Minneapolis - Organizers of the Nature Valley Grand Prix have announced the establishment of the "Carla Swart Sportsmanship Award" as a memorial to an alumna of their 2008 Ryan Collegiate All Star team. The award will recognize the female athlete at the race who sacrifices her own chances for the good of the team. Carla Swart was a South African Olympic hopeful and the most decorated collegiate rider in U.S. history.
Swart died Wednesday after she was hit by a truck during a training ride in the central Free State province of South Africa. The 23-year-old was a member of the Ryan Collegiate All Star team at the Nature Valley Grand Prix in 2008 and competed professionally on Team Vera Bradley Foundation in last year's race. She won 19 national titles during her collegiate career and most recently finished 10th in the women's elite road race at the world championships in Melbourne, Australia.
"Cycling is a team sport, with talented athletes often sacrificing their own chances to support a teammate," Nature Valley Grand Prix Executive Director David LaPorte said. "The Carla Swart Sportsmanship award will recognize these unsung heroes. We'll ask the racers to vote for the rider on another team who has sacrificed the most in support of her teammates. Particularly since the radio ban, the riders themselves know the most about who deserves this award."
The Carla Swart Sportsmanship Award winner will be recognized before the race's final stage, the Stillwater Criterium. The honoree will receive a special jersey to wear and a front row call-up, LaPorte said. Besides the recognition, a front row start is particularly valuable in Stillwater since the race hits the fabled 23 percent grade on Chillkoot Hill almost immediately.
Brian Sheedy, Swart's fiancé and a former professional racer, said he and Swart's family are extremely grateful to have an award established in her honor.
"She touched so many people with her vibrant and loving nature and her smile," he said. "She did so many things in this sport in such a short time. She was probably South Africa's top cyclist - man or woman - and their biggest hope for the Olympics, by far. On the world stage, she was making a name for herself really, really fast."
John Barron, director of the Collegiate All Stars, said it made sense to establish an award in Swart's memory because her performance at the Nature Valley Grand Prix helped her gain a professional contract.
"No one will forget Carla's infectious smile, razor-sharp focus and her stunning athleticism that she displayed at the 2008 Nature Valley Grand Prix as a member of the Ryan Collegiate All Stars," Barron said. "I expect the recipient of this annual award will receive the extra strength, spirit and fortitude she will need to finish the last, brutal stage of the race."
Swart went on to ride for the Team Vera Bradley Foundation at the Nature Valley Grand Prix last year. Her former team manager, Lisa, Hunt, said the award will serve as a long-lasting symbol of the rider that her teammates and friends referred to as the "ginger ninja."
"Few cyclists will achieve what Carla did in the short span of her career," Hunt said. "And by this, I mean not just the victories, but the relationships she built with her teammates. She gave more than 100 percent in every race. This award will strive to recognize others who display the same unselfish nature that made Carla the ultimate teammate."
The Nature Valley Grand Prix is part of the USA Cycling National Racing Calendar (NRC) and takes place June 15-19 as part of the Nature Valley Bicycle Festival.
photo by Matthew Moses