Timeline – 1997 to 2000
Exhaustion continued into this post-Olympic year and after struggling to race. Found herself injured both physically and mentally. Felt a sense of despair and humiliation with her inability to focus and control her emotions, and her out of shape and overweight body that was simply unable to train the way she had always known: all out, all the time. Ended her racing season after a few months and took an injury leave from the sport. Only the injuries were not only physical (the nagging tendonitus in her ankle) but emotional as well. When her ankle felt better, she went on her first distance hike with Peter, hiking the John Muir Trail in the High Sierra of California, ten days of high altitude walking over a distance of about 265kms.
Another year, another series of emotional and physical difficulties. Managed a good off-season of training but something wasn’t right. There was a sense of sadness and loneliness inside. It was as if a time bomb was waiting to explode. Again, managed only two months of racing and had to quit. After crashing in New Zealand and splitting her face open, made a traumatizing trip back to Canada with a black eye, concussion and stitches in her face. Could not get herself together enough to go to the next race. Decided to quit the sport because it seemed to be causing her so much misery. Remembered a conversation she had with the National Team Doctor in the winter. When asked if she was suffering from depression she vehemently denied the possibility. It all began to make sense and she realized the Doctor was right. It was time to really step away from sport and get her health back, both mentally and physically. After much time off and a series of odd-jobs like painting friends houses, Peter convinced her to go out and try something she never thought she would do: bike tour!
From racing cyclist to bike tourist to racing cyclist again, she and Peter spent the holidays and new year, and beyond, bike touring in Baja California, Mexico. Not only did this trip give Clara the break she needed from the world she came to know as an athlete, it allowed her for the first time to enjoy riding her bike. It was no longer for training but simply for adventure and experience. After six-weeks of desert camping, riding and self-reflection, Clara realized she had a lot of work to do to change herself and also had a lot left inside to channel into sport. She simply had to find a new way.
A return to the bike. Rode for no salary and found a new coach to guide this ‘comeback’ to the sport she came to loath. Eric Van Den Eynde, a French Canadian coach with a heart of gold, took her under his wing and brought her back to life. Eric understood the demands of her former training regime and the fragility of her spirit. Under Eric’s guidance, she learned to listen to her body and understand what made her a good athlete and how to achieve this level again. Not only did she come to believe she would be strong again, she firmly believed she had yet to reach her potential. It was a long process of self-learning but she was ready. 1999 was a reasonable year. She had consistent top-five placings in races and won another National Championships in the time trial. She was just beginning to find her groove when she was hit by a car while training in Italy, four days before the World Championships time trial. She raced, albeit in a lot of pain, and somehow managed to finish in 7th place.
Olympic year, again. Still building off her newfound understanding of sport with her new coach, continued to improve in 2000. With good results building including a National title in the Time Trial and qualifying for the Sydney Olympics, everything screeched to a halt two months before the Games. While racing the Tour Cycliste Feminin, she had to quit the tour because of massive health problems. Unable to breath, she had to drop out of her last race before the Olympics and returned to Canada hoping to get healthy, fast. Only this did not happen and the symptoms worsened as the weeks went on. She had the whooping cough and with little motivation from a lack of training, reluctantly made the trip to Australia for her second Olympic Games. Remembers Coach Eric Van Den Eynde telling her not to give up because she ‘just might have that one day where it all comes together’. Though difficult to deal with, she tried to train and failed to finish what she set out to do each day. It was hard to find motivation and she wondered why she was even there. That all changed when she learned of the death of teammate and friend Nicole Reinhart, the tragic result of a crash in a race near Boston, MA, days before the Olympic road race. Clara vowed that day to do everything she could to be the best she could in both her Olympic races, if not for herself, for the memory of Nicole. Finishing second last in the road race was all she could do and the victory was in not quitting. Four days later, she finished in 6th place in the time trial, a mere 13 seconds off the podium. She had that day Eric told her was possible. She knew at that time it was now or never to make the return to the ice, like she always wanted to do. Losing Nicole made the reality of how short life can be very clear to her.