before about the paralysis in your diaphragm. Were there any other long-term impacts that the accident has had on your life? Whether it be physical or psychological or philosophical?

Physically, I’ve got a tremor in my left arm. My left hand and arm shake like a shitting dog every now and again. The left side of my body is weaker just from the brain damage, because I did suffer several strokes. So that’s just like a stroke injury, basically. So that’s my leg, my arm. That was another thing I realised – the physical strength in my left leg is nowhere near my right leg. And I was like, “Well, that’s probably not helping the power on the bike! That’s not fair.” *laughs*

The tremor’s probably the most annoying thing. I’ve gotten used to it but now with my acting, I’m trying so hard not to shake because not every character’s supposed to be shaking. I’m supposed to be cool, calm and collected, then I’m shaking, I’m like “No, no, no – now I’m looking all nervous and stuff.” It’s something I’m gonna have to try and keep working on.

One vocal cord is paralysed as well so I’ve got one doing all the work and in the beginning it was very hard for me to speak. I’ve done a lot of vocal training since I’ve been here in Melbourne. I’m doing my training at TAFTA, the Australian Film and Television Academy. We worked with vocal coach John Preston, and I did some very basic vocal warmup exercises and that’s made my voice so much stronger. My vocal chord does fatigue so I eventually slowly start losing my voice after a big day of talking.

So that’s the main physical things that have affected me. Philosophically, I would say my view on life is that … when it first happened, everyone was like, “Man, you must have this great, profound appreciation for life.” And the truth is, the second life goes back to normal, we humans are such selfish beings that we’re like “Life’s back to normal. I’m not going to remember or appreciate the fact that I was lying in bed for three months, unable to walk.” So very quickly life gets back to normal. And then you’re complaining about stupid shit. The internet is not working and you’re like “This is so annoying.” Just the most absurd things are now an issue.

And I would say nothing changed up until recently. I’d say maybe a year and a half, two years ago I would say I had like a spiritual death, where I just … I really truly had this profound feeling of what my life was like. And I realised in that moment, I was like “Wow, life is very special and not guaranteed.” And ever since that moment, I’ve always tried to, every day, be grateful that I’ve woken up in the morning, I’ve got a roof over my head, I’ve got food. And ever since then I would say I have a different outlook at life. Now I’ll see a cloud and I’ll be like “Wow, that’s an amazing cloud. It’s so beautiful. Wow.” *laughs*

Was there something that precipitated that moment, that discovery?

I started meditating. A buddy of mine was like “Man, you need to start meditating!” And I was like “OK.” And he’s like “You need to meditate everyday for like a month.” He watched some video and apparently this was like a cool thing to do. And I humoured the idea.

Funny enough, during that I did some research into meditation, the benefits of it and whatnot. So I kept doing it and I was like, “OK, cool. If anything, it’ll just be really good to be able to slow down the mind from going absolutely crazy.”

In this meditation, I just had this profound sense of the vastness of what life is. I kind of sat down and really had a think about how lucky I am to be here because I should be dead. I mean, every doctor that’s had a look at my medical reports is like “How the hell are you alive?” And I think the weight of that just hit me in that moment, and I was like, “Holy shit.”

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