I would never hand someone a book for the first time opened up to page 107 and expect them to follow along. In order to really understand my journey, I feel as though it is important for me to start at the very beginning. I have had many people and experiences in my life so far that have truly shaped the athlete and person that I am today. If I want to tell my story right I need to go back to where it all started, back to the very beginning. In this case, the beginning involves a frowning, chubby-cheeked little red head girl in the second grade, sitting at her desk in her classroom with her arms folded.
What was the source of her pout? My teacher had just excitedly announced to the class that she had a surprise for us; the following day we would be going on a field trip to the science center. As the class high-fived each other in celebration, I fumed. The day of this scheduled field trip happened to also be track and field day at school. I was not happy about it. This is odd, because before this I had never even done track and field before. It could very well be that I absolutely hated science, but either way, I really wanted to stay behind from the trip and participate in track and field day with my school. When I explained my predicament to my parents, they assured me they would sort something out with my teacher. Sure enough, the next day as my classmates were happily learning about gravity at the science center, I was about to test it out myself as I stood on the runway about to long jump for the first time in my life. “Jump as far as you can into the sand”, explained a teacher. I sprinted down the runway and catapulted myself into the air. I haven’t looked back, or down, since.
I guess that’s how it all started. Each year I looked forward to track and field day at school the same way most kids look forward to Christmas. I would challenge my friends to a sprint around the block. I would force my mom to watch as I ran up the driveway and jumped across the lawn. I would standing long jump down the hallway of our house and insist that my sisters try to beat me. I was obsessed. In the fifth grade my parents had had enough. They signed me up for a youth track and field program in January of 2003 called Bobcats put on by Track North Athletic Club in Sudbury, Ontario. Here I met my first coach, Elizabeth Forbes, and she helped me hone my skills throughout elementary school. I remember standing on the runway long after all the other kids had gone home and yelling to Liz as she stood ever so patiently beside the sand pit holding a rake, “Last one, I swear!”.
Triple jumping as a Track North Bobcat in summer of 2003.
A couple weeks after starting with the track club in February of 2003, my family suffered a devastating loss as my mother's nine year battle with breast cancer came to an end. Through it all, my dad made sure I never missed a track practice and continued to drive the one hour to get me to Bobcats three times a week. My sister's, who were already in highschool, provided me the guidance that I needed as I yearned for a female role model. Having the opportunity to practice what I loved each week provided me with an outlet that I desperately needed as I struggled emotionally. Sometimes I wonder what different routes my life might have taken had I not been involved in something I was so passionate about. No matter where this sport takes me, it will always have a special place in my heart because of the role that it played for me during that difficult time in my life.
When I was in grade 7, I went to the Rainbow School Board Track and Field Championships with the goal to break the meet triple jump record. I broke the record, but so did another athlete, something that I didn’t realize until I saw the posted results an hour or so later. I still remember the feeling of my heart sinking when I saw the asterisk indicating a new meet record beside someone else's name. The athlete beat me by 4cm and therefore the record went to her. I was crushed. I thought that missing out on that record was the biggest disappointment I would ever face in my life. Looking back now, that overly dramatic belief makes me smile. I have experienced every heartbreak imaginable in this sport, but missing that record when I was 13 sticks out the most to me because it was the first time I ever got upset over track and field – the first time that I realized that this is more than just a sport to me.
Results from the 2005 Rainbow District School Board Track and FIeld Championships
My dad saw how serious I was getting about the sport and was willing to do whatever it took to help me reach my dreams. Just before I entered high school, we decided to build a jumping pit in our backyard. I of course had access to a mediocre jumping pit at the Espanola public track and field, but mediocre wouldn’t cut it for my dad. He wanted to ensure I had a comfortable place to develop my skill whenever I wanted to. I still remember coming home from school one day and there being a massive black runway rolled up tightly sitting in our front yard. Before I knew it, I was working the back hoe of a digger and operation Ehrhardt sandpit was in full force.
