Quantcast

Faith and family sustain BMX racer Arielle Martin in wake of Olympics heartbreak

Published: Saturday, Aug. 25 2012 11:08 p.m. MDT

Arielle Martin takes a spin Monday on the antique Schwinn cruiser, left, that her father restored for her last Christmas. It was her first ride following her accident. At right, Martin leaves the hospital in San Diego. (Provided by Arielle Martin-Verhaaren) Arielle Martin takes a spin Monday on the antique Schwinn cruiser, left, that her father restored for her last Christmas. It was her first ride following her accident. At right, Martin leaves the hospital in San Diego. (Provided by Arielle Martin-Verhaaren)

There has to be a reason.

When BMX cyclist Arielle Martin is overcome by the agony of her lifelong dream slipping away for a second time, she finds comfort in the knowledge that there must be a reason.

"Obviously the heartbreak is still raw," said Martin, who suffered life-threatening injuries in a training accident July 30 — just two days before she was to travel to London to compete in the 2012 Olympics. "I'd probably be lost without my faith; it's the only thing keeping me going, the knowledge that the Lord must have an alternate plan for me. So right now I'm just trying my best to get healthy and stay optimistic. It's not always easy; I still have tears and disappointment … feelings of failure and injustice that it's slipped through my fingers now twice, but I'm reminded every day that BMX isn't all that I am. I'm still young with a bright future ahead of me, and many goals to come both in and outside of the sport of cycling that I plan to accomplish."

Arielle Motorcycle Mt Rainier 2011 (Provided by Arielle Martin-Verhaaren) Arielle Motorcycle Mt Rainier 2011 (Provided by Arielle Martin-Verhaaren)

One of the country's top female riders, the Cedar Hills native has known more disappointment in four years than some athletes ever experience. She missed qualifying for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing by a single point when she crashed during the quarterfinals of the BMX World Championships.

She called missing out on her goal by such a minute margin "horrible." But then she acknowledge the disappointment taught her about perseverance, humility and gratitude.

"I am a better rider, a better person and a better athlete for it today, without a doubt," she told the Deseret News on July 5, when she returned to Utah as an official member of the U.S. Olympic team for 2012. "And while it was heartbreaking, it makes it all a little sweeter now."

Her desire to be an Olympian began when she watched another woman deal with an injury that came at an inopportune moment.

Amy Hastings, an Olympic 10K track runner, wrote 15 on her shoes, above left, as a tribute to Arielle Martin when she ran her final during the London Olympics. At right, Martin and her husband, Mike Verhaaren, hit the slopes during ski season. (Provided by Arielle Martin-Verhaaren) Amy Hastings, an Olympic 10K track runner, wrote 15 on her shoes, above left, as a tribute to Arielle Martin when she ran her final during the London Olympics. At right, Martin and her husband, Mike Verhaaren, hit the slopes during ski season. (Provided by Arielle Martin-Verhaaren)

"I vividly remember Keri Strug, her Olympic gymnastics performance in Atlanta with (an injured) ankle, pushing through it for her team," said Martin. "I was only 10, but it stuck with me. So for me it's been about representing the country I love and using it as a platform to reach out and inspire others."

Like any competitive athlete, she was going to London to try to win gold, but she also was going to London with hopes of carrying the mantle long after to those who may need inspiration or encouragement. She realized the Olympics would give her a platform to help others through doubts and tough times.

"Having that status goes a long way when sharing with a discouraged kid, a woman who feels like she can't do what a man does, a youth who is afraid of chasing a dream," she said.

And in light of how she bounced back from her 2008 disappointment, she became one of 2012's shining examples of determination and perseverance in the months leading up to the London Games.

Arielle Martin takes a spin Monday on the antique Schwinn cruiser, left, that her father restored for her last Christmas. It was her first ride following her accident. At right, Martin leaves the hospital in San Diego. (Provided by Arielle Martin-Verhaaren) Arielle Martin takes a spin Monday on the antique Schwinn cruiser, left, that her father restored for her last Christmas. It was her first ride following her accident. At right, Martin leaves the hospital in San Diego. (Provided by Arielle Martin-Verhaaren)

Day of the accident

But the morning of her 27th birthday became the day her life veered from the path she'd planned to a path both unknown and excruciatingly painful.

"It was an exciting day," she said of what was to be her final day of training at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., before flying to London to compete in the BMX event. "I woke up; it was my birthday, and I was thinking, 'This is the best birthday ever; I'm going to be an Olympian!' "

She said a year of battling through injuries seemed to have paid off as she enjoyed some of her best riding that day.

