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

This article was written by Sophia Ercel who lives in Ottawa. For more information on CBC First Person Stories, please see Instructions.

It was midnight and I was cycling through the darkness of the Swedish countryside. Through the raindrops, I saw red tail lights of other cyclists sliding up the hill in front of them. I was cold and shivering and felt like giving up. As I somehow forced myself to pedal, I wondered if I had nibbled on more than I could chew at the Vätternrundan, a 315-kilometer bike ride in Motala, Sweden.

What were you thinking? I wasn’t an athlete. Growing up, I never felt fast enough or coordinated enough in sports. During football matches, I sat on the ground picking dandelions instead of chasing a ball.

My younger sister was an athlete. She excelled in every sport, but gymnastics was where she excelled. My dad built a special shelf to hang her medals and she quickly filled the entire wall.

I skated, danced, swam and ran just like her, but I never hit a goal or won a race. From the sidelines I watched as my teammates smashed the net or climbed onto the podium.

Growing up, Sofia Ercel got a lot of engagement streaks for playing football and other sports but never won any awards. (Provided by Sophia Ercel)

It was both my dad and my sister. When she started playing competitive soccer, they related to her newfound love for the sport and his memories of his glory days.

My father was a second generation Canadian. His 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 Oba has never allowed his sons – or anyone else – to win in table tennis.

I see the same streak of competition in my father. He was a striker and in 1978 my father scored the winning goal in the Canadian Championship for Oshawa Toroll Football Club.

Four men in soccer uniforms celebrate on a soccer field.
Peter Ercel, second from left, is greeted by his teammates after scoring the winning goal at the 1978 Canadian Championships in Oshawa, Ontario. (Provided by Sophia Ercel)

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

My dad wanted his kids to try all the sports he couldn’t tolerate as he grew up. He wanted us to be able to swim, bike, skate, skate, and see the world. He trained with us and became a better swimmer, snowboarder and snowboarder.

My father was also brutally honest. If he doesn’t think we’re good at something, he’ll tell us. It came from a place of love. I was bullied a lot as a kid and I guess my parents didn’t want me to embarrass myself. But win or lose, my dad was our biggest supporter and fan. He went to every practice, game, or competition we were in and cheered from the front row.

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

Swimmers dive into the pool while the timer and race officials watch.
Sofia Ercel, lane 6, swam competitively but often came last in her races. (Susan (Ercel) Uranovsky)

When the teams formed, he attended every swimming meet. He even got up at 4 a.m. to drive the five-hour drive from Milverton to Sudbury, Ont., to watch me swim the sections. I finished last in my qualifiers, but my dad was so proud of me.

Despite this, I always thought my dad never saw me as an athlete because I wasn’t as athletically talented as my sister.

Cycling was one of my dad’s interests and he’s toured across Ontario and internationally. When I was 17 years old, we did a 70km charity trip in Ottawa to raise money for children with cancer. While we were riding, he told me about all the bike rides he wanted to do with me next. But this was the first and last time I rode with him.

Woman and man wearing bicycle helmet smiling for a selfie.
Ercel, left, and her father on a charity trip in Ottawa in 2017. (Sofia Ercel)

Dad was training for his fifth Vätternrundan when he unexpectedly passed away of a heart attack in 2020.

When I got home for his funeral, I found a pile of vacancies for all the summer co-op jobs I had sent him lying on the kitchen table. A few days after his funeral, I was interviewed for one of those jobs. He never got to see what I’d achieve next – I got that job, and the next year, I made the 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 unprepared to finish Vätternrundan.

I got my first road bike and cycling shoe at my father’s favorite bike shop in Stratford, Ont.

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

He spent hours riding and racing my dad. My dad was always competing with him and was pushing him to ride farther and faster. After my father passed away, my uncle Ed stopped cycling.

Cycling was a treat for both of us. During our tours, I learned more about the life my father lived apart from being my father. I’ve heard stories of the biking adventures they’ve taken, of being chased by packs of dogs on country roads, changing tires in the pouring rain, and dad dropping Ed’s to keep up with the faster cyclists.

A man holds a smiling girl while she is holding some balloons.
Peter Ercel raises his smiling, cheerful daughter with balloons he spontaneously received for Sophia. (Provided by Sophia Ercel)

I spent two years training but have never ridden more than 150 kilometres, which is less than half the distance of Vatternrondan. I certainly didn’t think I had it inside of me when I traveled to Sweden along with my longtime dad’s cycling partners and best friends.

But on that June evening, I was at the starting line for the ride.

When I got out of town, I took my father’s place in the peloton. I was in the middle – where my dad rode for years.

And so I found myself drenched in water and shivering in the middle of the night on a journey I never thought I could complete.

With 70km left to ride, I injured runner’s knee, and every pedal stroke left me in so much pain that I couldn’t stop crying.

A woman wearing a helmet walks with her bike under a sign to reach the finish line.
Sofia Ersel finished her Vätternrundan bike trip in Sweden in June with a time of 17 hours 40 minutes. (Sportograf Photography)

Despite the pain, I kept pedaling and somehow reached the finish. The wind behind me was pushing me forward; I felt like my dad was pushing me to finish.

It was like my dad was by my side when I crossed the finish line in 17 hours and 40 minutes. I was a lot slower than my dad’s 12-hour record, but I did it for him—and I—and felt the weight lifting my shoulder.

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