|Driven to the end |
Olympic cyclist Kelly Catlin could do it all. Until it all became too much.
By Kent Babb
July 29, 2019
MINNEAPOLIS — On the day he’d bury his daughter, Mark Catlin stepped out of a chapel and into the fresh air.
“Nice day for a walk,” he said, looking up, and on this morning in late March, the weather was flawless: cloudless, crisp, a bright blue sky.
He took a breath and set off, heading down the cemetery’s path and falling behind the procession of cars ahead, talking as gravel crunched beneath his shoes. He asked if the memorial service, laboriously planned near the lakefront cycling trails Kelly Catlin had explored before becoming a silver medalist in the 2016 Olympics, had been good enough. He apologized if it had been too sad. The afternoon reception, he assured friends and visitors, should be more lively.
A few paces up the winding path, a longtime friend shook his head. Mark, the friend whispered, would do anything to distract himself — he always had — in this case to avoid facing “the darkness”: Kelly’s suicide two weeks earlier, her thoughts during those final days and weeks, the way she’d planned her death in the same meticulous, results-oriented way she’d lived her life.
Back on the walkway, Mark wore a blank expression as he accepted condolences and told people about his plans for the coming weeks. Eventually he reached a gravesite surrounded by mourners, and he stopped at the rear of the group as if happening upon a stranger’s funeral.
Gradually the faces turned, and after a moment Mark noticed his wife and two other children waiting near a charcoal-colored casket.
“I guess we’ll go lay her to rest now,” he said, stepping forward.
If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can also text a crisis counselor by messaging the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
Next to the computer in the basement of his home, Mark has a notebook labeled “To Do: Kelly” with seven projects listed: photos to organize by year, 60 hours of video to edit, a bio to write, calls to make and emails he’ll send after jolting awake most nights around 2. But now he’s working on No. 1: the enormous memorial he’s designing alongside a touch-screen information kiosk, like something at a museum, he imagines at Kelly’s graveside.
“So people can remember,” he says.
He wants people to know Kelly wasn’t just the daughter of Carolyn and Mark, the triplet sister of Christine and Colin. She was more than an intelligent but socially awkward 23-year-old from the Twin Cities. Kelly built herself into an Olympian and a three-time world champion in the four-rider group race known as the team pursuit. She was fluent in Chinese and had been first-chair violinist in her high school orchestra, a competitive pit bull who folded origami and played badminton with the same joyless ferocity that she brought into a velodrome or classroom.
Kelly’s father wants you to know all of it: She took classes at the University of Minnesota in 11th grade, notched a perfect score on the SAT, had enrolled last fall in the computational mathematics program at Stanford’s graduate school. This was a young woman who had become convinced, like so many of her high-achieving peers, that pedaling to the peak of one mountain only meant a better view of the other, taller ones in the distance.
“The very characteristics that made you successful will be self-destructive,” Mark says he has realized, though he prefers to keep himself busy than think too deeply about it, and indeed as much as his daughter was an outlier in life, she was part of a trend in death.
Mark is a retired medical pathologist, and he has learned these past few months that young people in the United States — and, in particular, young women and girls — are killing themselves at a rate the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers a national health crisis. Between 2007 and 2015, according to a CDC study, the suicide rate doubled among females aged 15 to 19 and reached a 40-year high. Major depressive episodes and suicide attempts have skyrocketed among women under 35, according to a 12-year analysis by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, as a society fixated on collecting and comparing achievements seemingly has conditioned a promising generation of young people to ignore emotional alarms — insomnia, anxiety and depression — and work toward the next goal.
Sometimes that pressure comes from family or peer groups, and it can manifest itself in ways good and bad: pushing certain individuals to astonishing heights and others to alarming depths. Kelly, though, found herself at both extremes — climbing the Olympic medal stand three years before taking her own life in the bedroom of her Stanford apartment — and seemed determined from an early age to prove herself in increasingly intense arenas, only exacerbating her best and worst tendencies.
And even that, mental health experts say, is more and more common as suicide has been on a consistent rise among individuals born between 1982 and 1999. Kat Giordano, Kelly’s former roommate at Stanford who discovered her body, has experienced the highs and lows of existing in a culture that seems to have convinced its young people that being average is unacceptable — leading some to grow up believing they must be exceptional or die trying.
