Road To The Olympic Games

Caroline Ehrhardt honours her late dad by chasing Olympic triple jump dream

After the sudden passing of her father, Caroline Ehrhardt is more motivated than ever to achieve her goal of becoming the first Canadian woman to compete in the triple jump at the Olympics.

26-year-old hopes to become 1st Canadian woman ever to compete in event on the biggest stage

Triple jumper Caroline Ehrhardt competes during the Canadian Track & Field Championships in Ottawa in July, where she won her seventh national title. (Claus Anderdsen/Athletics Canada/The Canadian Press)

The black rubber floor in Caroline Ehrhardt's home gym is lovingly worn. Every scuff in her "Shred Shed" is a memory.

When Ehrhardt and her fiance Taylor Stewart bought their London, Ont., home last year, and built a gym in their shed, the flooring they laid came from Ehrhardt's childhood home. 

Ehrhardt's dad Klaus had built his athletic daughter a triple jump pit in their big backyard in Espanola, Ont., and it's where she'd spend up to three hours most nights from Grade 8 through Grade 12. He ordered the 30-metre runway online from the U.S. It arrived in rolls of rubber, a half-inch thick. He dug the pit with a Bobcat.

And so when Klaus died suddenly of a heart attack last summer, two days after Ehrhardt won her sixth Canadian triple jump title — her seventh came last month in Ottawa —she pulled up that old runway to lay as the floor of their gym.

The white takeoff boards he'd painted — there are a few, as Ehrhardt continued to improve — are faded from the "thousands and thousands of jumps I did on it.

"Took some sand too. I would have taken the whole [pit] if I could," Ehrhardt said.

The 26-year-old will jump at the NACAC championships this weekend in Toronto to end one of the toughest seasons of her career. Training has always been her "happy place," where she'd found solace first from losing her mom Judy to breast cancer in elementary school, and then her dad last summer.

But she's been battling severe patellar tendinitis in one knee. And her dad's no longer here to help see her through it.

"Not only is [training] the place where I feel closest to my dad, where I feel like I can forget about the stress of my life, but when my injury was at its worst and I thought my season was done, that is something I thought about all the time, I was like 'Oh my gosh, if I think this is bad ... I have been through hell, I can get through this no problem.'

"That is I guess the silver lining of all of this. I don't want to jinx it but I don't think there's a whole lot life can throw my way that would truly break my spirit," she said. "Because I've made it through just about the worst thing anyone can ever really experience."

Dad joins young daughter in track

Ehrhardt joined a track club in Sudbury in Grade 5, three weeks before her mom's death. Since her dad was making the hour drive to practice three times a week anyway, he decided to join the club too.

"[My parents] wanted to put me in something that I could immerse myself in and kind of stay happy and keep setting goals," Ehrhardt said. "It was good timing for sure to get involved with the sport, for both my dad and I."

Klaus's passion for running saw him run three Boston Marathons, and so his death at age 68 was a shock. He died barely a week before Ehrhardt and Stewart left for the Ivory Coast for the Francophone Games.

"I knew it was something I still had to do for him, he had always been such a supporter throughout my career, he would feel crushed if he knew somehow he technically prevented me from having that national team experience," Ehrhardt said. "I knew that I still wanted to go. I just wasn't exactly sure how I was going to go. It was hard to even get out of bed in the morning let alone train or feel motivated enough to be competitive on the world stage."

Ehrhardt competed on what would have been her dad's 69th birthday. Four of her jumps were personal bests, each jump consecutively farther than the one before. She won gold with a jump of 13.83 metres. If it hadn't been wind-aided — any tail wind that's two metres per second or stronger can't count for national records or standards — it would have been a huge personal best. It also put her close to the Canadian record of 13.99.

Emotional atop podiums

A heartbreaking photo captured Ehrhardt on the medal podium, eyes looking up, her face twisted in pain.

"That was an incredible experience and it was hard. It's such a spectrum of emotions," she said. "I was so ecstatic to have jumped nearly 14 metres. But at the same time, there's that disclaimer in the back of your head of 'Oh yeah, this is my reality now. I don't have any parents,"' she said. "That's something I've had to work through this past year is learning to have those happy excited moments, to not having that little reminder in the back of my head all the time.

"It's definitely been a transition year of kind of accepting everything how it is now."

Last week, Ehrhardt matched her best jump of 13.83, although it was slightly wind-aided again. Vickie Croley, who splits Ehrhardt's coaching duties with Frank Erle, said practices indicate a jump near the Canadian record — Tabia Charles set the mark in 2010 — is within reach.

"I believe she is very capable of jumping over 14 metres," Croley said.

Olympics the next hurdle to cross

No woman has ever represented Canada at the Olympics in triple jump.

Ehrhardt would love to be the first. When she briefly questioned her future in the sport after graduating from University of Western Ontario, her dad set her straight.

"I have loved loved loved this sport for as long as I can remember ... my dad spoke to the point where there's a limited window of opportunity to be a world-class athlete. I can go back to school at any time, I can start a family later.

"If it makes me happy then what's the harm in continuing? When another year goes by without funding [she makes a living partly from speaking engagements], or another year goes by without a major national team, I love this, and I do believe that if anyone's going to do it, why can't it be me? And that's just something I carry with me."

Ehrhardt and Stewart, a decathlete, are getting married in October. Ehrhardt's older sisters Jackie and Katie will walk her down the aisle.

The NACAC championships are Aug. 10-12 at University of Toronto's Varsity Stadium.

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