The cycling world said goodbye to one of its most promising talents today as Carla Swart, 23, was killed while training in South Africa.
Cyclingnews spoke to Swart at the HTC-Highroad camp in December, where she was about to embark on her first season with a top-level professional team. She described signing to the team as "a dream come true", but her path to the top level of the sport came not through dreams but through years of incredibly hard work and a schedule which would crack the vast majority of people.
After moving to the USA from South Africa seven years ago, Swart embraced the life of an athlete - she enrolled in Lees McRae College with scholarships for cycling and running, but it wasn't long before bike racing won out.
Ahead of the 2008 season, Swart said she set some goals for herself "to be more noticed so I could make the jump from collegiate to professional racing".
I had the pleasure of witnessing this rise to prominence in the regional races in North Carolina, often from the receiving end of Swart's seemingly unlimited energy. She earned five collegiate national titles that year, and before her life came to an abrupt end on a road in South Africa today, she had added 14 more between track, mountain bike, cyclo-cross and road.
What isn't reflected on the results sheets is the punishing schedule Swart kept up for the past two years. She raced on four different teams and literally around the world in a racing calendar that went from February to October. In between, she kept up with her school work, determined to finish her degree.
2010 was a defining year for Swart. In January and February she raced with the South African MTN team where she scored a podium in the national championship time trial. She then returned to the USA for school before heading to Europe for her first big campaign. In just her second World Cup, Swart placed 18th in the Ronde Van Vlaanderen - a race she described as her absolute favorite.
"It was everything you expect it to be and more," she said of the event. "The feeling is so much different than any other race. You have the most enthusiastic fans in the world - they come from all over to watch it, and you know how important the race is for the cycling world. There's just this great feeling around it and great drama with the cobbles, the weather and it's just full gas all the time - it's just rough and fun."
Swart's successful run also included an 8th place in the Ronde van Drenthe World Cup, but it was just a taste of things to come. A second block of racing in Europe that summer yielded three top-ten finishes and the Best Young Rider classification in the Tour de l'Aude - one of women's cycling's top stage races.
There's no doubt that Swart's new career with HTC-Highroad would have seen many top results, which Swart had the drive and energy to achieve.
On the verge of her first season with the team, Swart said, "It's such an amazing opportunity - each team you're on is exciting, but to be here is a dream come true."
The world of women's cycling is a small, close-knit community, making the loss of a rising star like Swart all the more painful. Cyclingnews extends its sympathies to her family, friends and fans.
Lees McRae College is establishing a scholarship in Swart's name. The college issued a statement:
The Carla Swart Memorial Scholarship will be awarded annually to a female cyclist who demonstrates a love for the sport and exhibits great promise as a cyclist. Checks should be made out to Lees-McRae College (note Carla Swart Scholarship in the memo line) and mailed to the Office of Advancement, P.O. Box 128, Banner Elk, NC 28604.
Please e-mail your memories of Carla to Cyclingnews@Cyclingnews.com and we will add them below.
Tributes to Carla Swart:
"Carla was new to our team in 2011 and after only a short amount of time she endeared herself to everybody and became part of our family. Her enthusiasm and spirit was engaging and she had the ability to make everybody smile around hers. She had a remarkable talent and looked forward to a very bright future. Our thoughts and hearts are with her family and we will honour her in the days and months ahead."
South African racer Lynette Burger:
"I remember both of us crashing out on the first day of The Tour of Qatar 2010, looking at our wounds on our way to the hospital, not really knowing where we going or what's gonna happen to us. Needless to say all worked out well got stitched up and got back to the hotel. We had some great times together in the 5 Star Hotel and spoiled ourselves with some spa treatments.
Just looked at some photos and its sad to know that you are not with us anymore. You will really be missed my friend, till we meet again!!
USA Cycling CEO Steve Johnson:
“We were terribly sorry to learn today of Carla Swart’s tragic passing and we extend our most sincere condolences to Carla’s family, friends and teammates.
Words fail me at times like this, but I do know the world has lost a wonderful spirit and that she will be sorely missed. It is tragic and extremely sad when anyone’s life is cut short but particularly so when it is someone we know and with whom we shared her and her teammates’ success and joy at Collegiate Nationals.”
David Haile, Fort Collins, Colorado:
"Carla and the rest of the Lees-McRae cycling team stayed at our house for the duration of the May 2009 Collegiate Road Nationals in Fort Collins, CO. Several team members were sitting around the fire in the backyard and she was telling stories of what it was like to be a cute little redhead fashion model in South Africa when she was a child. She was also riding for Team Lip Smacker at the time and had a bag full of chapstick that she distributed to my little girls. She was always gracious and easy to be around and will be missed!"
