There’s nothing quite like a gaggle of loud American tourists to kill a romantic moment. Factor in a nasty shoulder injury and a cold, windy night in a crowded European city, and Olympic medal-winning Kiwi cyclist Aaron Gate had his work cut out for him.
Still, the professional pedal-pusher finally managed to win his personal race to put a ring on it, getting down on one knee and proposing to his partner Kirstie Pooley in the Belgian city of Bruges on the night of her 25th birthday.
“It was a bit of a mission, but I got there in the end,” smiles Aaron – who won a bronze medal in the team pursuit at the 2012 London Games – telling how he decided to go ahead with plans despite having one arm in a sling after he shattered his scapula at a track meet in Italy just days earlier.
“I did a bit of googling and read that it was bad luck to propose on your fiancée’s birthday. But I’d already planned the day, so I decided to do it just after midnight.
"We went to a nice restaurant and then I grabbed the ring from my bag, pretending I was getting my camera to take some pictures of the city at night. Then just as I chose the spot, we got interrupted by these loud American tourists and a car with its headlights on full!”
Finally, when the obnoxious sightseers departed and the vehicle had vanished, there was a moment of quiet.
Aaron (25) recalls, “My heart was racing. I’ve been amped before the Olympics, but this was a different kind of nerves. I told Kirstie I had something to ask her, dropped to one knee, took a deep breath and asked.”
Belgium, where Aaron competes on the world stage, has been home to the Auckland-born high-school sweethearts for the past couple of years and it was in the famous diamond shops of Antwerp that he had her ring crafted.
The stunning halo-set gem burnt a hole in his pocket until that fateful evening in their favourite city, Bruges, where Aaron thrilled Kirstie.
“It’s so beautiful,” she says with a smile. “I feel incredibly lucky to have a diamond from the official diamond capital of the world!”
It’s a fairytale ending for the pair, however, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Kirstie gave up her underwriting job to move to Belgium to be with Aaron last year, but her new life proved challenging.
“It was quite lonely,” Kirstie confesses. “I found it hard to connect with people as our town was so small. Luckily, we had some close Belgian friends we could catch up with when Aaron wasn’t away racing.”
Yet it was Kirstie’s sacrifice that was the clincher when it came to Aaron proposing.
He admits, “It had been on my mind for a while, but when Kirstie made that commitment, that was when I knew I’d be proposing in Belgium.”
The couple, who have been together for eight years, first met through high-school pals on an awkward double date.
Aaron recalls, “My friend invited me because he was keen on two girls at high school and wanted my opinion. I was the fourth wheel! I was also really shy, so I pretty much sat in the corner for most of the date.”
Luckily, chatty Kirstie was smitten with the budding cyclist, who was already competing at a national level.
During their relationship, Aaron’s dedication to his sport has meant a lot of compromise.
“We have Skype to keep us in touch,” he says. “But even though we’ve been doing the distance thing for years, it never gets any easier.”
When they’re together in New Zealand, the couple live in Cambridge and both love renovating their 100-year-old villa in their downtime.
“Kirstie’s pretty good at painting – and I’m even better at sitting on the couch and complaining about how tired I am,” jokes Aaron.
When Aaron’s away, Kirstie’s passion for DIY keeps her busy.
“I’d love to go on The Block,” she says, describing a cool coffee table she recently built.
Kirstie insists she has no interest in micro-managing plans for her upcoming wedding – the couple’s parents have taken charge. Instead, she and Aaron are focused on the Rio 2016 Olympics.
New Zealand’s cycling squad won’t be decided until July, but Kirstie has already bought a plane ticket to Brazil.
“I have absolutely no doubt he’ll be there,” she grins, looking at Aaron. “And I can’t wait to be there too, cheering him on.”
Words: Carmen Lichi