When Rebecca Twigg was 7, she rode a bike for the first time. There were no training wheels, but Twigg took off like she’d done it in a previous life. She fell only when she realized she didn’t know how to stop, and steered into a wall.
“I took to the road like I was born to do it,” Twigg says today. “Except for the little part about stopping. I’m not a very good planner.”
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The Seattle-raised athlete went on to become one of the most famous American cyclists in the ’80s and ’90s, winning six world championships and medaling in two Olympics. She appeared on cycling magazine covers, in sponsor ads and in features in Sports Illustrated and Vanity Fair.
But then, in 1996, she left the team abruptly during the Olympics and the next year, retired from cycling. She re-entered the workforce. It didn’t work out.
“Once you’ve done something that feels like you’re born to do it, it’s hard to find anything that’s that good of a fit,” Twigg says today. “Anything else that feels that way.”
Rebecca Twigg has now been without a home for almost five years in Seattle, living first with friends and family, then in her car, then in homeless shelters and then, for a night, under garbage bags on the street downtown. She hasn’t had a bike for years, and no one recognizes her anymore, she says.
Twigg, 56, agreed to share her story to convince the public that not all homeless people are addicted to drugs or alcohol; that there are many like her, who have struggled with employment and are “confused,” as she said she is, about what to do next with their lives. She did not want to discuss mental health but feels it should be treated more seriously in Washington.
“Some of the hard days are really painful when you’re training for racing,” Twigg said, “but being homeless, when you have little hope or knowledge of where the finish line is going to be, is just as hard.”
On a recent morning, Twigg walked into Mary’s Place Women’s Day Center in downtown Seattle. She used to come here frequently after leaving one of a number of night shelters. Lots of women are here, taking showers or doing laundry, helping to clean. Talking with them is better than “getting lost in my own thoughts,” she says.
Hedwight Amoda, director at the center, walks up.
“I haven’t seen you in a minute! Where are you?” Amoda asks.
“On the living room floor,” Twigg says, smiling. “On a mat.” She’s been staying with relatives in the area the last few weeks while she recovers from a bad flu. Her immediate family in the Seattle area, including her 18-year-old daughter, declined interviews for this story.
Amoda was struck, soon after meeting Twigg in 2017, by how intelligent she was, how fit she looked in sports clothes and how late she stayed to clean after the day center closed. When Amoda learned who Twigg was, she was surprised that this woman, regarded as America’s best cyclist when she quit in 1997, is homeless today.
“I’m still confused, but I’m figuring it out,” Twigg tells Amoda.
“I kind of lost my home base”
Twigg was still a child when she became homeless.
A prodigy in academics and athletics, she started at UW at the age of 14, competing in cycling that same year and medaling in national races almost right away. At this time, she was living in Seattle in a basement with her mother and sister.
Twigg’s sister says their mom kicked Twigg out; Twigg remembers being offered the option to leave and taking it. She was a few months from turning 16. She rode her bike to the old downtown Greyhound station, stayed up all night, and slept a few hours in the UW Library the next morning before calling her team leader and crashing at his house. The next years — as Twigg became a cycling star — were transient. She went from friends’ houses to hotels on the road while racing.
“I kind of lost my home base because I traveled so much,” Twigg said.
She was spotted at 17 by famous cycling coach Eddie Borysewicz. After she won the world championship, he invited her to live in the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs and train for the 1984 Olympic Games, where for the first time, women would be competing on bicycles.
Americans dominated the Olympics that year. Twigg won a silver medal, missing gold by a few inches to famous racer Connie Carpenter. She continued on her way up over the next several years, setting world records, winning world titles, and racing more than 60 times a year. She became known for her competition in individual pursuit, where two cyclists start at the same time on opposite sides of the track and each tries to catch the other. She’s still among the most-decorated athletes in pursuit.
But the breakneck pace couldn’t continue forever. She was married and soon after divorced. She crashed in Texas, broke her thumb and got 13 stitches in her head. The following year she felt burned out. She took a break at age 26, and that year she grew an entire inch, possibly because her body no longer had to expend so much energy training.
Twigg got an associate degree in computer science and became a programmer for a seaweed-products company in San Diego.
Twigg says the career wasn’t a perfect fit. She quit and started training for the 1992 Olympic Games, winning a bronze medal in the 3,000-meter pursuit after only nine months of training. As she entered her 30s, she became regarded as the best American female cyclist.
The break with her career came in July 1996, at the Olympic Games in Atlanta. After a disappointing start to the Games, she left, saying the U.S. Cycling Federation was pressuring everyone to recreate the success of 1984. She raced in 1997, but placed eighth in the world championships. She retired for good.
