I came last in every race. My father’s death taught me what it means to win

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This first-person article is by Sophia Ersil who lives in Ottawa. For more information on CBC’s First Person Stories, please see frequently asked questions.

It was midnight and I was cycling in the darkness of the Swedish countryside. Through the raindrops, I saw the red taillights of other cyclists climbing the hill ahead of us. I was cold and shivering and felt like giving up. As I forced myself to pedal, I wondered if I had bitten off more than I could chew by signing up for the Vätternrundan, a 315 kilometer bike ride in Motala, Sweden.

What was I thinking? I was not an athlete. Growing up, I never felt like I was fast enough or coordinated enough in sports. During football games, I sat on the ground picking dandelions instead of chasing the ball.

My younger sister was the athlete. She excelled in all sports, but it was in gymnastics that she shone. My dad built a special shelf to hang his medals on and it quickly filled the whole wall.

I skated, danced, swam and ran like her, but never scored a game-winning goal or won a race. I watched from the touchline as my teammates hit the net or step onto the podium.

Growing up, Sophia Ersil earned many participation ribbons for playing football and other sports, but never won any trophies. (Submitted by Sophia Ersil)

My father and my sister looked alike. When she started playing competitive football, they bonded over her newfound love of the sport and memories of its glory days.

My father was a second generation Canadian. Her parents fled World War II and the Iron Curtain in Europe, and they met in Canada. They instilled a strong work ethic and intense competitiveness in their five children. My Opa never let his sons – or anyone else – win at table tennis.

I see the same competitive spirit in my father. He was a forward, and in 1978 my dad scored the winning goal at the Canadian Championships for the Oshawa Turul Soccer Club.

Four men in football uniforms celebrate on a football pitch.
Peter Ersil, second from left, is cheered on by his teammates after scoring the winning goal at the 1978 Canadian Championships in Oshawa, Ont. (Submitted by Sophia Ersil)

Years of not letting sprained ankles heal finally took their toll, and my dad gave up on his dream of becoming a professional soccer player and eventually became a dentist.

My dad wanted his kids to try all the sports he couldn’t afford to do growing up. He wanted us to be able to swim, ride a bike, skate, ski and see the world. He trained with us and in doing so he became a better swimmer, skater and skier.

My father was also brutally honest. If he thought we weren’t good at something, he would tell us. It came from a place of love; I was bullied a lot when I was a kid and I think my dad didn’t want me to be embarrassed. But win or lose, my dad was our biggest supporter and fan. He went to every practice, game or competition we were at and cheered from the front row.

My dad was honest with me about my athletic abilities. He knew I would never get on a podium because I wasn’t skilled enough or fast enough. When I told him I was going to try out for my high school and later college swim team, he told me that was a bad idea. But I did it anyway because I wanted to prove him wrong.

Swimmers dive into a pool as timekeepers and race officials watch.
Sophia Ersil, lane 6, swam competitively but often finished last in her races. (Susan (Ersil) Uranowski)

When I was part of the teams, he came to all the swimming competitions. He even woke up at 4 a.m. to make the five-hour drive from Milverton to Sudbury, Ontario to watch me swim at the divisions. I finished last in my heats, but dad was proud of me.

Despite this, I always thought that my father never saw me as an athlete because I was not as good at sports as my sister.

Cycling was one of my dad’s passions and he rode across Ontario and overseas. When I was 17, we did a 70 kilometer charity hike in Ottawa to raise money for children with cancer. As we rode he told me about all the bike rides he wanted to do with me next. But it was the first and last time I rode with him.

A woman and a man wearing bicycle helmets smile for a selfie.
Ersil, left, and his father on a charity hike in Ottawa in 2017. (Sophie Ersil)

Dad was training for his fifth Vätternrundan when he died suddenly of a heart attack in 2020.

When I got home for his funeral, I found a pile of job postings for all the summer co-op jobs I had sent him on the kitchen table. A few days after his funeral, I interviewed for one of those jobs. He never got to see what I would accomplish next – I got that job and the next year I made Dean’s List.

But even if he couldn’t encourage me, I wanted to honor him. So I decided to finish what he started even though I felt terribly unprepared to finish the Vätternrundan.

I bought my first road bike and my first cycling shoes at my dad’s favorite bike shop in Stratford, Ontario.

My uncle Ed, my father’s older brother and best friend, helped me train.

He had spent hours riding and racing with my dad. My dad was always competing with him and pushing him to ride further and faster. After my dad died, Uncle Ed stopped riding his bike.

The bike was therapy for both of us. During our walks, I learned more about the life my dad had outside of being my dad. I listened to stories of their cycling adventures, being chased by packs of dogs on country roads, changing tires in the pouring rain and my dad dropping Ed to catch up with faster riders.

A man holds a smiling girl as she holds balloons.
Peter Ersil lifts his delighted smiling daughter by the balloons he has spontaneously offered to Sophia. (Submitted by Sophia Ersil)

I spent two years training but never covered more than 150 kilometres, less than half the distance of the Vätternrundan. I really didn’t think I had it in me as I flew to Sweden alongside my father’s longtime cycling partners and best friends.

But this June evening, I was on the starting line of the ride.

As I left town, I took my father’s place in our platoon. I was in the middle – where my dad rode for years.

And that’s how I found myself soaking wet and shivering at midnight on a ride I never thought I could complete.

With 70 kilometers to go, I developed racer’s knee and every pedal stroke hurt so much I couldn’t stop crying.

A woman wearing a helmet walks with her bicycle under a banner for the finish line.
Sophia Ersil completed the Vätternrundan bike ride in Sweden in June with a time of 17 hours and 40 minutes. (Sportograf Photography)

Despite the pain, I kept pedaling and managed to go all the way. I had the wind behind me pushing me forward; I felt like my dad was pushing me to finish.

It felt like my dad was next to me as I crossed the finish line in 17 hours and 40 minutes. I was much slower than my dad’s 12-hour record, but I had done it for him—and me—and felt a weight lift off my shoulders.


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