Attempting to understand the incomprehensible
This week has been one that I never expected to have, and never wanted to have for sure. Tuesday night, during our regular racing series at the velodrome here- known as TNR, for Tuesday Night Racing- there was a seemingly “normal crash” that ended up claiming the life of one of the wonderful members of our cycling community.
Jackie Price Dunn was (that word- “was”- is so hard to write and harder to comprehend) one of the nicest people to recently join our small track cycling “family”. I’ve been racing on the track since about 1992 and have seen many people come and go, but Jackie and her husband Durward became popular fixtures in a hurry. I can’t claim to have known either of them well, since I really only knew them from riding/ racing and the occasional after-racing beer and pizza at local favorite spot, Lefty’s Pizza. Still, Jackie was part of the family of track riders, and we’re a small group that’s fairly tightly knit.
The crash itself didn’t “look” like anything particularly bad at first- though all crashes are obviously bad in their own way. Even after it was clear that Jackie was unconscious and bleeding, nobody assumed the worst. After all, we’d seen a similar looking crash just a few weeks prior. I assumed that Jackie had possibly knocked out some teeth, which lead to the bleeding, but that she’d regain consciousness and “just” spend a few days at the hospital for observation of a concussion. I mean, my crash 5yrs ago “looked” worse- from what I’m told. After the crash a few weeks ago at the track, one of my friends told me “you still have the record for the worst crash I’ve ever seen here.” Honestly, that was a record I was happy to keep- I never wanted anybody else to get as hurt as I had been. I knew what it would mean…
But here we are now, with Jackie no longer here to share her incredible smile with us. If you’ve seen any pictures of Jackie, you know what smile I’m talking about… and it was ALWAYS there.
Jackie’s crash has had a significantly bigger impact on me than I expected. My wife and daughters showed up to the track as the ambulance was preparing to leave for the hospital. They could not immediately see me, but they saw the ambulance and they were scared- they had reason to be, due to the memories of my own crash. I could see the panicked expressions on their faces outside the fence when my daughter called me to find out what was happening. I saw Jackie’s husband’s face as he left in the passenger seat of the ambulance- I knew that look of fear. My night was over after the crash- all motivation to ride was gone, even without knowing anything about the extent of Jackie’s injuries.
As the night went on, news began to circulate through the community of friends that things were bad, that Jackie was more than just hurt- she was fighting for her life. I went to bed late that night, feeling incredibly sick to my stomach and with an aching heart. By morning, the news was exceptionally bad and Jackie was not expected to make it. Rumors circulated that Jackie was being kept alive on life support until her family could arrive from Texas to say good-bye. To say “good-bye”… the idea of that cut through me like a knife. My day was essentially over before it even began, as I was pretty much useless the entire day. My thoughts could not turn away from Jackie and Durward, no matter how hard I tried. It was simply impossible.
I began receiving messages from friends near and far asking about the crash and asking me how I was doing- it was clear to anybody who knew me that Jackie’s crash was impacting me. And it was, and it still is… and it is going to for a long time. As I said to many people, for those of us who love cycling and racing, incidents like these leave a lasting impact on us because they hit our love, our passion- the thing that brings us so much happiness in so many forms. We feel robbed or cheated when something happens to take the shine off of that love. We feel hurt when we see others get hurt doing what we love to do. We are bound to each other by this profound shared experience and love for cycling. And it’s something that those on the outside of that passion often can not understand when the risks are made so powerfully clear. My mother would be more than happy if I hung up my bikes and took up golf. But I can’t. I just can’t… even now.
After my crash, once I was able to first walk and then ride again, I was quick to get back on the bike and then even back on the track. My oldest daughter was with me when I crashed, and she was one of the ones who pushed me the most to get back on the track and race again. She needed the closure as much as I did- she needed to see her father not give in to fear and get back to living. And that’s the thing; “living”, not “surviving”. I always mangle the quote and never remember who said it, but “I do not wish to simply survive, but rather wish to live.” My wife, who took care of me for six weeks after my crash, when we had only been dating long-distance (her in Taiwan) for a few months, still encourages me to ride. My daughters love to watch me race. Do they fully appreciate or understand the inherent risk? With the exception of my wife, they probably don’t.
There have been too many crashes on the track this year already, there have been other fatal crashes in races, and several folks I know have been hit by cars during rides. Cycling can be inherently dangerous, but crossing the street is too, as is getting in the car to drive the nearly 40 miles each way that I drive to work five days per week. Believe me when I say that I’m not a thrill seeking risk taker- I’m pretty cautious, as a general rule.
Still, all of that said, Jackie’s death has hit me hard. Her very real passion for cycling is something I relate to, obviously. Her crash parallels my own in many ways- even happening in a very similar spot on the track. I witnessed the crash, even though it happened too quickly for me to be able to pinpoint what happened or why. But I saw it. I saw her. I saw the blood pooling on the track. I saw Durward’s eyes. And I know many of the people who are also mourning her loss. Some of those things haunt me regularly, and might for a long time. I weep nearly every time I think of Durward- he was such a strong supporter of Jackie’s passion and always a wonderful presence at the track taking pictures. God, it kills me to think of his eyes as they drove off in the ambulance.
I’ve spoken with a few other friends here and we all agree that we need… HAVE to find a way to create something that will be a lasting memorial and legacy to Jackie. She was overwhelmingly positive and very supportive of others. Perhaps a mentoring program to help other new riders get the most out of cycling. Maybe a program to develop other women riders, since she was a strong supporter of women on bikes. The point is, we want something that lives on in a way that Jackie would- creating something positive for others. We don’t have answers yet, and we might not for a while, but I know that I sincerely want to do something that carries Jackie’s name for a long time and more than just a once a year “memorial”.
Tomorrow morning will be a memorial ride for Jackie. Mostly, I think, it’ll be a chance for many of us to grieve together. But I hope there will also be laughs and smiles, though there will be one truly wonderful smile missing… but inspiring us.
Though I did not know her and Durward that well, I am forever changed by the events of this week and I know that Jackie will remain in my thoughts likely for the rest of my life. Hopefully I can help others create something wonderful from this tragedy that would make her proud. Her family donated her organs and she is already living on in such a meaningful way now. THAT is something that I hope would make her proud.
Jackie will be missed, but never forgotten. I’ll be on my bike tomorrow for the memorial ride, likely crying quite a bit, and I know I’ll be back on the track as well. It might take me a bit to feel like I did before her crash, but I will try because I know she would.
The community has rallied together in this very dark moment, just as it did for me after my crash, and like it did a few week’s ago after Steve Ladeby’s crash on the track. It’s the community, or family of cyclists that helps make this shared experience so much more meaningful. And I know the community will work to create a lasting legacy in Jackie’s honor.
Thank you for the inspiration Jackie.