“I am someone who thrives under pressure, but … you’re surrounded by it,” said Giordano, a Stanford Law School student who in 2018 graduated magna cum laude from Princeton. “It feels like the best motivation and something dangerous simultaneously.”
The Catlin children — from left, Christine, Kelly and Colin — at home in 2003. (Mark Catlin)
On the day of Kelly’s funeral, Colin Catlin sat on a nearby tombstone and watched the gravediggers bury his sister. He already had taken photographs of her casket, crouching and experimenting with angles to find the perfect light. He’d picked up handfuls of dirt and let it slide through his fingers.
“With her to the very end,” he’d say later, going on to point out it was just his way of coping.
His sister Christine’s, though, was to bolt toward a car once the eulogies concluded. If her father and brother had somehow found ways to channel the emotions of the previous weeks, Christine felt engulfed by them: despair, anger, regret. None, though, was as prevalent as guilt, and considering the family she was born into, she knew lingering at the grave would lead to a breakdown — exposing her yet again as the black sheep of the Catlin flock.
“I was,” she’d say later, “the weak one.”
Triplet siblings are often measured against one another from birth — Kelly won her first race by being the first to enter the world, a minute ahead of Christine — and the competitions and labeling never stop. Kelly was the cyborg, ruthless and analytical by third grade, and Colin was the bohemian: a beekeeper, Eagle Scout and gardener. Christine, though, was the crier. She’d fly upstairs after a cross word or remark about her being underweight, sobbing and reading alone. She’d disappear from conversations and ruminate on what had been said, channeling her feelings into short stories and plays.
During those early years, Kelly would act out the roles in Christine’s imagination — she took home theater as seriously as everything else — but as time passed, the competitions became more intense. Mark, for reasons the triplets wouldn’t understand until much later, seemed fixated on his children growing into highly successful adults. His own father had been a heavy drinker, and Mark and his seven siblings had grown up in poverty and fear. His dad died young, and Mark beat his family’s odds by putting himself through medical school and entering the most emotionless of specialties: looking through a microscope. And for decades his charge was finding answers that, to others, were invisible — but, if he zoomed in enough, were there somewhere.
Along the way he decided that when the time came, he’d raise his own kids by surrounding them with activities, reminding them of traps, exposing them to sports and the arts and travel and culture — everything, it would seem, but the possibility of failure.
Mark enjoyed his job, and it allowed him a vacation home and time to indulge his many hobbies — “I used to call them obsessions,” Carolyn would say, though she remained supportive of her husband’s interests and largely deferential to his parenting decisions — and introduce his children to the methodical pursuit of results. That pursuit, the parents reminded the kids, could even be a matter of life and death: Exercise and determination enrich and extend lives, but certain distractions — alcohol and a lack of focus — could derail or perhaps shorten them. The kids would say later they grew up learning anger and intensity were acceptable but crying was a show of weakness.
“We didn’t do touchy-feely,” Colin says now, adding in a separate interview that “the three of us stopped looking to the parents for affection.”
Carolyn and Mark insist the kids began resisting their parents’ embraces around middle school, but although Mark admits granting his children space, Carolyn would approach Kelly with a bear-hug sneak attack.
“It’s too hard to resist,” Carolyn would say.
Still, the triplets learned the art of strategy and the way to properly build things: Mark’s 70-foot retaining wall, a modest field of hop plants, a sprawling tomato garden. Mark coached their soccer teams and introduced them to culture during trips to Italy, South Africa and England. Watching television was forbidden, and the siblings were allowed to watch movies only while using an exercise machine. When they were 8, Christine says, their $20 monthly allowance depended on whether they exercised 30 minutes a day, five days a week. They had to log their totals on a chart that required a parent to initial it.
Time passed, and at least on the surface the plan was working: Colin carefully tracked his workouts at age 14, and his grape jelly recipe won third place in the Minnesota State Fair. Christine was 13 when she published her first book, a kids’ guide to raising monarch butterflies, and was a distance runner with a resting heart rate of 45 beats per minute. Kelly, to her siblings’ constant discouragement, excelled at most everything she took on — skiing, fencing, competitive shooting — and the kids learned that their parents were supportive, though earning their approval was sometimes a different matter.
