June 14, 2011

Memory of fallen cyclist rides on

The news came crashing down on Addy Albershardt.

The 16-year-old switched on her phone following classes on a mid-January day and saw the messages.

"Something terrible has happened," one read.

Her father, Andy, broke the news when he picked her up: Carla Swart, the legendary collegiate cyclist with the infectious personality, was dead after being struck by a truck during a training ride in South Africa's Free State province. She was 23.

"Addy was in shock," Andy, a cyclist himself, said. "It didn't really hit her until later."

They were like sisters, the junior at East Mecklenburg High School in Charlotte, N.C., and the South African with the ginger ponytail that fluttered in the wind like a rocket's flame as she sped to a staggering 19 collegiate individual and team cycling titles.

Nearly six months after the accident sent shockwaves through the cycling world, riders competing this week in the Nature Valley Grand Prix are carrying on a legacy as broad as Swart's vibrant smile.

Among them is Albershardt, the 2010 Junior Nationals time trial runner-up.

Set up by a mutual contact, the Albershardts used to play host to Swart and the Lees-McRae (N.C.) College women's cycling team whenever the Bobcats came to nearby Charlotte for a race. Holed up in the rec room downstairs, the champion and the up-and-comer became fast friends during stays punctuated by movies, long rides and even longer chats about life, cycling and -- yes -- boys.

"I could just talk to her so easily," said Addy, who races for the cycling team NOW and Novartis for MS. "It really introduced me to bike racing, because I didn't know a whole lot about it then. When they came, I met a role model who I could follow throughout my life."

During these moments, like the time they whipped out the training bikes and rode while watching "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," a mentorship blossomed. Addy now brings the memories with her on the open road.

"When I'm out riding in the country she's the first one who comes to mind," she said. "I think of the heavens and I think of Carla."

More than a racer

In 2008, Swart became the first cyclist to win all four U.S. collegiate titles in one season, and finished 10th in the women's elite road race at the 2010 world championships. Swart raced in the Nature Valley Grand Prix, for the Ryan Collegiate All Star team in 2008 and professionally on Team Vera Bradley Foundation last year, when she finished 19th overall.

But those close to her talk instead about her personality, and Swart will be remembered not for her successes on the road but for what she achieved in life.

Said Addy: "She's such a good person; how could you hold back talking about her? For the cycling community, it's a terrible loss because she's such a great person, she's loving life and smiling."

Many sense the void left by her departure.

"For all of us, you feel it. You notice that she's not there," said Evelyn Stevens, Swart's teammate on HTC Highroad, which will race at Nature Valley this week. "Even to this day you still think maybe she's going to show up at the next race."

On the HTC webpage is a section called "Carla's Circle," with pictures of Swart and notes from friends. And then there's a video, the one Addy calls "medicine." It's an interview with Swart, set to music, as she describes her cycling aspirations.

At the end of the film is the following team message: "Carla, in such a short time you became a part of our family and touched us all with your vibrant personality and your constant smile. You infected us with your zest for life and we will forever have you in our hearts."

Leaving a legacy

"When you see one of your own pass away, it really touches you deeply," said Craig McPhail, athletic director at Lees-McRae. "They were heart-broken, and they were sad. Her passing and her tragic death kind of made everybody look at how they lived their lives.

"She's," McPhail continued, his slight southern accent now into a whisper, "... she's just a special person."

The memories extend to Lees-McRae, where a group of Swart's teammates, classmates and friends established the Swart MS Foundation to fight multiple sclerosis, which Carla's mother has.

This season, Lees-McRae will wear jerseys complete with a Bobcat dressed in South Africa's national colors and "Carla's Circle" socks. Running trails were named after her, and her father erected a marble monument with her motto, "Dream big and make it happen."

It's a mantra that Addy embraces. She joined NOW and Novartis' fight for a greater cause and, after the accident, baked cookies to raise money for the memorial service.

"I have a connection to the cause and to her," she said. "I'm doing it in honor of her, because I don't feel like she's someone who should be forgotten about."

Thanks to riders like Addy Albershardt, the memories of Carla Swart will ride on.