The reality of the risk of a sport like mine, an ‘extreme’ sport, became clear once again a few weeks ago. I was in Tucson, Arizona and was shaken by a few things. First, the news of Canadian Freestyle Skier Sarah Burke and the horrific result of a seemingly minor crash on the superpipe up in Park City the week before. Second, a few days after arriving in the desert state for that eleven-day training camp and a stupid crash with, again, horrific results.
The former was close to home because, like Sarah, I am a Canadian athlete. It was literally close to home because I live part-time in Utah, up a remote canyon that is on the flight path of low-flying emergency and news helicopters from Park City to Salt Lake City. I swear I saw the machine transporting Sarah to the University Hospital down in the valley that day from my house perched on the ridge in the backcountry.
In Tucson I came home from a long ride and went on the internet. The immanent news was there, front and center, on the Globe and Mail. Sarah Burke had died of her injuries from the crash. I remembered back to the day of the accident, the helicopter we so often see in the winter carrying ski-related injured people to SLC, hearing about it on the local Utah radio station at home…my first thought that day was ‘I hope she has health insurance…’.
The story that broke soon after the news of her death was the reality for many traveling athletes: the insurance Sarah had did not cover her accident. In the following two days Canadians donated over $200,000.00 to Sarah’s family to help cover the bills. Peter and I both donated to the page for Sarah because we know very well there have been so many times when I could have been in that same situation.
The latter event making these daily risks real was on a famous and sometimes infamous training ride/race in Tucson called ‘the Shootout’. With the usual early start and the typical all-out pace for a good 45 minutes, I stopped with a few other Canucks to wait for one of the SpiderTech boys who had flatted. A bunch of us planned on racing up Madera Canyon after the Shootout proper and I didn’t want to lose the guys I was supposed to be riding with.
Guillaume Boivin, the SpiderTech-er with the flat, and the rest of us started riding again at a good pace to catch the others. Just up the road we saw a number of the seventy or so cyclists on the ride standing on the side of the road with their bikes. A sheriff’s SUV blocked both lanes of desert roadway. My first thought was a car had run into the pack of riders. Second thought was more hopeful, one of ‘maybe they all got pulled over for taking up the lane of traffic’. Still, a bad feeling in my gut increased as we rolled closer. After the Sheriff’s SUV, a handful of riders crouched on the ground. Sticking out from these athletes was a set of tanned, long and lean legs, feet hanging side to side. I saw one of the guys holding the downed rider in his arms and turned away. Others said they saw blood all over the roadway.
What had happened? It was a young athlete from the Garmin development team. An ambulance came swiftly to the scene. We all rolled away, re-grouping at the usual Shootout gas station to refuel for the rest of the five or so hour ride. Of course, everyone was talking about the crash. Turns out the rider was trying to take off his shoe cover while riding, and the material from the cover got caught in his wheel, causing him to go down. He fractured his skull and broke his collar bone from the impact. Imagine if he was not wearing a helmet. Somehow, nobody else was hurt in the crash. All I was thinking was, ‘that poor kid, I hope he has health insurance’. Someone mentioned to me ‘surely his team will have him covered’. From my experience in two different sports, this is never the case, and the responsibility of health insurance is always the burden of the athlete.
Later in the same ride, another crash, another broken collarbone. This time someone ran over a piece of metal on the road, flatting both tires and causing a crash behind. All I could think of was ‘let this ride finish so I can be back at the hotel, safe and in one piece!’. Earlier in that same ride, when the shootout was in full swing with us all racing along, a pack of wild dogs (yes wild dogs in the desert!) ran into the peleton. Riders swerved and braked, one guy making an exit stage-left into the gravel lining the roadside, hopping rocks and somehow not crashing.
People often ask me the difference between skating and cycling. They are both incredibly difficult pursuits, both take a lot of focus and dedication. There is no arguing being on a bike is far more dangerous than skating in circles on the ice in the controlled environment of long track speed skating.
Sport is dangerous. I know the reality and so does each and every athlete. Do we take care of ourselves and make sure to have insurance to cover the many potential dangers of the work we do? I can’t say I always have. Sometimes, trips come at a short notice, or go longer than I thought, and then it’s a matter of crossing my fingers and hoping for the best. As I’ve gotten older and matured, yes, I have been better with making sure I have the necessary coverage when traveling. This was easy as a speed skater because I was doing something that was not deemed ‘high risk’ and thus, the normal travel insurance would suffice. As a racing cyclist, this is a whole different matter. I found it impossible to find the proper insurance to cover my racing needs.
After this very terrible reminder of the realities of what can happen with the loss of Sarah Burke and the accidents on the bike I witnessed virtually first hand a few weeks ago in Tucson, I decided to make damn sure I have the coverage I need. Nobody will do this for me and it’s up to me. After some investigation, I found through the National Team I was eligible to purchase additional insurance to cover me in the case of an accident while racing. This is on top of the usual travel insurance I always purchase. Yesterday I spent over a thousand dollars getting this additional insurance. Let’s hope I never need it.
My heart goes out to Sarah Burke and her family. I think often of that young Garmin rider with the fractured skull and broken collarbone in Tucson, and hope he is okay. I also think about my own close call last summer when I crashed at about 60KPH just before the National Championships in Ontario, smacking my head, luckily not getting concussed and limping away with road rash and severe whiplash. I’ve been hit three times by cars in my life as an athlete while out training on my bike in pursuit of my athletic dreams. I’ve crashed so many times I lost count years ago. It’s all part of the game but I’d be lying if I didn’t say this all makes me very nervous.
I think about my young teammate I lost back in 2000, Nicole Reinhart, when she died from head injuries crashing in what would have been her biggest victory of her young athletic life. I think about South African cyclist Carla Swart who was a member of the HTC Highroad Team last year who lives on in the hearts of so many of my teammates on the continuation of that same team, the Specialized lululemon Team, after her shocking death when she was struck by a truck while out training on her new time trial bike last year. I think of the #2 ranked female bike racer in the world, Swede Emma Johannson, who was almost hit head on by a vehicle making a dangerous pass a few weeks ago on a mountain road. Emma came away lucky, only two broken collarbones.
The list goes on as it always does.
I think of all this and I think of the life I’ve had in sport. Yes, there are risks, and for me these risks are not worth it if I only think of rewards. They are worth it only because the outlet of sport has allowed me to live with passion. I can say I’ve had this incredible path in life because of the passion that continues to live inside for what I do. This passion I am not willing to let go of and not live to its fullest.
The memories of athletes lost doing what they love lives on not just in me, but I think, in most athletes. I know they live on inside of me.