TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - The house sits in a quiet neighborhood nestled on the far east-side of Tucson. A 3,000 square foot compound. Five bedrooms. Five bathrooms. Two backyards.
It's nearly empty, though the emptiness won't last long. In January the house will become a retreat for several professional female cyclists who will live and train in Tucson for six months all at no cost to them and all courtesy of the Homestretch Foundation, an organization run by the house's one resident. Former pro cyclist Katherine Bertine.
"I made it to the ranks of professional cycling, "said Bertine. "Once I was there, it was really interesting that I had to work more than one job just to be able to do my main job of racing because our salaries were so low we could barely get by in the sport. I thought to myself, well am I just going to give up on my dream? Or is there something that I can do to help other people?"
The fact that Bertine is even in the position to help other people, given her condition 8 months ago, makes this story something more. Because 8 months ago, racing nearly killed her.
April 2016. The Mexican state of Baja, California. A little over a mile from the finish line of the Vuelta Femenil de Mexico.
"The last thing I remember in that race was feeling very good and feeling very strong," said Bertine. "We were just riding along together, everything's going well. There were no warning signs. On the right was the sea. On the left was the town of La Paz. But all of a sudden it went from this place of being in the middle of the race…and then I woke up in a hospital."
Days had passed by the time her eyes fluttered open in that Mexican hospital which is why Bertine has trouble with the details. She has no memory of the cyclist who crashed ahead of her, the ripple effects sending her head-first into the road, breaking her clavicle and two bones in her skull which resulted in a brain injury and multiple seizures. Had it not been for immediate medical attention, Bertine would have died.
"I remember seeing the doctors standing and looking at me," said Bertine. "I had an understanding immediately that I was in a hospital. But I also felt a calm sense of peace like, okay. I'm okay."
Bertine was airlifted from Mexico to Tucson's Banner University Medical Center then from Banner UMC to Carondelet St. Joseph's Hospital.
Three weeks bound to a hospital bed.
"Brain injuries are interesting because you have to operate on their time," said Bertine. "I can remember feeling like, oh yeah I'm fine. I just want to get better. I want to be outside. I want to be riding my bike. I want everything to be normal again. And then you have to slow down and remember ok, just go easy. I'm still learning those lessons in terms of how lucky I am to be here. And that's been a gift."
Months later, Bertine acknowledges she's doing much better now. There have been very little side effects save for, what she calls, "emotional processing."
"To fully look at what could have happened or where I am now, all of those details that come into play, they're intense," said Bertine. "There are days where it's sometimes still difficult for me. But I'd like to think that by moving forward, helping others, helping myself, it feels good."
Bertine says she would have likely given up professional cycling even if she hadn't been in the accident.
"I knew I wanted to go out on the top of my game," said Bertine. "I raced with a world tour professional team this past year and, at 41, that's no easy feat. I was really happy to race at that level and kind of smack down some of those stereotypes about what a woman can do and what age she can do them."
Even in recovery, Kathryn Bertine remains fearless and committed to her mission – gender equality in the world of cycling and, to a much grander extent, the world at large. So she pedals on, the road ever winding
"I must still love it, because I'm still going. It's still keeping me going. I'm happy about that."
To learn more about Bertine's Homestretch Foundation, visit this website: http://www.homestretchfoundation.org/