“A pet peeve of mine: So many parents just automatically say: ‘Good job,’ ” Carolyn says even now. “Their kids are successful getting a fork to their mouth: ‘Good job!’ ”
Kelly, pursuing whatever it was she was pursuing, simply amplified her intensity and determination, seeming to never break. But Colin looked forward to his classical guitar lessons because the instructor allowed him to cry. Christine increasingly felt like an outsider, once writing a story about a family of opera-singing mice from the perspective of the one mouse who couldn’t sing.
Christine moved out when she was a teenager, searching for belonging in Maine and California and New York. The siblings had all been pushed, but Kelly — the one pushed hardest — had won the household Olympics, Christine decided. Leaving everything behind, Christine assumed her sister was embarrassed by her, so she stopped calling. She stopped texting and emailing. Kelly did the same.
Until one day this past February, Christine was watering plants at home when her phone rang. She saw “Kelly Sista” on the display and answered immediately.
The years passed, Kelly’s intensity grew, and Mark felt equally fascinated with and alarmed by his daughter.
“She has created this lofty image of herself that she is forced to maintain and live up to,” he wrote to a friend in 2010, when Kelly was 14. “We have talked to her about starting over in high school — not sure if she can.”
She was spending an increasing amount of time alone, staying home on weekends to study or put in extra hours on an indoor training bike. She recoiled if anyone touched her and locked herself in her room for violin practice, vowing to become first chair, and after her death relatives would struggle to reconcile a certain dichotomy: These were the extremes that made Kelly Kelly, but they were also the things that would cost them Kelly. Should they have stopped her? Could they have? She’d refuse to admit defeat or even to feeling stress, preferring to write in one of her three diaries and add to “The Code,” a list of personal guidelines she’d begun honing in third grade.
“A fact about who I am: I do not cry,” she’d write.
Sticking to what would eventually become her 13 commandments — “Fear not physical discomfort” and “Never use coarse or vulgar language” among them — would propel her to the mountaintop; any deviation or show of weakness, she’d come to believe, could topple her. Four of her rules pertained to her belief that socializing was, like crying, a display of submission.
“Never allow yourself to become close enough to another,” she’d write, “that their actions or inactions might cause you (any amount of) distress or pain.”
Kelly read science fiction novels as she brushed her teeth and crafted meticulous to-do lists. She simplified her meals — lunch most every day was a sandwich with deli meat and hummus, two clementine oranges and yogurt with chocolate, her favorite food — and usually wore black.
“She always wanted to basically be this monolithic, terrifying force of power,” Colin would say, and after a while family members and acquaintances didn’t just avoid touching her. Many of them stopped talking to her. One longtime cycling coach, Charlie Townsend, sometimes wondered if she even enjoyed the activities she seemed to obsess over; the only time he saw her smile, he’d say, was on the medal stand.
Mark watched his daughter as she’d disappear for a 12-hour study session or a 60-mile bike ride, preferring to be alone with only her thoughts and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as company. Olympians, she believed, were made and not born. She would make the sacrifices and maintain focus and get into Harvard or Cambridge or Stanford. She would.
“Never give or receive touch of a romantic or sexual nature,” The Code instructed.
“Never engage in a relationship that could be defined as having a significant other. (In my case, a so-called ‘boyfriend.’)”
Kelly stepped off the medal stand in Rio de Janeiro, and soon after her smile was gone. It wasn’t just the end of a long and grueling journey; she hadn’t felt this connected to something since the triplets began drifting apart in middle school.
Kelly returned to Minnesota and her solitary discipline, back to the things that made her, and looked toward an uncertain future. Following her graduation from the University of Minnesota, where she completed degrees in biomedical engineering and Chinese, she applied to Harvard and Stanford for graduate school. Kelly wrote essays, recommitted herself to the violin and writing, made her lists — “loaf of bread (28 pieces for breakfast and lunch)” — and sometimes planned her outfits weeks in advance.
