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June 2, 2021 – 20 years from San Marino GSSE

Etienne Bonello (second left) poses with his medal at the San Marino GSSE.

On June 2, marks the 20th anniversary of the end of the Games of Small States of Europe in San Marino. My first ever participation at GSSE, Games that had ignited a flame that still burns as bright and as strong as I look back to all the years.

Twenty years ago today, I represented my country in the 100km road race and I can vividly remember how proud, excited and terrified I was on the starting line knowing that this was the ultimate test and that all the eyes of Malta were on my and the team’s performance.

Two days earlier Malta-born David Millar had conquered the time trial winning the Games’ first gold medal for Malta and my team-mate Jack Schiavone missed a bronze medal for a handful of seconds.

It was my time to shine and to give my heart and soul for my country. Expectations were high but I failed terribly, finishing dead last. I was so disappointed and ashamed not to be able to match my team-mates’ performance and replicate the success the team had just achieved a couple of days earlier.

That moment I knew that this was not how I wanted to be, a non-performer or even worse a loser. I picked up the pieces of what was left of me and I decided to make it my mission to win a medal at GSSE level. That, to me, was the ultimate goal to prove to myself that I had what it took. I built my whole sporting career on winning a medal for Malta.

I trained so hard and so long, shed so many tears of sweat and slowly but surely I got better and stronger. I’ve become national champion over 25 times in the various cycling disciplines, won over 150 races but yet again after four more participations at GSSE, despite getting much better results, a medal always deluded me.

Perhaps I was the only one to believe I could do it as everyone around me considered the level at the GSSE was particularly high since many countries fielded professional athletes and we were ‘only’ amateur riders fitting training around work and life commitments.

I never saw it that way – I persevered.

Together with my team, I decided to race in professional races. I had a good kicking racing 180km a day for five to seven consecutive days each time.
After a full cycle of GSSE Games, I was back there where it all started for me. San Marino GSSE in 2017. As I stepped down from Team Malta bus after a long drive from Rome Airport I looked at the same scenery of 16 years earlier as this thought came to my head, “San Marino I am back.”

Psychologically I was so fired up, determined and committed to the one and only objective I had spent the previous 16 years working so hard for.

The first day of competition was the cycling road race, Malta fielded a very strong team and we were one strong and powerful unit.

Off we went round this very fast course 12 times, it was only 100km long after all (we had raced 180km daily in training races).

Tremendous support

We had tremendous support from the Maltese Olympic Committee who like me never stopped believing and the Malta Cycling Federation who offered unconditional support and left no stone unturned in pursue for glory. We were at our best form we had ever been.

The race was so fast and nervous.

It wasn’t just us who wanted to medal so hard. Three hours of busting lungs and burning legs and it all boiled down to the final two kilometres with the race still together.

I placed myself near the front and there was no way I was going to let this slip away from me. Into the final few hundred metres up a small incline leading to the finish line hell got loose in a frantic sprint to the line. Never had I sprinted for a finish like that in GSSE.

Etienne Bonello is hugged by his wife Danica Bonello Spiteri.

I drained all the energy left in me onto the pedals as I crossed the line in a blur grasping for air. I felt it, this was good, I look back and I see my team-mate immediately behind me. I had finished sixth overall, fraction of seconds behind the winner.

Then we hear the news, third team overall, bronze medal for Malta. 0.6 seconds away from silver. Emotions ran wide as I hugged my wife Danica with my mum on the line.

It was such an intense moment of pride, joy and relief.

The proudest moment in my sporting life, stepping on the podium with a medal round my neck with the greatest group of team-mates one could ever wish for.

In sport if you keep knocking on the door long enough it eventually opens.

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