I met Ellen Watters when I joined the Canadian Nextgen track cycling team in 2016.
It was my first training camp of the year. The team had gone down to California for some long base miles. That small Santa Monica mountain range has since become a second home for me — a very California-esque area west of downtown Los Angeles where the mountains roll into the sea and the traffic reminds you you’re far from nowhere. I was not too sure about Ellen, she was so loud and so positive all the time, which seemed incongruent with her many facial piercings and tall, intense presence.
But what really struck me about her was the genuine investment she seemed to have in every interaction. One day, unprompted, she asked me to tell her my life story — who does that? But she sat there patiently and enthusiastically as I mumbled about not being special and how everything in my life was “pretty normal, I guess...”
She was the sort of person who lined up and completed eight tasks before breakfast. Her devotion to the team was unrivaled, the hardest working rider you can imagine. She was not chasing glory, or money, certainly not fame, just the love of the ride. Ellen took the time to see the positive in every situation and in every person.
Ellen was moving up the ranks in the North American women's circuit faster than anyone thought possible. I have never met anyone else like her, and I am afraid I never will again. When we parted ways at the end of the camp and all our teammates went back to their respective homes for the holidays, I did not stop once to think about how lucky I was to have met such an unique person, or how deeply she had already become embedded in my life.
Ellen was hit by a car on Dec. 23rd 2016. She passed away on five days later in the hospital, with her family by her side. I found out at the same time as everyone else, a public statement had been released about the accident and her injuries. My father broke the news to me on the day she died over breakfast. Words I will never forget. The moment was my “loss of innocence” that separates naivety from reality. You know, that thing your high school English teacher kept talking about? I never really, fully understood what it meant until then.
Thoughts of Ellen
I think about Ellen every day. When I am riding, I think about how much she would appreciate the beauty of the route, even if the weather was shit. I think about her thunderous laugh, so carefree and unapologetic. I think about how she oozed goodness, and levity, and happiness into the world. I think about how it could have been me hit by that car, how, almost daily, I come within millimetres of it being me.
I am angry and afraid every time I leave my house to train now. What if I were to never come back? Ellen is not the first, nor the last cyclist to be killed by a motorist. Every time a vehicle runs me off the road, someone yells at me from the safety of their car, honks at me or, often enough, hits me, a swell of grief bubbles up in my mind, heart and the back of my throat.
I realise Ellen’s final moments were filled with this same fear and pain. So many people in cars are safe, kind, and cautious. I have been saved by sympathetic drivers, saved from crashes, helped with flat tires — complete strangers! It’s awful, however, that the ignorance, impatience, or inattention of a small handful of motorists so deeply and so irreparably damages the lives of many, many cyclists, their family and friends.
Over the course of this past year and a half I have made huge improvements in my performance on the track. My coaches, athletic therapists, mechanics, physiologists, and I have put in long, hard days, and they are paying off. Suddenly I find myself a leader on my team. In the lab I can put out numbers I thought impossible when I started. I have travelled to Switzerland, Qatar, Trinidad, Japan, China, Belarus, all to race my bike.
'My own mental health'
It’s crazy to think I get to do all this because of cycling. Even crazier to think how a split second could take it all away. While I improved as a racer, I also tried to ignore the dangers of cycling, to pretend that I was invincible, and that only other people were killed in accidents or experienced life-threatening crashes.
Eventually, inattention to my own mental health caught up with me. After a long season of racing, and a few hard weeks of training, I found myself in March of this year living alone in Milton, Ont. For the first time in a long time, my only company was silence.
That empty silence slowly filled with deafening thoughts of life’s fragility and a perception that I was powerless to change anything. I suffered through anxiety attacks, and on one occasion, checked myself into the hospital convinced I was having some sort of cardiac episode. Since then I have been struggling to maintain a healthy mind, and working daily to overcome my fears. I am learning to live with anxiety as my new passenger, wherever I go.
Part of me was hoping that writing this essay would help me to pack all these memories into a little box and shove it down away somewhere I wouldn’t find it again. But writing has done the opposite, and I realize, for the better. No one I know talks about these things. They seem to either accept the danger or refuse to recognize it, like I once did. My hope is that anyone reading this feels less alone in their fear or grief.
Whatever their pain is, know that others are struggling too, and it’s okay to not be okay. I hope as well that if even one reader is holding onto a negative perspective towards cyclists, that they will see this and realise that all those cyclists they drive past everyday are neighbours, friends of friends, members of their community, and we deserve your patience and care behind the wheel. We beg of it.
(Top large photo by Ivan Rupees/Cycling Canada; Second large photo by Guy Swarbrick/Cycling Canada)
The Devaney Collier edition
Q: The best book you've ever read?
A: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott (One Piece By Eiichiro Oda, if you’re into Manga).
Q: Must-listen Podcast?
A: Dear Hank and John.
Q: Best advice you ever received?
A: "The most you can do is your best, and that’s something you can always accomplish."
Q: If your life was a movie, what would it be called?
A: I have no idea what I’m doing: an autobiography by Devaney Collier.
Q: What word or phrase do you over use?
A: “Nice” (someone please stop me!).
Q: What is a skill you wish you had?
A: Knowing how to play an instrument (not rhythmically talented).
Q: What's something no one would guess about you?
A: I’m afraid of dogs...
Q: If you could have the ultimate influential dinner party, who are the six people you'd invite?
A: Eiichiro Oda, Zoe Sugg, Ryan Reynolds, Quentin Tarantino, Alexander McQueen, literally any/ all the chefs from Chef’s Table.
Q: What makes you cry, every time?
A: Missing important family events because of travel or training.
Q: What's the next goal you want to accomplish?
A: I’m hoping to be selected for the world championships next year in February.