"I remember thinking that I couldn't have been more prepared," she said. "I was in awe of how good I felt on the bike. … I was enthusiastic, very excited about how the day was going."

Mike and Arielle Motorcycles (Provided by Arielle Martin-Verhaaren) Mike and Arielle Motorcycles (Provided by Arielle Martin-Verhaaren)

Martin was grinning as she pedaled out of the first turn, proud of herself for her progress. She was heading into the track's third turn when her fortune turned.

"I remember thinking, one pedal, two pedal, three pedal and then I felt it," she said of the bike chain either breaking or falling off. "I don't know if you've ever lost a chain before, but it's such a surreal feeling to be throwing down that much power, pedaling at 180 RPMs and having no resistance."

She flew, like Superman, the length of the jump and landed on her stomach. As medical personnel rushed to her, she tried to catch her breath. She didn't know she had a punctured lung and a grade-four liver laceration. Grade five, she said, "you're pretty much not coming back from."

"It was pretty horrific at the time," she said. "As soon as I stood up, I noticed a very searing pain. … I'm not one to lie on the track and wait for the stretcher."

Amy Hastings, an Olympic 10K track runner, wrote 15 on her shoes, above left, as a tribute to Arielle Martin when she ran her final during the London Olympics. At right, Martin and her husband, Mike Verhaaren, hit the slopes during ski season. (Provided by Arielle Martin-Verhaaren) Amy Hastings, an Olympic 10K track runner, wrote 15 on her shoes, above left, as a tribute to Arielle Martin when she ran her final during the London Olympics. At right, Martin and her husband, Mike Verhaaren, hit the slopes during ski season. (Provided by Arielle Martin-Verhaaren)

She got up and talked with medical personnel, who helped her to a cart. They drove her to onsite medical professionals who called 911.

"I kind of had this horrible feeling, like something's not right," she said. "I knew I was pretty hurt. … It was a nightmare."

The vicious pain combined with shock made it impossible for Martin to comprehend what doctors were telling her in the moments before they operated on her.

She understood the words, but she couldn't bring herself to accept what they meant.

"I don't remember a lot about those first few days except for fighting to go to London," said Martin, who struggles with emotion when she discusses those dark hours. "I had worked so hard for that spot, I had earned it outright, and I wanted to experience being an Olympian in the village for a few days before they stripped me of it and gave it to (replacement rider) Brooke (Crain). I remember multiple surgeons trying to explain to me the severity of injuries, but it wasn't connecting. I didn't realize my condition was "life threatening"; I thought I'd be out in a day or two."

Hospital and blessing

Once she was en route to the hospital, her family was notified. Her stepfather, Patrick May, called the LDS Church's San Diego Mission president to see if missionaries in the area could go to the hospital to give Martin a blessing before surgery.

"What I remember is the doctors telling me some important men from the church were there to give me a blessing and that I would be left alone with them for a few minutes," Martin said. "I was heavily sedated at that point, just about to go into my first surgery, so I kind of recognized Elder (M. Russell) Ballard (of the Quorum of Twelve) but couldn't put it together until he introduced himself. His son-in-law, San Diego Mission President Paul Clayton, was with him. Elder Ballard anointed and President Clayton administered the actual blessing. I didn't remember anything that was said at the time, but I knew I was going to be OK and I was left with a feeling of peace."

As her family members, made their way to the San Diego hospital, she fought for her life — and fought to go to London.

"I would go in and out of lucid dreams, telling funny stories of when I was a kid, then switch straight back to "when am I going to London?" she said. "I'm told when I talked BMX I was narrow-focused and had a single-track mission to London. I wasn't going to give up on that, and at one point my husband caught me trying to book a flight to London on my phone. I lost phone privileges after that."

Her coach, James Herrera, and representatives from USA Cycling were at the hospital almost immediately and offered support and comfort to Martin. They tried to explain the reality of the situation to her, but it wasn't until the team left and the media reported that she'd been replaced by Crain that she realized she wasn't going to London — not even as a spectator.

As she struggled with her new reality, which included multiple surgeries and a complication of pancreatitis, she found public support overwhelming.

"The outpouring has been tremendous," she said. "I didn't realize how many people out there had been following me, cheering me on and were so concerned for me. … It definitely lifted my spirits quite a bit."

