"The richness is in the human connection," says Cindi Hart
It was the final race for cyclist Katie Crawford at the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi this past March. Her longtime coach, Cindi Hart, was imploring the 47-year-old to conquer her fear of speeding down a hill if she wanted a win.
“I said, ‘How much do you want that gold medal?” Hart tells PEOPLE. “And she started crying and said, ‘I want it.'”
And Crawford got it. “I buckled down and I surprised her when I got first place,” says Crawford, who has a mild intellectual disability. “She was shocked — I think I surprised her.”
Hart, 57, has coached Crawford for well over a decade back home in Indianapolis through the Marion County Special Olympics program, and was head coach of USA Cycling in Abu Dhabi. Crawford’s win, says Hart, “was a real triumph for her, and for me for coaching.”
Hart is in her 19th year as a Special Olympics cycling and speed skating coach — which has included four trips to the Special Olympics World Games — and coaching is just as important as her other passion: fighting cancer.
In 2004, the then-40-year-old Hart was a married mother of a 9-year-old daughter and a nationally ranked speed skater and cyclist when she found two lumps in her breast. Shocked at the diagnosis of cancer, athletic passions became Hart’s solace.
“I said, ‘I want my life back, I want to fight cancer on my own terms,’ and the bike was my therapist,” she says. “I desperately needed to maintain who I was and what I did.”
Hart would be back on her bike days after a double mastectomy. Soon after, she won a national cycling race and finished second at the Speed Skating Nationals. She continued her coaching and traveled to Japan in 2005 as head coach for the USA Speedskating Team at the Special Olympics World Winter Games. Then she was named the U.S. Olympic Committee’s volunteer coach of the year.
But four years after her initial diagnosis, the cancer returned. This time it had spread to her lymph nodes. Treatments of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation “really took it out of me,” says Hart.
While scaling back on her own competing, Hart turned more of her attention to coaching. “It’s in my very makeup,” says Hart. “I love being in a person’s place and figuring out what makes them tick.”
She’s coached elite athletes without intellectual disabilities — at the Olympic training center for speed skating and a local youth bike racing team — but it is her posse of Special Olympians that’s most meaningful.
“I would choose Special Olympians hands down,” says Hart, who has been cancer-free for over a decade. “There is an absolute pure joy in the sport with them.”
Hart feels they don’t get the respect they deserve. “They are athletes and you have to treat them like athletes,” she says. “The majority of the athletes I coach are not children yet they are referred to as kids.”
As she’s juggled coaching, a full-time job and her own workouts — in July she rode across Iowa — Hart has also found time to help other cancer patients through her Spokes of Hope nonprofit, which she started in 2008.
A small team of volunteers and Hart help others going through cancer treatments, organize community bike rides to benefit cancer patients, and ride their bicycles to cancer centers to visit and support inpatients.
“We’d say, “I know what you are going through — there is hope on the other side,” says Hart. “When survivors get together, it’s magic. We have all been through that battle and understand like no one else does.”
Hart oftentimes rides her bike the 10 miles to work at the Regenstrief Institute in Indianapolis, where she is a clinical business analyst assisting cancer researchers. While helping someone with cancer is one of Hart’s passions, coaching is equally important.
Hart now coaches about eight Special Olympic athletes in speedskating or cycling a few times a week.
Crawford does both sports and has been with Hart since her early days of coaching. “Cindi’s made her a tremendous athlete,” says Katie’s father, Steve. “She’s given her the ambition to try to do better.”
And for Hart, that’s what life is about. “The richness,” she says, “is in the human connection.”
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