She joined a professional road cycling team, Rally UCH, and planned for the international cycling schedule: races in Canada, Chile, Belarus, the United Kingdom. She traveled with teammates but often remained disconnected, and if the talk turned to gossip or relationships, Kelly would leave the table. If she said anything, it was to point out that these discussions are pointless and that dating was, a teammate would recall, a “waste of resources.” When a new cyclist introduced herself with hugs, the veterans said nothing as the rookie approached Kelly, who recoiled with such disgust that the teammates wondered if she might throw a punch. If there were team-building exercises or games, Kelly could usually be found in her room.
They were in Belgium when the group learned Kelly had never seen “Mean Girls” or “High School Musical,” and a few of them arranged a two-night viewing and hounded Kelly until she joined them on the sofa. They were in London when some teammates wouldn’t stop talking about seeing “School of Rock” on the West End, and Kelly complained all the way to the theater before singing “Stick it to the Man” all the way back.
The weeks and months passed, and Kelly eased out of her room, slowly removed her ear buds, occasionally spoke. If Kelly had once been a curiosity, now she was entertainment, and she was best in debate mode: speech quickening, legs pacing, hands directing the traffic of her restless mind. Kelly and Christina Birch, a cyclist with a PhD from MIT, bonded over academics and the feeling that no matter what either of them accomplished, they never felt complete. There was just more to do — more, more, more — and the antidotes to fear were harder work and force of will.
“She got to the top and found that it wasn’t what she was expecting,” says Birch, who wasn’t the only person who wondered if Team USA’s silver medal — Britain won gold by 1.02 seconds — had somehow been a disappointment to Kelly. “It still sucked. It still wasn’t enough.”
The teammates talked sometimes about the things that define a meaningful life and whether it was possible to actually reach the height of human potential. Kelly hated talking about the future — in her mind marriage and career representing such cliches — and a teammate would recall that she once admitted a preference for “disappearing into the mist.” She blushed when teammates joked about her secret crush on Lionel Messi, the Argentine soccer star, and laughed when they’d slip Kelly, as averse to coffee as alcohol, a caffeine gel. Kelly brought dinner once to Sara Bergen, a Canadian cyclist who’d suffered a concussion after a crash, and kept her company on a training bike. She joined in the occasional trivia contest against the male cyclists and, on Valentine’s Day, thanked Birch for sending her an anatomically correct chocolate heart.
The countries and trails changed, and somehow so did Kelly. She recoiled and disappeared less often — even standing there, arms dangling, when Bergen insisted on celebrating the end of a stage by wrapping each of her teammates in a big, sweaty, 15-second hug.
“She wouldn’t hug back,” Bergen says. “But she wouldn’t run from them anymore.”
In the fall of 2018, Kelly had come to Stanford, posted a welcome note from Giordano next to an Olympic flag on her dresser and leaned into a future she was unsure she wanted. But she was here, another box checked, and she tried to overpower her doubts as she always had. She made her lists, chopped away at her violin, repeatedly cleaned her bicycles.
And that was part of the problem: Cycling was a chore now, not an escape. In October, she crashed and broke her arm. Another crash led to a concussion. She had opened herself to new friendships, sure, but what about the politics of being an Olympian? She had begun to dread the grind, 40 days at a track camp between November and December 2018, and when she returned to school there waited a mountain of work. It felt overwhelming, and one day last year she at last allowed herself to cry. She nonetheless filled recovery days with studying and makeup tests, and though she’d been admitted to one of her dream schools, she was never there for the classes, the guest lectures, the networking events. The 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, which she saw as a correction of Rio and a chance to win gold, were on the horizon. She couldn’t just stop, and indeed Kelly wept not because there were no worlds left to conquer but because there were so many.
Late last January, with a chocolate chip cookie at her side, Kelly stood at her desk and began typing, “Well hello, one and all!”
In what eventually became an eight-page letter to six people — Mark and Carolyn, Christine and Colin, a cycling coach and a former high school classmate — Kelly included a confession: Yes, she cried. More and more often she’d wake in the night, feeling no guilt, and just let it rip.
