Chloe Dygert overcomes injuries, dark days to make another world title run
Chloe Dygert’s career could have ended at the bottom of an Italian ravine, where the American cyclist had been racing for a world championship with an eye on Olympic gold before colliding with a guardrail and sustaining devastating leg injuries.
Her comeback to the top of the sport has been daunting.
Dygert needed several rounds of surgery to repair the damage. She was waylaid by the Epstein-Barr virus, which left her fighting extreme fatigue. She had heart surgery last fall to treat supraventricular tachycardia, an irregularly fast heartbeat. And this spring, another training crash took her off the bike again.
She is nothing if not resilient. Yet it’s hardly surprising that there were moments the past three years when Dygert, perhaps the most talented American rider of her generation, thought about giving up — on the bike and in life.
“What I physically had to go through for the injury itself, then mentally what I had to go through — all the personal things I won’t go into — my life at times did not matter to me,” Dygert told The Associated Press in an interview. “I didn’t care if I was alive. I did not care about things. People don’t see and understand, and I can say the same thing: I see people with injuries and things going on, and I can’t understand what they’re going through.
“So now,” Dygert continued, “when I’m able to come back and race and step on a podium and look at a goal, or winning nationals, it’s like, they matter so much to me. ... It just makes me so proud and excited for myself.”
Dygert spoke by phone from Belgium, where the 2019 World time trial champion is finishing her preparations for this year’s worlds, held over a 10-day stretch beginning Thursday in Glasgow, Scotland.
It’s the first time the UCI, the governing body for cycling, will hold nearly all of its championships in one place, and it will make for a busy stretch for the 26-year-old from Indiana. Dygert will compete in the velodrome in the track cycling events, then head outside for the road race and time trial, where the U.S. champ will be among the favorites to win gold.
Just like she was in Imola, Italy.
Dygert hoped the 2020 Worlds would be a springboard toward a golden Tokyo Olympics, and she was well ahead of the leading pace when her bike wiggled on a fast right-hand turn. Dygert crashed into the guardrail and skidded down a steep grassy pitch, and the gash to her thigh resulted in extensive blood loss.
It took Dygert nine months before she was sufficiently recovered to ride again. And while Dygert was able to compete at the Summer Games, which had been pushed back to 2021, she acknowledges now that she was nowhere near her best, even after helping the Americans win bronze in the team pursuit.
“My body was far from being anywhere close to being competitive,” Dygert said. “That was obvious.”
Afterward, Dygert turned her focus toward the Paris Games, now less than a year away. But those preparations have been hamstrung by Epstein-Barr, the heart procedure to treat a condition she had dealt with for a decade and another crash while at a team camp in Europe that left her fearful of a broken femur; nothing was broken, but she was off the bike until March.
That made her performance last month at the U.S. Championships all the more impressive: She roared over the roads near Nashville, winning both the road race and time trial.
Throw in podium finishes at the Vuelta a Burgos Feminina, a stage win at the RideLondon Classique and more podium finishes at the prestigious Giro Donne, and Dygert again is among the favorites to land on the podium at worlds.
“I feel like there were moments where, ‘I hate cycling and I’m never riding a bike again,’” Dygert said, “but I don’t think there was ever a doubt I’d continue. More the doubt: ‘Will I be back at my level? Will I be competitive again?’”
As much as anything, those are the thoughts that led Dygert to some dark places the past few years.
“It’s crazy to think about it now,” she said, “but life was just not OK. It was not.”
At the 2016 Rio Games, Dygert was on the same pursuit team with Kelly Catlin, helping the U.S. win a silver medal. Three years later, after struggling with depression and one failed suicide attempt, Catlin was found dead in her Stanford residence.
“Everybody puts on such a front,” Dygert said. “When I think about Kelly and the situation, what that was and what that meant for her family, for her teammates, for the world, it’s like — it’s not like, ‘I can’t do that and be like Kelly,’ but the trauma that caused for everyone around us, I think that was a huge factor. My life does matter. I do matter to people.”
Dygert believes she is in a better place these days. Her fitness is not yet where she wants to be, but the results show she’s on the right track. Optimism abounds not only for worlds but also the Paris Games.
“I would never take anything that’s happened in my life back. It’s made me so tough,” Dygert said. “I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s made me a better person, not for any other reason than just the compassion and maybe sympathy I have for a person or someone else. My outlook on things. It’s made me such a better person on and off the bike.
“It’s all part of God’s plan,” she said. “As much as I didn’t agree with it at the time, it was part of the plan.”