The early beginnings of the Ehrhardt sandpit
Back in high school, I would spend literally 3 hours at a time out there every single night. I would do jump after jump after jump. My dog Jasper would sit patiently and loyally on the bench beside the pit and watch, looking up every so often as if to let me know he was still there rooting for me. There were only two things that could force me to go inside, hearing my dad open the back door of our home and say, “dinners ready!”, or the sun setting too low behind the trees for me to see anything. Sometimes it would get really windy, and I would just stand perfectly still on the runway watching the trees as they danced. I would patiently wait until the wind died down so that I could jump. I would pretend that they were fans, clapping and cheering excitedly for me as I stood on the runway about to take my first jump at the Olympic Games. It was my paradise. It was a calm and relaxing place where I always managed to find clarity in my seemingly hectic life. When I’m nervous at a competition I often close my eyes and go back to those nights on my runway. I pretend it’s just me, Jasper, and all my tree fans. I have jumped all over the world but to this day the Ehrhardt sandpit is still my favourite place to jump.
My time at Espanola High School was nothing short of a fairy tale. By this point, I had acquired two amazing coaches, Track North Athletic Club’s jumps coach Jim Taylor, and EHS track and field’s coach David Gallant. I accredit so much to these men – and I know for certain that I would not have had the experiences that I was fortunate enough to have without them.
In the ninth grade, I didn’t make the podium at OFSAA, the provincial highschool championships. The next year in the tenth grade, I won by over half a meter and broke a 20 year old OFSAA record. In grade 11, I broke the Canadian Interscholastic record which was then held by Canadian record holder in the triple jump, Tabia Charles. And then finally, there is my grade 12 OFSAA – a memory that will forever be etched into my brain. Standing on the runway for my final jump, the announcer grabbed a microphone and called everyone in the stadium’s attention over to me. He introduced me as “the most successful Canadian high school triple jumper of all time”. Everyone in the stadium started clapping in unison as I sprinted down the runway and took my last jump ever as an Espanola High School Spartan. On that jump, I broke my own Canadian Interscholastic record and won my 6th OFSAA gold medal. Before I knew it, four years had come and gone and it was time for me to say goodbye to Espanola High School.
I still remember my dad taking this picture at my first OFSAA championships in June 2007 when I was in grade nine. Even though I was disappointed with my fifth place finish, I shocked myself when I broke the eleven meter barrier for the first time. I was buzzing with a quiet, timid excitement.
High school was also when I realized my Olympic dream. I have probably been saying that I want to an Olympian since I could speak, but it wasn’t until grade 10 that my Olympic dream became something real – something possible. In 2008, the Canadian Olympic Track and Field trials were being held in Windsor. I had qualified to compete, so my coaches, my dad and I agreed it would be a fun experience. How awesome would be to watch people who would go on to represent Canada at the Olympics! That, in large part, was why I was excited – to watch. Once I got there, I instantly regretted my decision. I was 16 years old, 110 pounds soaking wet. I remember my competitors seeming like strong, mighty giants to me. I was absolutely terrified. To this day I still don’t know what happened on the runway, but somehow I jumped a half meter personal best and ended up getting third place. I went in as the young redhead who no one knew, and then suddenly I was on the podium standing beside Tabia Charles, who would go on and compete at the Olympics. On the long car ride home from Windsor I realized that the Olympics could actually happen for me. It was no longer some fantasy. Competing at the Olympic Trials in 2008 really was a turning point for me, because it was when my passion became a very serious goal – a goal that I then decided I would devote the next 15 years of my life to achieving.
Through it all, it is not the memories of these competitions that I remember when I think of my cherished memories at Espanola High School. Rather, it is all the time I spent behind the scenes with the people that made it happen. I think of my teachers who gladly gave up their lunch hours to teach a lesson to me personally (needless to say, I missed a lot of school). I think of the student body, some good friends and some strangers, who supported every step of the way. I think of the custodians who would happily work around me as I sprinted down the hallways after school in the winter. I think of the hundreds and hundreds of hours I spent with MG (what I called coach Gallant). All the time I spent with this incredible man in C-Corridor (the hallway in my high school that I trained in) or in the weight room, at the track, in the pool, on long car rides – I cherish these memories more than I cherish any gold medal or record. To fully understand the impact this man has had on my life, here is an excerpt from my speech that I read at my final athletic banquet at Espanola High School.