On this evening, she typed that she felt “somehow unequal” to Stanford and that she had sent a collectible dagger out for sharpening, intending to stab herself in the heart. She was curious about the sensation of bleeding out, she wrote, going on to explain a fantasy of becoming a serial killer with an elaborate and meticulous ritual. “Oh, the drama I could create,” she wrote.
Instead, she had rented two cylinders of compressed helium and waited for the halls to clear before dragging them to her room. She ordered supplies to construct an “exit hood,” and on the evening of Jan. 25, she began writing her email. She was planning to end her life in six days because, on Jan. 31, she was scheduled to meet the queen of Spain. Instead, she’d be dead, and even Kelly Catlin’s suicide note had to be perfect. “I really did want a nice hook opener,” she wrote.
She kept typing, 470 words in the email’s body: instructions for Colin, final wishes, the phone number for the Santa Clara County medical examiner’s office. In addition to the eight-page document was a separate nine-page personal addendum. She listed 27 songs and their corresponding links on YouTube, a playlist meant to accompany the reading.
“In truth my mind has conquered me,” the document read. “Its never ending spinning spinning spinning would not rest. Always, always was it sprinting a marathon, thoughts never at rest, never at peace. It just wouldn’t stop.”
She suspected that she had major depressive disorder, though to her seeking therapy was another show of weakness. “I would rather suffer than ask for help,” she wrote, going on to describe her delight in the problems her death would cause Team USA and some thoughts about her upbringing.
“I suspect a large part of why I am the way I am — both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ — is our childhood environment,” she wrote. “We are triplets. And we are, none of us, truly functional. … Those parched for affection from a young age do not quickly heal. I shall say no more.”
Kelly finished her documents and waited her six days. On Jan. 31, she gave herself the morning off from training, and before sliding in her ear buds and twisting the helium valve, she had one last thing to say.
“I was dancing before the end. Just so you know,” she typed before hitting send. “I woke up, danced a dance, played my fiddle, and died.”
But then, hours later, she woke up.
In the moments and hours after Kelly’s suicide attempt, those who’d received her email tried to make sense of it. Was this, as Colin initially suspected, a dark and elaborate prank? Her parents, panicked after having been alerted by the high school classmate, called Stanford police. Kelly had never been evaluated for anxiety or depression, her father would say, and none of her family members would recall Kelly ever mentioning suicide.
Kelly, according to relatives, was perhaps as confused by her survival as anyone. She had done as her research suggested, and indeed the helium had caused her to drift off. But after a while, she’d write in her journal later, she simply regained consciousness; the first thing she remembered was standing fully clothed in the shower. Colin would say authorities had arrived, discovering Kelly’s materials and rushing her to Stanford Hospital, where she’d spend seven days on an involuntary hold. Kelly either couldn’t remember, or wouldn’t reveal, much else.
“What I can say with certainty,” she’d write later, “is that I have indeed been given a second chance and I do not intend to waste it.”
She vowed to graduate from Stanford, to read autobiographies of suicide survivors, to study and adopt their lessons. Kelly promised her family she had no intention of a second attempt — “Her word was her bond,” Carolyn would write later — and after her parents returned from California, Kelly and her mother spoke by phone every few days. She never said anything about lingering feelings of hopelessness or depression, Carolyn would say. Christine texted Kelly and mailed books to her hospital room, which — despite what was meant as a mandatory rest period from cycling and classwork — she often escaped each day to spend a few hours on the facility’s stationary bike. The hospital recommended Kelly remain under supervision another week, Mark Catlin would say, but Kelly felt frustrated and trapped before threatening legal action and being released to her apartment.
Attempting to resettle into a new routine, Kelly wrote a letter demanding equal pay for female cyclists and had an essay published in VeloNews. She met with faculty advisers and agreed to reduce her academic load to one class for the remainder of the spring term. She told Colin of her renewed optimism and a willingness to cast aside social inhibitions.
But as the weeks passed, Colin suspected that something was gnawing at her: For perhaps the first time in her life, Kelly had put her mind to something — truly committed to it — and fallen short.
“I suck,” she told her brother, going on to describe the fellow students in her mandatory group therapy sessions who, she believed, only wanted attention when they had threatened or attempted suicide. Those students, Kelly told Colin, hadn’t been as dedicated — as serious as she’d been — and it became clear that, even here, it wasn’t empathy she felt but a desire to compete.
