Hugo Barrette believes his sprint reflexes saved his life.
The 24-year-old track cyclist from Iles de la Madeleine, Que., survived a horrific crash while training for a UCI World Cup in Cali, Colombia on Oct. 27, 2015.
"The only thing I remember is the post coming toward my head," said Barrette, who thinks he was travelling at 80 km/h after shooting out of a steep corner and losing control. "I turned my head at the last second and missed the post with my head by a few millimetres which would have probably killed me," said the double Pan Am gold medallist.
His spine and bike smashed through the metal guardrail leaving it mangled. The only image more awful is Barrette crumpled forward on his knees, his head jammed against a concrete slab, pouring blood.
Barrette has since made a rapid recovery, getting back on a bike just two weeks after his accident. But it could have been so much worse.
National sprint coach Erin Hartwell remembers how bad Barrette looked that day in October. He was nearby and watched his 200-pound athlete hurtle off the track and disappear. He knew something was bad when a photographer metres away began taking pictures.
"There was no noise, there was nothing coming from Hugo at first," said Hartwell.
A Colombian news report shows Hartwell running over, then waving frantically for medical help. Eventually, you can hear Barrette screaming in pain.
"When I came upon him immediately after the accident, I was more worried whether he was going to survive," said Hartwell. "It just looked really, off." The scene was so traumatic that Hartwell, a two-time Olympic medallist, questioned continuing in the sport.
Barrette survived, but not without two broken lumbar vertebrae, a broken nose, split lip, concussion, neck dislocation and severe contusions throughout his body.
What's amazing is how much he remembers about the crash and subsequently waking up in a Colombian hospital. "The crash was so hard that I wasn't thinking about the Olympics as much as being able to walk," said Barrette.
"I think I was just happy, I was in a good place because I felt I was lucky first of all to be alive."
Barrette is the youngest boy in a family of six children; three boys then three girls. They grew up on the Magdalen Islands, an archipelago floating near Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia but part of Quebec.
Barrette moved from the Magdalens to Montreal when he was 17 to pursue cycling.
About one week after the crash in Colombia he was back in Montreal to recover, and progressed quickly. At two weeks, Barrette was gently cycling on training rollers, at three weeks, he was cleared for the track.
It's nothing short of remarkable.
And it was urgently necessary. Barrette needed to get back to competition so he could continue to accumulate qualification points to secure a spot on Canada's Olympic cycling team. He had obviously missed the Cali event.
By the time he was back on the track in mid-November, there were only two World Cups left, the next just weeks from then in New Zealand.
"The ultimate goal was still there, and that was to qualify for the Games," said Hartwell.
So Hartwell and Barrette went to work. In early December, five weeks after splitting that guardrail in Colombia and with only two weeks of training, Barrette finished 13th at the World Cup in New Zealand.
"We had to at least show up and not get last place," said Hartwell.
Then on Jan. 16 — 81 days after his crash — Barrette won his first-career World Cup medal. It was a silver in the keirin at the UCI World Cup in Hong Kong, essentially securing a berth for Canada at Rio 2016. Barrette is expected to be the rider named for that spot when the team is formally announced later this year.
"To enjoy what I was doing and just push myself so much every day because I had the chance to actually do it. That's what made me come back in no time, I accomplished in two and a half months what seven to eight months of training would have given me," said Barrette, who also recently competed at the track cycling worlds, but was eliminated in the early rounds of the sprint and keirin.
"It's definitely an experience that will change my life and my career."