Many Olympic medalists have a downward spiral in their lives after leaving the sport, or they stay in the sport to escape their demons. For me, keeping a strong sense of purpose with passion for sport has kept me grounded and content. I set high standards in sports performance which became a thrilling quest. Twists, obstacles, new directions, overcoming setbacks to reach success despite all odds. My quest led to a self discovery of elements I never knew existed.
The goal of reaching success in life is tough according to Neerja Bhatia, Etihad Airways Vice President- “Success often eludes us. Even when we reach our desired destination, the joy of achievements is short-lived. Every time a person is asked, “When will you be successful?” the general response is, “Some time in the future.” Rarely does someone confidently claim success today.”
My quest began as a young girl. I was painfully shy and just plain happy to be a part of sports, but never amazing at any sport. Deep down, I wanted to be amazing. In fact, anytime the spotlight turned on me in figure skating, it was disastrous, embarrassing.
Trying my best
My ambitions were to be a cross-country running champion or the next Karen Kain ballerina. For some reason, this painfully shy girl had high ambitions even though the cover showed a different story.
The Cycling theme.
I never set out to have a bike -themed life however but the bike has linked up a series of major events in my life starting from childhood. My parents supported cycling as a way to get around in the rural Durham region. My favourite local event was a community yard sale. I would decorate my bicycle and enter into the community yard sale bike contest and often won. My brothers, on the other hand, enjoyed ripping apart and rebuilding their bikes. They spent hours constructing ramps to ‘huck’ off . I had no interest at the time of joining them. I discovered how much fun it was, much later, as an adult. I wish that I had joined in back then, but I thoroughly enjoy ramps as a big kid now. In fact, ramps give me adrenaline junkie moments that feel really good.
One day, my brothers and I were biking around the local country roads when the Ritson road bike race was on. It was a spectacle we could stop and watch. I didn’t even know that girls and women raced since bike racing wasn’t a mainstream sport. Did it plant a seed on the quest? No, it didn’t because I didn’t see any women competing. It was unrelatable.
At age 14, I was told by a sports specialist: “with those knees, you shouldn’t be in sport.” This felt like a life sentence. Finding out that I have hyper-mobility and osteoarthritis in my joints meant my dreams of becoming a ballerina or cross-country running champion were ruined. I had always identified myself as an athlete, so I was truly lost, almost smashed. Even when I heard the sentence, my quiet determination kicked in. I continued to cruise around with my bike as a mode of transportation. There was a freedom that I had experienced with distance running. I still joined in other sports but experienced rolled ankles in cross country running, a dislocated knee with jumping on the trampoline in the rain, a dislocated shoulder skiing with tow rope behind a snowmobile. My joints couldn’t keep up with my quest. Maybe the specialist was right? I still kept hoping that I could recover the knees. I seemed to have this spirit to prove the diagnosis wrong.
In high school, I was working as a server at a Golf course. I was commuting to work and one night after my shift, my Eaton’s special 10-speed, was missing in action. In my sadness and need to get to work, I replaced it with an actual bike shop bicycle. I purchased an Aluminium Norco. Light, fast and I was getting to work earlier and scoping out new, longer routes and adventure. This led to me doing some long distance touring….200k day trips with my friend and bike racer Darren who encouraged me to race.
I chose a university that allowed me to continue my bike commuting -Brock University was my choice. A university positioned on the Niagara escarpment surrounded with opportunity for the peacefulness of being elevated and opportunities to ride and hike the trails. This nicely framed my choice. Naturally, I entered into the Phys Ed program as my favorite subject in school was physical education even though I was terrible in basketball, an average 800m runner who struggled with a jumper’s knee at times and still quite shy. My family and I packed up my stuff including my bike and headed to Niagara.
University helped to cement my bike-themed life. I answered an ad posted at school that read “Women who ride: Looking for women interested in road cycling”. I called the number and it was the women’s national team coach who lived in Fenwick, Karen Strong. Karen was bronze medalist at the world championships in ’77,an ‘84 Olympian and truly a trailblazer for women’s cycling, dominating Canadian cycling from 1975–84. My trusty Norco would be put to some use!
We arranged a ride and developed a fruitful connection. I joined the club she recommended and followed her advice. I also joined the novice rowing team with Coach Ken Wakulich aka Rockman. Rockman’s coached my boat of 8 to victory implementing my first experiences with high performance and the mental game. It was enlightening and helped to form my approach to competition. This was my first team sport and at the end of the fast season, I needed to choose between the two sports. Cycling won because it had a freedom that just couldn’t be matched. I further dedicated myself to Karen for bike racing and fell into the role of national women’s team assistant.
The group rides had a certain guy named Dan Brown. Dan was being coached by the brother of my coach. Dan would call me for race directions and start line information. We started training and racing together and he fully supported my pursuit of high performance, often deprioritizing his own racing for mine. This cyclist would become the man of my dreams.
Coaching was instrumental in my racing and it also provided mentorship. Essentially, a foundation was being built for me which wasn’t even a goal. While Karen coached the national team, I witnessed passion for coaching athletes. It upped my game.