“She wanted to prove that she was not one of them,” Colin says now, and when Kelly brought up her frustrations, he tried to change the subject.
During Carolyn’s phone calls with Kelly, they’d discuss politics or she’d talk about something lighthearted to make Kelly smile. Mark occasionally heard anger in his daughter’s voice when she described her suicide attempt, and he assured her it wouldn’t be long before she’d be back on her bike.
But he didn’t get it. Nobody seemed to. By then it was mid-February, and it seemed clear Kelly just wanted someone to listen, so she called a number she hadn’t in a long time.
“I could relate,” Christine would say later. “It makes perfect sense.”
Kelly had become increasingly alarmed that either her concussion or her suicide attempt had caused permanent brain damage, and she remained anxious about life after cycling and school. She had, after her hospital discharge, exchanged emails with a staffer at Stanford’s student health center, and the staffer expressed increasing concern that Kelly hadn’t scheduled an appointment with a mental health specialist.
Kelly had, she emailed back to the staffer, called a telephone counseling service contracted by the U.S. Olympic Committee but hung up after being put on hold for 20 minutes; a subsequent email to the service, Kelly wrote, yielded only plans to look into potential treatment. A USOC spokesman said extensive efforts were made to provide support following Kelly’s initial suicide attempt. Olympic athletes are required to complete intake surveys, whose questions include asking individuals to self-identify symptoms of depression and anxiety, though potential treatment is up to each athlete’s team of service providers.
During the sisters’ phone call, Christine kept listening. Eventually she reminded Kelly that she was 23; she didn’t have to plan the rest of her life as she did her meals and outfits. Painful as it had been, Christine told Kelly, detaching her identity from writing — from the expectations of others — had been liberating. Kelly could do the same: quit cycling, leave school, live for her own happiness.
Kelly said she’d think about it, though when it was time to end the call, she casually mentioned that if things didn’t change in a month, she might again attempt suicide. Christine begged her sister to reconsider, and after they hung up, she called their parents and sounded the alarm. She says they told her she was overreacting.
“They didn’t take me seriously at all,” she’d say, and though it’s common for parents of suicide survivors to remain in denial, Mark and Carolyn would say later they had no idea which words or behavior might signal a second attempt — or whom to call if they suspected Kelly might break her promise.
In the days after calling Christine, Kelly wrote out the pros and cons of living and dying. One day she was reminding herself of her strength — “I can fight through this,” she wrote. “I can live for tomorrow” — and the next she was chastising herself for delaying the inevitable.
At one point, she filled four pages with her thoughts.
“Principle: If I am not an athlete, I am nothing,” she wrote at the end. “Principle: If I am in therapy, I have failed.”
In her journal she typed out her to-do list for a week in early March and identified the day Giordano, her roommate, would be studying and absent from their apartment.
Monday: “… packages sometime, assemble hood”
Tuesday: “train, practice run with ear buds”
Wednesday: “train, practice run with ear buds”
Thursday: “… tuck sheets under, switch Verizon to DO NOT DISTURB, meditate … set out DNR note and Helium note and printed/signed letters, start exit by 11.”
In the weeks after their call, Christine kept texting, kept reminding Kelly she was still there. She sent an article about the Italian town where Stradivarius violins are made, shipped her a Chinese string instrument called an erhu, began planning a road trip to northern California. Though Kelly had mentioned a second possible suicide attempt as an aside, Christine believed her sister had given her a deadline. Christine would, before the month was out, drive west with Scottie, her chihuahua mix, and surprise Kelly at Stanford. Christine would listen as long as it took.
Then, on March 8, Christine’s phone rang again. This time, Kelly had done what she’d set out to. She always did.
Almost immediately after Kelly’s death, Mark Catlin kept himself busy. There was a funeral to plan and photographs to sort. He had a shooting competition in Arizona, chores on the farm, a memorial bike ride to think about.
