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St. Michael’s graduate Irena Ossola battling to recover after accident

St. Michael’s graduate Irena Ossola battling to recover after her bicycle was rammed by an SUV in Santa Fe last Friday and she was airlifted to Albuquerque’s University of New Mexico Hospital

No longer under sedation, she’s been visited several times by St. Michael’s head cross country coach Lenny Gurgle and many friends and family members

Arnie Leshin

COMMENTARY: By ARNIE LESHIN, Santa Fe Today (Feature image source: Irena Ossola Facebook)

Always traveling, training and moving, it was back around Thanksgiving time in 2015 when Irena Ossola had to take a two-month break after breaking her wrist in Tucson, Ariz.

In December of 2016, she received what she considered the best Christmas gift ever when she was informed that her wrist was healed.

From there the St. Michael’s 2006 graduate was back in the saddle, or rather her bike seat, spending a few weeks back in Santa Fe to enjoy the holidays and seeing family and friends.

She was now able to continue her adventurous skills as a professional biker. Instead of riding long hours on her time trial bike in the brutal hunched-over position as she healed, she was back to true training on her road bike and putting full pressure on the wrist.

I had tried to follow her exploits and remain in touch with Ossola, who is now 29 years old. I first met her when she ran cross country for St. Michael’s as an 8th grader. She finished eighth that year. The next season, she ran sixth, and then followed up with three-straight state XC championships, twice having the fastest times among the four classes.

St. Michael’s won state 3A four-straight times, the first time in 2005 in Ossola’s senior year. She was also the first Lady Horseman to win state XC, and she and Kate Norskog of St. Michael’s won state 3A XC seven times in eight years, all under head coach Lenny Gurule, and are the only ones from the school to take the top step on the podium.

In track and field, Ossola didn’t miss a beat, winning state three times in the 800, 1,600 and 3,200 and also running a leg for the 4 x 200 relay team that medaled. She then attended Columbia University and I contacted her to do a feature on her running and often visiting New York City.

The last time I saw her was at the 2016 state cross country championships in Rio Rancho. She came to visit Gurule, who along with Tom Montoya, coached her as a Lady Horsemen, and to watch the races.

She said she was just taking a break, although a short one because she said she’s always on the go. I let her know how great it was to see her again.

On Saturday morning, Nov. 11, I glanced at the front page of the Santa Fe New Mexican for unwelcome news. Ossola, a competitive bicyclist with honors (finished third in the recent CVR World Cup Women’s Elite Finish in Paris, France) was injured the day before when she was struck by a vehicle in the Santa Fe area.

“Cyclist seriously injured in accident, Santa Fe woman who competes in international races, hit SUV that swerved in front of her, police say,” was the headline.

But according to police reports, it was the other way around, that the SUV swerved in front of Ossola’s bike, rammed into it, and fortunately she was wearing her helmet. When paramedics arrived, Ossola was airlifted to the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque.

According to police reports, an unidentified male was behind the wheel of a sport-utility vehicle as it traveled through the downtown area around 4:10 in the afternoon. As the SUV approached the corner of Quail View Lane and West Alameda Street, it swerved in front of the bicycle ridden by Ossola, leading him to ram it.

The driver said he was blinded by sun glare immediately before the collision.

Like a true coach and friend, Gurule drove to the hospital Saturday night. He met with her family there, who informed him that she was sedated and they would know more when she came out of it. They were told she might have a broken collarbone and some broken bones in her arms. And that was confirmed.

Sadly, this is worse then a broken wrist. Fortunately, Ossola is an elite athlete and recovery might come easier for her. Gurule said he was told there weren’t any brain injuries or paralysis.

A further update from her mom, Robin Ossola Robie, said her daughter was no longer under sedation, just tired, having dental and facial problems, broken bones in her right arm, but able to welcome visitors.

Gurule has made several visits and has kept in touch with the family.

He said he has coached several outstanding runners through the years, but that Ossola was the best. Not only was she a successful distance runner, but also dashed the 200 and 400. Additionally, in 2005 she was selected to Harrier Magazine’s national All-America team.

She would have stepped onto the podium one more time if not for a controversial call that disqualified the Lady Horsemen her sophomore season. Ossola finished sixth, the team finished fourth, but was disqualified for handing in its results beyond the deadline set by officials in Gallup.

Actually, Montoya had the results and was on the way to hand them in when he learned that one his harriers had taken a fall, so he raced to assist her and then brought the results.

When they later appeared on the huge board in the media room, there was a huge disqualification X across the St. Michael’s page and Gurule and Montoya (and myself) did a double-take and it became a disappointing bus ride home.

“I remember,” said Gurule, “how confused and disappointed Irena was.”

Ossola, whose Facebook page is truly a work of art filled with her accomplishments, grew up in both Santa Fe and Northern Italy. In a 2006 interview with David Bowden for The Show Road travel blog, she said she spent hours riding up and down the neighborhood streets in Santa Fe, and recalled the first time her mom let her ride her bike to school.

At St. Michael’s, she lettered 13 times in cross country, track and field, basketball and soccer. But in Italy, where her father and some of her uncles were cyclists, she told about falling in love with hours on the bike exploring the roads around the lakes and mountains of northern Italy.

She had planned a Gran Fondo biking event in Santa Fe on Saturday, Nov. 18, and it was learned the event was still held. She did most of her training in Tucson, Ariz., but was often putting together events in the City Different.

Said Andrew Shapiro, a Santa Fe cyclist who sometimes rode with Ossola in group bicycling events around town: “She was at the top of her game internationally. She has participated in many of the top races around the world.”

One thing, “was” does not belong here, not for Irena Ossola. She’s a battler, a champion, and when she comes out of this, she will no doubt bide her time, heal, and be back on her bicycle.

And because books are her top buying habit, she might even be able to write an autobiography or something along those lines. She certainly has enough to fill the pages.

And kudos to Coach Gurule for making his way down I-25 not long after learning the news. Montoya also voiced his concerns, saying it was news you don’t want to hear, but news that does concern you.

Stay tuned for further news and we all wish Ossola nothing but good news.

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