When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I didn’t want to be a fireman or anything like that. I told everyone I wanted to be Rob. —Mike Verhaaren
JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. — Rob Verhaaren loved endurance sports but there is one race he did not get the chance to finish. On Saturday, a year after his death during LOTOJA, his wife finished the last 20 miles for him.
“As a tribute to his determination and tenacity, I wanted to finish for him,” said his widow Bridget Verhaaren, who shared his love of cycling. “Rob never left anything unfinished.”
Verhaaren crashed into a guardrail after hitting potholes and fell into the Snake River 35 feet below during last year's race, named for its Logan to Jackson Hole route. The site was marked Saturday with flowers and a ‘Team Verhaaren’ T-shirt. His wife began her ride a few yards away wearing his number.
“He’s the other half of me. You just don’t realize the effect one person’s life has until they are gone, ” Bridget Verhaaren said.
As she thinks back to Hithe day of the accident, she knows the prayer she said at the hospital helped her make it back to the bridge this year with a heart full of gratitude instead of overwhelming grief.
“I went into the bathroom and knelt down and said, ‘Thy will be done. But, you have got to give me strength to do this.”
She returned to the hospital again this year with her children to show them the spot where she prayed and to thank the nurse and doctor who tried to save their father’s life.
“The doctor was really moved. He said no one ever comes back to the ER,” said family friend Janice Reeb, who was also there.
Verhaaren’s accident was the first fatality in LOTOJA’s 30-year history and rattled cyclists all over the world.
“Such a freak accident really hit the airwaves. We had people from Norway, Denmark and Sweden all send letters saying how crazy this accident is and how much it affected their lives,” said his widow. They also told her they were praying for her family.
“I believe that has strengthened us and made us more resilient during this time of trial,” she said.
A special gift
Bridget Verhaaren said she faced the most difficult decision of her life when she was asked to donate his organs. She knew it was the right thing to do but at the time couldn’t stand the thought of it. In April, she received a letter from a veteran in Afghanistan explaining what had become of her husband’s ligaments.
“He said he was injured and walked with a limp for a decade and he said because of (Rob’s) tissue and ligaments he is able to run and play ball with his son,” said Bridget Verhaaren. “It was a beautiful letter.”
Rob Verhaaren’s own brother will soon deploy with the Army for the fifth time. Mike Verhaaren completed his first LOTOJA on one of Rob’s bikes.
“Even though he is not around, it was a way to still feel close to him,” said his brother. “When people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I didn’t want to be a fireman or anything like that. I told everyone I wanted to be Rob.”
Mike Verhaaren is married to BMX cyclist Arielle Martin. She offered him crew support throughout the race. “I got to the bridge and my wife was there and some of the family members. I started losing it. I had to keep on riding, keep composure so I could finish the race,” he said.
At the finish line there were plenty of hugs and tears. More than a dozen cyclists from Mesa, Arizona also completed the 206-mile journey in Rob Verhaaren’s honor, including Dave Collins who was riding with him when he crashed. The men said the race gave them closure.
Rob and Bridget Verhaaren’s youngest son awarded his uncle with the medal his father never got the chance to receive. “It was really awesome getting to finish the ride for him on his bike.”
Bridget Verhaaren said as she crossed the finish line she felt only joy as she looked across and saw her family and friends.
“I really have so much to be grateful for. In spite of trials and afflictions in your life, you do have a choice and I choose to be happy regardless. I am so very blessed to be surrounded by so many supportive people.”