The family donated Kelly’s brain to Boston University’s CTE Center, which in the past two years has seen an uptick in the brains of women. Mark studied his daughter’s medical records and requested the Olympic Training Center’s post-concussion protocol. A lawyer had to talk him out of suing Stanford, which he said wouldn’t offer treatment for Kelly because she wasn’t a varsity athlete. (The Stanford spokesman said the school’s follow-up is the same for athletes and non-athletes.)
“You create a barrier in your mind,” Mark says, “and the barrier is between normal activities and thoughts about Kelly.”
The triplets were teenagers when Mark told them about his own father. He hadn’t been much older than them when his own dad died from a gunshot; though the official cause of death was a hunting accident, Mark says, he always suspected his father had taken his own life.
“How could anyone get there?” he’d wonder, and he dealt with his trauma by ignoring it: Mark skipped the funeral, devoted himself to self-improvement, became convinced alcohol and misplaced priorities were to blame. Mark, using force of will, would defy the odds; he’d become the only one of his siblings to graduate college, the only one who’d never have a drink. With the advantages Mark could offer his own children, they would succeed at an even higher level than he had. They would.
But his plan had ended in tragedy, and now Mark reached into a bedside table one night around 2 a.m. and removed the four-page letter Kelly had written shortly before her death. Mark, again attempting to overpower emotion, had avoided reading it until that moment.
“So what do I want?” she had written. “Love.”
Mark, feeling a need to understand what Kelly had felt — his answers, as they’d been while he was a pathologist, were down there somewhere — kept reading.
“I do desire to be valued, to be special, to have great power and responsibility. But, beyond all else, I desire ‘love and connection.’ ”
By now the darkness was all-consuming, and he kept sinking, kept absorbing his daughter’s final words.
“I cry,” Kelly wrote, “because I only ever truly desired Love. Kindness. Understanding. Warmth. Touch. And these things shall be denied, for eternity.”
Overcome, Mark will say later, he considered his own suicide.
“Just dwelling on our failures and what I feel is my failure,” he’ll say. “That made me so sad: There were things I could’ve done.”
But then, he says, he thought of Christine and Colin and Carolyn. He couldn’t go quite as far as Kelly had gone. But in his mind, he’d felt what she had. He had his answer.
“I could pull myself back, and she couldn’t,” Mark says, and that night he lay in bed and cried for a long time.
Mark and Carolyn, at Kelly's funeral. (Jenn Ackerman/For The Washington Post)
Maybe no emotion is more complicated, or personal, than grief: not just the inevitable questions about how and why, but the thoughts and actions that begin the march forward.
In those first days after Kelly died, Christine and Mark knew they needed to talk but were uncertain they even knew how. They were either too different or too similar, depending on whom you asked, and years ago daughter and father struggled to be honest with each other unless they were on their bicycles, quarantined on some faraway trail.
And so, at the beginning, their actions were to delay: Mark sending his emails, designing his models, imagining having Kelly cloned. Christine, her instincts telling her as always to flee, would disappear to Cuba and California, attempting to drown guilt with silence or noise.
“I just ran out of time,” she kept saying, and that was among the sentiments she shared with Mark.
Eventually they’d conclude there was something about Kelly they both admired and feared, and it’s what pushed her to the top and her bottom: Once she made up her mind on something — anything — there could be no changing it.
“To be so obsessed with something,” Mark says, “that you can’t give it up.”
When Christine came home to Minnesota for her sister’s funeral, most of the snow had melted. The ground had begun to thaw. Family and friends had gathered to hold Kelly’s silver medal and eat chocolate and tell stories. Colin made jokes, believing Kelly would’ve hated a somber memorial, and Carolyn tried to hide her overwhelming despair.
“The devastating consequences of our trust,” she’d write in an email months later, overcome with regret because she’d believed Kelly’s promise.
At one point in the day, Mark and Christine slipped out of the reception without telling anyone, heading out to do something necessary — a thing they hadn’t done in years. The trails would be muddy and treacherous, but out there the air wouldn’t feel so heavy. So a little after noon, they pulled on their tights and helmets, taking their first steps away from a fractured past and toward an uncertain future, setting off, just the two of them, to go for a ride.
Additional reporting by Cindy Boren, video by Ashleigh Joplin, photos by Jenn Ackerman, design by Brianna Schroer and photo editing by Thomas Simonetti.