Cathy Zeglinski spent almost all of her reign as a world champion dealing with pain, frustration, uncertainty and an inability to get back on her mountain bike.
But one year after suffering a debilitating injury at the very same event, the Whistler racer left the UCI Mountain Bike Masters World Championships with a silver medal, putting an impressive bookend on what she described as "a bit of a nightmare year."
"I consider it a victory just to be here," Zeglinski said Monday, Aug. 25, from Norway, one day after posting a runner-up finish in the women's 50-54 cross-country race.
"Most people, including all my friends, I didn't even tell them I was coming. I didn't want anybody to dissuade me, because there would have been a lot of people telling me I'm crazy."
When Zeglinski won gold in the women's 45-49 group at last year's Masters World Championships in South Africa, it came at a price. She crashed in practice and suffered a Grade 3 dislocation of her sternoclavicular joint — simply put, her collarbone separated completely from her sternum when the two ligaments holding it in place ruptured — and amazingly raced through the injury to claim a world title.
But that was the last time she had raced her bike until less than two weeks ago, and the beginning of a complicated recovery process that still isn't over.
"I've only been back in the mountain bike saddle for four weeks, so this is really last minute and spontaneous," Zeglinski said of competing on Sunday. "I haven't recovered my shoulder at all — it's about 75 per cent — so I don't have a lot of strength or power."
And those after-effects of the injury were the biggest obstacle for the local doctor on the race course in Lillehammer. Torrential rain before the race turned the track into a muddy mess, said Zeglinski, and once racers were forced to push their bikes through some sections, winner Bo Gjertrud of Norway was in the driver's seat.
"She ran up the hill with her bike... I can't even lift 10 pounds with my right hand," said Zeglinski. "If it was a cardio course where I could just stay on my bike...
"As soon as we had to push the bike, I knew (I couldn't win). She's a cyclocross racer as well, and that's never been my strong point to start with."
Zeglinski finished two laps of the seven-kilometre course in one hour, 18 minutes, 16 seconds on Sunday, but Gjertrud was almost three minutes quicker to take the win. Sweden's Helena Lindh was eight minutes behind in taking the bronze.
"I have a beautiful world champion kit made by a sponsor, Kallisto, and I kind of liked wearing it. So I was hoping for a second round," laughed Zeglinski, who only got a chance to race with the UCI world champion's rainbow stripes twice. "But no, I have to be happy with that."
Her injury was so severe that it kept her off work for three months; so rare that she paid out of pocket to have a renowned American specialist conduct her surgery. On top of the dislocation, she's endured nerve damage, weakness in her right hand and neck and shoulder problems. A full recovery appears doubtful, and she's unsure if she'll be able to swim or kayak again. The entire ordeal has been "more traumatic than I expected."
"I've realized what it's like to be a patient when there are no answers," she said. "I've had to research a lot of things myself, and I think the big thing with sternoclavicular dislocation is that no one really knows a lot about the joint. It's not as rare a thing to have a partial injury, but to have a complete like mine is exceedingly rare.
"I wish I had just broken it."
Zeglinski's season didn't end in Norway, as she'll be headed back over to Europe in a few weeks time for a more physically demanding test — riding the Swiss Epic, a six-day stage race that features 400 km of trail and 15,000 metres worth of climbing.
"I had put that as my goal to be ready for that," Zeglinski said of next month's race in the Alps. "So (going to Norway) was sort of, 'I want a kick at it.' I trained really hard on a road bike and thought I'm physically really fit."
And Zeglinski, who has completed stage races abroad annually for several years, added that she's grateful to be back at a point where she's getting back to her regular routine. And she's equally grateful for the masters community for supporting her along the way.
"I've made a lot of friends here... and it's been great to meet a community of passionate, over-35-year-old bike racers here who all love to ride their mountain bikes," she said.
"Some of these people have been on Facebook with me the whole year and have been like, 'You can get back.' So it's pretty cool. I wanted to come back to see them to say, 'OK, all of your encouragement pulled me through.'"