She also offered words of support and encouragement to her teammates, including Crain, who rode with Martin's initials on her gloves.

"I watched it all," said Martin, who was released from the hospital on Aug. 12. "I had nothing else to do in the hospital, and I still love the Olympics with all of my heart. I also had friends competing in other disciplines that I wanted to watch. One of my really good friends, Amy Hastings, is a 10K track runner and she wrote 15 on her shoes as a tribute to me when she ran her final; then Brooke, of course, wrote AMV on her glove when she raced the BMX final. It was hard for sure; I think I cried a lot, especially when I saw both of those, but we can blame the meds on that."

Home and husband

Martin and her husband, Mike Verhaaren, 28, left the hospital on Aug. 12, and drove home to Spanaway, Wash. Verhaaren is a sergeant and Black Hawk crew chief with the U.S. Army. He is currently stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash., but has been deployed four times and has done three overseas tours since the couple married. The military has allowed him leave to care for Martin, and she said he hasn't left her side since the accident.

"His unit has been incredibly understanding of my condition and has given him permissive leave to take care of me. We are so grateful to them for their understanding and respect for families," she said.

Despite attending the same high school and having mutual friends, the pair didn't meet until after he'd served an LDS mission to Russia and she was a sophomore at BYU.

"We met through those friends at a college bonfire up (American Fork) Canyon when I was a sophomore at BYU," she said. "He was a few months home from his mission to St. Petersburg, Russia, and attending UVSC. We dated and it got pretty serious pretty fast. I have to admit I broke up with him three times during our year-and-a-half courtship."

Her fear was of being reduced to a stereotype and that if she married it would be more difficult to achieve her Olympic dream.

"It's been quite the opposite actually," she said. "His financial and emotional support has made everything easier. We met up after six months of no contact, and that's when he told me he had joined the Army and was going into basic training by the end of the month. I actually had to convince him pretty hard to get back together once I realized he was the greatest thing that ever happened to me."

The couple married in the Mount Timpanogos Temple on Dec. 21, 2006, the day after she took her last final test at BYU.

Grateful

While the pain of missing the Olympics was still fresh, some friends of Verhaaren's asked Martin to speak by phone to a group of LDS youths. She was hesitant to say yes.

"Initially I wanted to decline because I wasn't sure I was emotionally ready," she said. "The podcast (with BMXnews.com) was hard enough, and when the Spirit and church is involved I was afraid my emotions would make me unable to speak. By the time it rolled around though I felt very strongly that it was the right thing to do. Olympian or not, that was my mission, and I needed to go through with it. So I shared some of my story with them and my testimony. They in turn sang me a beautiful hymn, 'Come, Come, Ye Saints' with a few lyric changes in my honor. It did indeed strengthen me and I am grateful for the opportunity."

Martin said she's grateful for her family, friends, colleagues and even strangers for the love and support that has sustained her throughout her recovery.

"Thanks to my family, my husband, especially, who hasn't left my side since day one," she said. "My coach, James, who continues to be supportive and was as heartbroken as I was when the accident happened. My sponsors who continue to stand by me even though I am unable to compete: Intense, THE, SINZ, Oakley, Nike, FLY. The medical staff at the (Olympic center) in Chula Vista, USA Cycling for how they handled the transition and their continued concern and support for my recovery. Elder Ballard, President Clayton, the Chula Vista, Spanaway and Alpine wards that held prayers and fasts for me, as well as all the other members of the church who reached out. Last but not least, thanks for all the flowers, cards, messages and words of encouragement from my friends and fans. The outpouring has been overwhelming, I had no idea that I had touched so many people, and my heart swells with gratitude."

Back on a bike

Martin lost 12 pounds and still doesn't have full expansion of her right lung. But she was able to ride the antique Schwinn cruiser that her father restored for her last Christmas.

"It was just an easy 15-minute spin around the neighborhood. I had to take a nap after, but it felt so good to be outside in the fresh air pedaling again."

Martin has already made the toughest decision — she will continue to race and maybe even take one more shot at representing the United States in the Olympic Games.

"Yes, Rio (de Janeiro) is on the table," she said. "I feel like I have unfinished business out there. The last thing I want is to leave the sport this way because of an injury; I want to do it on my terms, when I'm ready. Right now it's a day at a time with my first goals being my first day back on the track, first race back in Florida in February, from there the World Championships in New Zealand and beyond."

Email: adonaldson@desnews.com

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company