From a bike to a desk
Twigg went back to desk jobs in IT, then back to school for massage therapy. It didn’t pay enough, and she was offered another tech job. She married again, and had a daughter.
It was a far cry from winning medals for Twigg, and beyond that, she said the solitary nature of programming troubled her. She’d been friendly but introverted for much of her time traveling, according to fellow cyclist Inga Thompson, who traveled and competed alongside her for years.
Entering the workforce is hard for anyone that’s been a famous athlete, but it can be especially hard for superstar cyclists like Twigg, Thompson said.
“As a racer, you’re used to having a schedule kind of rotate around you,” Thompson said, “because you can’t overtrain, you don’t want to under-train, and you’re able to say ‘I’m not doing that today, I’m doing this today.’ And Rebecca, being so highly trained, and highly attuned, had the leeway of making those calls.”
Thompson herself has avoided working at a desk. Today, she owns a cattle ranch in Oregon, where she’s her own boss. Thompson jokes she’s “unemployable.”
“What (Twigg) has is a great trait,” Thompson said. “Unless you get into the workforce.”
Twigg would take unspecified amounts of time off and sometimes be unreachable. Once, when she didn’t show up to work for four days, her co-workers called the police for a welfare check, according to a family member.
Sometimes there were miscommunications. When Twigg got back to the office after the welfare check, her desk phone didn’t work. Scared she was about to be fired, Twigg quit. She later learned they hadn’t planned on firing her.
Twigg didn’t have much money to fall back on. Even with sponsorships, at the height of her success, Twigg says she didn’t make more than $50,000 a year.
Twigg said anxiety inhibited her job search. She would apply and get an email about an interview, but she wouldn’t respond. She started experiencing strange sensations in her head and body, but doctors didn’t have any answers. She said she has considered suicide, but is convinced things don’t get better on “the other side.”
Five years ago, Twigg was fired from an IT support job and moved back to Seattle, but this time didn’t even apply for jobs. She was 50, and felt the job postings in computer science were aimed at new college graduates.
She went from living with relatives to living in her car, letting her then-14-year-old daughter stay with relatives. Riding her bike no longer made sense to her, practically; she got sweaty if it was warm, or wet if it was raining, and staying clean and dry is hard when you’re homeless.
She gave away her bike, her cycling taking a back seat to surviving. She started walking everywhere, slowly, to conserve energy.
“I just had my head really mixed up”
Twigg compares homelessness to traveling with no end to your trip. “You can never go home to rest,” Twigg said. She moved from her car to women’s and coed shelters in Seattle, and the pace of life there, too, was slow.
“There are some shelters where it’s like a bus station. You’re just staring at someone else — it’s so boring.” But she says shelters kept her alive; today, this former Olympian is hassled off sidewalks by security guards, and struggles to find a place where she can simply stand around.
In February, during the massive snowstorm, she saw people sleeping on the streets and felt bad that she had a warm bed in a shelter. There’s an odd “concert mentality” when you’re homeless, Twigg said, where it can be hard to separate yourself from the crowd. Her guilt and a sense that she had “unfair advantages” in life haven’t gone away.
“I felt at one time that I couldn’t accept housing because there were all these other people who need it,” Twigg said.
She decided to sleep outside, even if just for a night. She left the shelters, bought some garbage bags and got a thin blanket, and lay down on a sidewalk downtown, pulling one bag over her legs and one bag over her head.
“I was shivering, partly from fear, and partly from cold,” Twigg said. “I had this feeling of not really belonging anywhere. I just had my head really mixed up, totally confused about what I should be doing.”
At 5 a.m., a security guard woke her up. Her blanket was wet. She went to a shelter that would let her in, and slept for half an hour sitting up. She knew she couldn’t spend another night outside.
In March, as her 56th birthday approached, she got the flu and had to go to the hospital. From there, she persuaded a relative to take her in again so she could convalesce.
From her own experience, Twigg thinks the answer is building more affordable housing.
“Shelters are great, but there has to be a next step,” Twigg said. She still won’t accept housing for herself, even when help is offered by people who’ve found out about her state; her homelessness was mentioned in a cycling magazine last month.
“The point is not so much that I need help, it’s that there are a bunch of people who need help — 12,000 in this area, half a million in the country,” Twigg said. “Help should be provided for everybody, not just a few.”
Even if they are Olympians.
Seattle Times reporter Lewis Kamb contributed to this report.
Editor’s note: Out of concern for those involved in this story and their loved ones, the comment thread has been removed.