Chad Andrews, cycling announcer:
"Carla was a tremendous spirit and talent. I recall fondly commentating her amazing performance at Collegiate Nationals in Lees McRae. It was muddy, nasty, cold mess but yet the freckled smile was always there. Nothing more than a pure talent who's life was tragically cut short.
On the mountain bike or road Carla was a fierce competitor who's athletic talents were only equalled by her excellence in the classroom at Lees McRae. RIP Carla"
Lees McRae College (via Facebook):
Our thoughts and prayers are with the Swart family and our fellow LMC Bobcat family as we mourn the death of Carla Swart. We will hold a time of prayer and reflection tonight @ 7:00 pm in Evans Auditorium.
Frank & Lisa
We had the good fortune to host Carla and Robin Farina last year during the Philly race and it was such a treat. They were both wonderful and we really connected with them. We were looking forward to having them back this year. Carla with that great red hair and her sassy way was just a joy to be around, she was so full of energy and spirit.
I remember her telling me how to make the french toast, she asked me if I wanted her to make it, I said no just tell me how. The morning of the race after they left the house, we went to church, so we missed most of the women's race. After the race, I told Carla we went to church and she said I hope you prayed for us, I said we did,She said "I go to a bible church too"!
When I got the news today about Carla, I couldn't help but think of that exchange. The sense of loss that I am feeling knowing that we have lost Carla at such a young age is overwhelming. She was so young and just so wonderful it really breaks my heart to think that she is gone.
God bless you Carla we miss you so much honey!
Lisa Hunt (former Director, Team Vera Bradley Foundation)
"We had a nickname for Carla on Team VBF: the "Ginger Ninja" (created by her teammate, Alex Rhodes). She would show up to a race, after traveling for hours, getting very little sleep; and yet she still had so much enthusiasm and was ready to race. At Cascade, she was the consummate teammate, working hard on the first road stage to bring back the break. And then it was her turn to shine: she gobbled up enough sprint points to take the Sprint jersey after the criterium - but only by one point. The night before the final stage, we told her she could win the jersey, but she needed to win the first sprint. She said, I'm gonna do it, Misses Boss' (which is what she called me). She dug deep and won it. Carla was an incredible teammate, a talented athlete, and above all, one of the most loving and giving people I've ever met."
Addy Albershardt, fellow racer
I met Carla 2 years ago when my coach, Robin Farina, coached the women's team at Lees McRae. When the weather in Banner Elk was bad, Carla, and several other Lees McRae girls stayed at my house in Charlotte, NC to train. I've always dreamed of going to Lees McRae so I could be classmates with her! I was so happy to ride and race with her and she was always cracking silly jokes about everything.
We raced a couple local races together when I was a honorary junior on Team Vera Bradley with her. She kicked my butt in many races; afterwards I would bring her a cold coke and we would sit and just talk, like we've known each other for years. She is a big role model in my life and as a 16 year old junior cyclist, she was more than a role model, she was a big sister. Her spirit will always live within me and I dream of growing up to be just like her, beautiful inside and out. She made the world's best French toast! I will never forget Carla Swart, the Great!
Wendy E. York
I was lucky enough to host Carla in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I had hoped that she would return to New Mexico and I could, again, be her host. After one night, I wanted to adopt her. She even charmed our very moody and unpredictable mutt. I e-mailed a note of congratulations after she won a race and she sent me a lovely, handwritten note (with a big bicycle on it). She thanked me for following “us”. By us, she meant her team. She was a wonderful young woman who I will always remember, even though I met her for such a brief period of time. Her parents did an amazing job raising her and I thank them for sharing her with the world.
Bart Brentjens, Team manager; Milka-Trek mountainbike racing team
Tragic news about Carla Swart, all the best for Carla's family and friends.
Glenwood Trading Post
Our sincerest condolences to Carla's family and friends. We are at a loss for words. May God Bless them all.
Abdul Aziz Jacobs
Sad to lose such a great talent. When you did well, all of SA is proud. Rest in Peace.
RIP Carla Swart, sincerest condolences to her family & friends. Tragedy.
Thoughts go out to the family and friends of Carla Swart.
Terrible news about Carla Swart. My condolence to her family and friends.
Carla Swart, 23yrs of HTC died moments after colliding with a truck during TT training in Sth Africa today. My deepest thoughts for family.
Tragic news about Carla Swart. My condolence to here family and friends.
A true friend and champion. You will be missed. RIP carla
Andy and Frank Schleck
Tragic news about Carla Swart. all our condolence to her family and friends
Sad to hear the tragic news about Carla Swart and Lewis Baldyckyi, both young riders were killed in an accident during training. R.I.P.
Damned motor vehicles.. Killing nature, killing animals, people and dreams .. Ride with the angels Carla Swart