Karen ended up securing a position in Calgary for elite athletes and she recommended a local coach Glauco Ceroni. Glauco had a reputation for being steel-cut tough. He shared lessons for a disciplined life and his love for his home country of Italy. I was learning in his barebones bike shop. I fondly called the shop ‘Glaucos cafe’ because if there was a cyclist in the shop, work would cease; there was coffee, big discussions, debates with the odd lecture. It is with Glauco’s training that I became an accomplished athlete and steel-cut tough to manage my issues.
I was chipping away at racing, finishing my degree and developing a unique mindset. It was a combination of resilience and determination to reach new horizons. I conquered an impressive list of physical issues throughout my athletic quest: 2 knee dislocations, patellar tendinitis, 9 shoulder dislocations plus reconstructive shoulder surgery .
The sports performance quest was thrilling. The coaching was rewarding. It is with Glauco and his teachings that I developed a passion for the sport and an interest in becoming a cycling coach.
Upon graduating from Brock, I started training adults as I wanted to give them the hope I experienced through managing my physical issues. I was creating a template to overcome issues. My degree encouraged my philosophy that everyone can experience success with fitness and sports training. I set out with this career ambition to impart hope to overcome barriers with physical training. I founded REACTIVATED! training systems.
On and off, Glauco has been in my life. Being coached by Glauco was like experiencing Italian culture and passion. His athletes, rolled as unique, dedicated athletes who were impacted with work ethic and the ability to suffer without excuses. This was 30 years ago; many of his athletes stay in touch and keep the memories fresh for his coaching lessons are as present in our lives as people. He taught us well.
Anyone that I coach , will experience the forever analyzing mind that Glauco taught me. Business success is about increasing the 1%. He was doing it in the 80s. Step by step.
I pursued road racing which included stage racing, criterium racing and track racing which strengthened my relationship with my dad.
Although now improved but still a long way to go, women’s road racing had minimal budgets. I was unsupported on men’s racing race teams. After 5 years in Elite road racing, 2nd overall in the province, I switched over to Elite mountain bike racing which both my husband and my brother had been saying to do for years. Indeed, they were right! This exhilarating style of racing renewed my thirst for the sport, catch air and hit the podiums provincially and reach top 10 National placing. Locally, it was my mountain bike performances which generated excitement as I was competing with both women and men. My proudest moments, were standing with either former athletes on the podiums and with Olympians, that were almost 1/2 my age! I am also proud when guys have told me about setting a goal to catch or beat me in the local races.
This introverted racer finally learned to embrace the spotlight. This new belief in myself has helped all aspects of my life.
My older brother Mike coached me technically while he raced in the expert class. With his coaching, I won my first Elite Ontario Cup race which was a highlight for soul reasons- sharing it with my husband, brother and father. We had quite the family involvement that was precious to me with both brothers into motocross and downhill racing as well.
I gave it all to racing and felt good about my accomplishments. The setbacks followed by comebacks started to take a toll on my motivation. I retired from Elite racing to give back to cycling and continued to compete locally and eventually back to the expert level.
In 2002, I founded the largest women’s cycling team in Ontario and increased local participation in racing from 7% women to 30%. Empowerment in this sport was a key element that I would role model. I would roll up to the groups and do an amazing skid or reach the top of a climb and do a wheelie to encourage what I refer to as fostering the inner superstar. Together, we conquered barriers and created an easier path for women to navigate cycling performance than what I faced in my racing career.
After 10 years of dedication to the women’s team, started Reactivated Racing team. I also coached for the provincial and then national team. On a project in the United States, I suffered an injury that caused a blood clot. My race team manager Sandi, coordinated an appointment to see Dr Mark Crowther, an renown hematologist and also, a cyclist. This meeting and care was invaluable as my father had passed away from heart attack due to a blood clot. It was a time in my life for reflection and to figure out the passion of coaching for me, was in private coaching.
Rich experiences of helping people with not only high performance competition but also with ensuring that there is development have been part of my company. From running kids’ cycling day camps with high performance athletes giving back to the sport, to offering continuing education cycling programs with Brock University to share the passion for the sport. I look around in the community of cycling and still see the results of my coaching.
While running my race team, Glauco re-entered my life as a friend with a new role, a colleague. The cancer he’d been fighting had returned and more than ever, he wanted to coach. He wanted me to drop him off on the hill to coach the young athletes. I disagreed and expressed my concern. He said this to me:
Jennifer, I’m not living to die; I’m dying to live and this, is living.
He stood in the sleet rain, with an umbrella, with bone cancer, and coached the athletes. I was blown away. It was a powerful time for me when I appreciated the support of making a big difference in the athletes’ lives and witnessing huge strength and conviction in my colleague Glauco. His mentorship was tough (of course). High standards were almost daunting. In this process I realized how much his friendship meant to me and as much as Glauco had given me, I needed to help him and be there as strength. It was scary but vital.
Our coaching discussions continued through his treatments – on the drive, on the phone, and during any visits he expected updates of athletes. I started to see a vulnerable side to his steelcut demeanour. I was recovering from shoulder surgery. As much as I wanted to step away from coaching and focus on only fitness clients, Glauco pushed the team training. Together we coached. Definitely not a traditional cancer treatment plan but more on the lines of conquering a bucket-list! Dan fully supported my dedication to Glauco.