“A couple of years ago, he [Gallant] gave me a book of inspirational quotes, and on the inside of the book, he added one more quote that read: “You cannot dream yourself into character, you must hammer and forge yourself into one.” Under that quote, he then wrote, “and you’ve done a great job of swinging that hammer! Keep it up, blacksmith!” What I realize today is, I was never the blacksmith, I was merely the product. In the past four years, I have been transformed into not only the athlete, but into the human being that I have always wanted to be. I am brave. I am strong. I have an indomitable will. I have patience. I am able to look at the past and be grateful. I am able to look into the future and be hopeful. And all of this, is because this man has taken hours out of his life, hours out of his family’s lives, every single day, to help me become that person.” I was inconsollable while reading the speech because I couldn’t bear the thought of saying goodbye to MG and Espanola High School as a whole. It was the place where all the dreams I had as a kid had come true, and I was scared to leave it behind. I was terrified, yet excited, for the next chapter of my story.
MG and I in the Big Apple.
In February of my grade 12 year I committed to a full ride scholarship from the University of Oklahoma after speaking with over 40 NCAA division I schools. I had known for quite some time that I wanted to go to school in the states. Not only would this mean a free education, but it would mean that I could compete in one of the most competitive athletic systems in the world. I knew that if I wanted to be the best, I had to jump against the best. The recruitment process was an absolute whirlwind. There were more letters, phone calls and emails than I could keep up with. I took three official visits - the University of Oklahoma, the University of Virginia, and my long time dream school, the University of Oregon. I remember an excessive amount of pros and cons lists being made, some strange interpretations of life events ("well, my flight to Oklahoma was the only one where my luggage wasn't lost so that's got to be a sign!"), a few sleepless nights, but in the end I knew I belonged in Norman, Oklahoma. I decided I'd become a University of Oklahoma Sooner because I had formed a great connection with the coach who I knew, undoubtedly, would take me to the next level. I signed my National Letter of Intent during the half-time of a basketball game in front of my school. I still remember my hands shaking with excitement as I followed Coach MG's sticky note directions on the crowded document ("sign here", "also sign here", "last one, you did it!"). I took the microphone and thanked my school for helping me achieve my dream of earning a full scholarship to an NCAA division 1 school. "For many high school seniors, their graduation and prom are days that spend most of their lives dreaming about. For me, this is mine."
In July of 2010, about one month before I was set to move to Oklahoma and begin the new chapter of my life, I recieved news that altered my life as I knew it. The jumping coach that had recruited me had quit his job and was leaving the school. There are few moments in my life that I remember perfectly, but this is one of them. I remember standing in shock, staring at my dad. Everything slowed down and felt very still. I felt the helplessness you feel in a dream when you're trying to run but aren't moving. I said nothing, but I was screaming on the inside. I had worked myself to the bone to earn a full scholarship to a good school and get my education paid for. I had my entire life planned out for almost a full year – I had a vision of me going to OU and living the dream, and suddenly my dream was up in flames. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but because the coach was the reason that I chose the school, I knew in my heart that going to Oklahoma was no longer the right decision. I would have been more than willing to transfer to a different school, but because I had already committed to OU by signing my letter of intent, I would have had to sit out on a year of competition before being eligible to compete for any other school. For the first time in a long time, the future did not seem promising to me.
My dad and I the day I signed my National Letter of Intent.