As his cancer progressed, his sister Laura came from Italy to help care for him. Even though there was a language barrier, I felt a bond with her. After Glauco’s courageous battle ended, I vowed to his sister to stay in touch and I would visit her in Italy. I started sharing with friends my ambitions to go to Italy but it seemed almost impossible as I had only a few worldly experiences to draw on. I had been living behind the scenes as a coach without world travel.
I met another person who became a cycling connection. I spotted a woman in a National team jersey at Tim Hortons while I was driving around to work. I pulled over recognizing her face as a race mate of my first Coach Karen. I introduced myself, and we have been the best of friends ever since. She lives in Colorado but her parents coincidentally lived just down the street from us. Marilyn Trout competed in the Olympic trials, world championships and won a top-10 place in the prestigious Tour de France. As well, she is a cycling coach and still enjoys the bike. Our friendship is strengthened by cycling and its rewarding being coaching colleagues with aligned values.
Two years ago, an opportunity came up to go to Italy. I was doubtful and in the busyness of life, I didn’t make it happen. It seemed to be too good to be true . I felt deep down that I was sabotaging part of my quest. I needed more courage.
People started to change their greeting to me, almost frustrated that I was becoming a talker. “ When are you going to Italy?” they’d ask. I never seemed to have a concrete answer. In my heart, I knew I would go. My mom, my good friend Bebi and Dan were keeping it on my radar. I started doing some research contacting friends who had travelled to Italy.
In 2019 Chris Balogh, a cycling guide and travel coordinator, presented another opportunity to go to Italy as a cycling influencer. Along with my good friend and colleague Lucy, we could go to Italy to have a bike hotel experience. This experience also included a bike race called Gran Fondo. This race is the season opener to racing in Italy. We were invited to experience the region where the Giro D’Italia was going to be held in May, then Giro Rosa in July! Dan was excited for me and Lucy jumped at the opportunity which greatly strengthened my courage!
I nervously reached out to coach Glauco’s sister Laura hoping that she would remember me and sent her a message giving her the location of the hotel. What were the chances that in all of Italy, the hotel was only 13 kilometres away from Laura? A very good sign that my life was pointed in the right direction. I was a little doubtful that she would welcome the idea; however, I told myself, I am going to make this happen and it will fulfil a big desire.
We arrived in Italy. I nervously anticipated seeing Laura. Tears of joy ran down her face. Absolute relief waved over my body. Laura welcomed me with open arms and insisted we spend at least a day together. It was amazing! This person, whom I hardly knew, became a link in my chain because of our affection for Glauco.
Many people have asked me, did I go to Rome? No. Did I tour the Basilica? No. Did I take two weeks? No. I went for 5 days to do a Granfondo – which included 2 mountain climbs with two exhilarating switchback descents, meeting the Italian national coach, spending a heart nourishing day with Glaucos sister witnessing her pride and passion for life in Italy. I saw the lives of Italian people, the ceramic factory, cycled by the vineyards, the olive trees, the mountains. We did go to Venice. Venice was nice but the experiences related to the bike were much richer like riding by the cafes with fond memories of Glauco and the life he shared with us about Italy.
Everything you hear about Italian hospitality is true.Finally, my bicycle-themed life was validated. I was immersed in a culture that was warm, caring yet competitive. Cyclists are respected in Italy and the sport is highly regarded.
Coincidentally, this region called Emilia Romagna, is known as the wellness valley with its support for an active wellness lifestyle and a huge bike-hotel industry! The wellness valley aims to be a leader in the world for wellness. Seeing active, strong fit people of all ages using the progressive cycling lanes and paths was inspiring. It was unbelievable how perfectly matched this trip was to my core values. To race, be part of a race that takes over a town and surrounding mountain villages was a dream. Our dynamic tour coordinator named Andrea Manusia provided a cycling tour that is best described as transformational travel. He shares his passion and pride for Italy which is positively affecting.
Canada has a long way to go; but there’s hope. We as cycling leaders need to keep squeaking. People need to start to respect and value sustainable travel. Our cyclists need to model great behaviour and formation to motorists to gain greater respect for cycling.
Upon returning to Canada, my soul was nourished and my quest for performance was fulfilled. Every cycling experience from that community bicycle decorating award, to meeting and marrying the man of my dreams, to racing nationally to being coached, mentored and a friend of Glauco, to coaching with high values, and to the rich cycling experiences with friends and family, have been the performance quest. Cycling started with freedom then became the hope I needed in my life to prevail. In Italy I realized, the cycling experiences arranged like spokes in the wheel to propel my life to reach the pinnacle of success.
- Thank you to Doug Keeley of Stories Rule! For transcribing my emotions into a story
- Thank you to Debi Goodwin, author of A Victory Garden for Trying Times, for your editing, inspiration and encouragement of my story
- Thanks Marion for the gentle nudges to complete this goal which are greatly appreciated especially during a pandemic
- Gratitude for the precious photo memories captured by www.danbrownphotographer.com and Joel Smith www.13s.ca