A few days after I found out the news, I was off to Moncton, New Brunswich to compete at the World Junior Championships. Here I was approached by the University of Western Ontario’s head coach Vickie Croley. She offered to help me figure my situation out and said that she could get me into Western. To be blunt, I didn’t want to go to Western, not because of any fault of the school or program, just simply because it wasn’t what I had planned. The thought of wearing anything but crimson and cream completely broke my heart. I travelled to London to meet Western’s jumps coach, Frank Erle, and tour the school. Before I knew it, I was enrolled at Western and standing in a never ending line of students at the bookstore maxing out my credit card on $800 worth of text books. Next I started the long process of trying to wrap my head around being a Mustang.
I’d be lying if I said it was easy. I spent my first few years at Western in some sort of heartbroken trance. It’s as though my experience leading into university had completely sucked the life out of me. I loved my new friends and coaches, I was enjoying my classes and new environment, but I was completely emotionally drained when it came to my sport. My once fiercely burning passion was now a dim ember, struggling immensely just to stay lit. The sport was no longer giving me the joy it once did, and I constantly felt like I was just going through the motions. I was winning competitions, but my performances were no better than they were in high school. It was exhausting. There was one particularly dark time in my third year where I almost walked away from the sport completely. I just couldn’t handle the way the sport made me feel about myself any longer – unworthy, inadequate, and most frighteningly, the thing that once brought me so much joy was making me completely depressed. I remember crying to my dad on the phone the night before my 21st birthday. I remember how surreal the thought of quitting suddenly felt when even he told me that it wasn't healthy how unhappy the sport was making me. "Maybe," he said, "maybe you should step away from it for a bit."
Choosing Western: my ultimate leap of faith.
I forged on. With the support of my family, friends, and coaches, I shifted my focus and learned to love the sport again. I had another tough year of plateaued performances during my fourth year, but this time around, sub-par performances didn't rip me a part the way they once did. I focused on simply enjoying myself. Haunted by the demons that had occupied my head for the years prior, I knew I needed to be more easy-going and kinder to myself when it came the sport.
The shift in focus paid off. My final year at Western was nothing short of a fairy tale. With a revitalized passion and new-found happiness, I achieved things that years prior I deemed as impossible. The year started off with a bang when I was awarded the Governer General Academic All-Canadian award as a top-8 CIS scholar. During the competition season, I broke Western University records in both triple and long jump. I broke the Ontario University record in triple jump - a record that had stood for 17 years. I broke the Canadian University record - a record that had stood even longer, for 22 years. I jumped a lifetime best of 13.16m and established myself as the best female triple jumper in Canadian University history. I won Western University's prestigious F.W.P. Jones trophy as the athlete of the year, along with the G. Howard Ferguson award, presented at convocation to the graduate who has shown the biggest achievement in athletics, academics, and community involvement. For years, I felt like I was fighting an uphill battle. I wondered if I would ever catch a break, if I would ever achieve the results I felt as though I deserved. Without a doubt, my final year at Western was far more spectacular than anything I could have ever imagined.
A smile and hug that were the epitome of a long time coming. Celebrating after breaking the Canadian University record in my final competition as a Western Mustang.
It's still hard to believe that I got my fairy tale ending. The Universe works in mysterious ways, and I now know better than to doubt not only its workings, but its timing. Throughout the hard times, I always desperately hoped that one day I would look back and realize, "Oh, that's why that happened." I wanted a reason - a justification of sorts for my hardships, so that if things ever got tough once again, I'd find solace in knowing one day it would all make sense. I wanted hard proof that it is worth it to keep pushing, to keep striving for my dreams no matter what. I'm so grateful I got my proof.
This sport has provided me with the highest of highs, and the lowest of lows. I am confident that every experience I have had to date - these memories that I speak of in this prologue - have value and play an intricate role for me in this pursuit. Nothing has happened without reason. I have worked tirelessly in my academics throughout my life, but now as I enter the realm of full-time athleticism, I can't help but smile. It's funny to think that the little red head kid at the Espanola track would one day be a full time, amateur athlete - devoting her life to that same feeling of flight she felt for the first time that day she should have been at the science center.
My name is Caroline Ehrhardt, and I want to be the first female triple jumper to represent Canada at the Olympics.
Welcome aboard, and enjoy the flight. I know I will - turbulence and all.