U.S. Olympic cycling medalist Kelly Catlin dies at 23

FILE - In this Wednesday, July 22, 2015 file photo, United States gold medalist Kelly Catlin poses after winning  the women's individual time trial cycling competition at the Pan Am Games in Milton, Ontario. Olympic track cyclist Kelly Catlin, who helped the U.S. women's pursuit team win the silver medal at the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016, died Friday, March 8, 2019 at her home in California. She was 23. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File)
Kelly Catlin, July 22, 2015. –Felipe Dana / AP, File

Kelly Catlin, a member of the U.S. women’s pursuit team that won a silver medal during the 2016 Olympic Games, died Thursday night at age 23. Her death left her father describing “unbelievable” pain and her sister saying, “I want the world to know there was a human being underneath that hard shell.”

Catlin died in her on-campus residence at Stanford University; her family members said she died by suicide. “There isn’t a minute that goes by that we don’t think of her and think of the wonderful life she could have lived,” her father, Mark Catlin, told VeloNews. “There isn’t a second in which we wouldn’t freely give our lives in exchange for hers. The hurt is unbelievable.”

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Catlin was one in a set of triplets; her sister, Christine, wrote in an email to The Washington Post that Kelly Catlin was “a really special person – kind, funny, empathetic, and talented at literally everything she did. She just felt like she couldn’t say no to everything that was asked of her and this was her only escape.”

A graduate student at Stanford, Catlin was pursuing a degree in computational and mathematical engineering while training for track cycling as a member of the national team and racing as a professional road cyclist. She also excelled at the violin and as an artist.

“Everything she did, she was the best at when we were little kids,” Christine Catlin said in a telephone interview Sunday night. “Sports, violin, and she casually picked up cycling. We were the Catlins, so we were this force.”

Colin Catlin, the third triplet, said that he helped push his sister into cycling and that “she didn’t really want to, but she started winning things and she likes winning things.” He also helped spur her interest in data science.

“I always saw myself as the planner and she was the doer,” he said in a telephone interview. “I could always see the three of us taking over the world. We were a massive ball of energy, and we supported each other in everything.”

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Control was harder to come by for Catlin after crashes late last year in which she broke her arm and sustained a concussion, according to family members.

“She couldn’t train as well as she used to,” Christine Catlin said. “She had really bad headaches and was sensitive to light. Then she tried to commit suicide in January. . . . She had written this lengthy email (to her family) and said her thoughts were racing all the time. She was suicidal, her thinking was really dark and she had had taken to nihilism. We called police the moment we got the email, and they got there in time to save her that time.”

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After that incident, Kelly Catlin’s family focused on her recovery, and she convinced them she was getting better, according to her siblings.

“Just a week or two ago, we were making plans and I was optimistic about her future,” Colin Catlin said. “She did have plans for the future, it turned out. Her plans.”

“The thing that haunts me is that she called me about a week and a half before (she died) and we talked for like 2.5 hours and she opened up to me about her whole life,” Christine Catlin said.

In a recent VeloNews blog post on how she managed three intense pursuits, Catlin had written that she sometimes felt as if she needed “to time-travel to get everything done. And things still slip through the cracks.

“This is probably the point when you’ll expect me to say something cliche like, ‘Time management is everything.’ Or perhaps you’re expecting a nice, encouraging slogan like, ‘Being a student only makes me a better athlete!’ After all, I somehow make everything work, right? Sure. Yeah, that’s somewhat accurate. But the truth is that most of the time, I don’t make everything work. It’s like juggling with knives, but I really am dropping a lot of them. It’s just that most of them hit the floor and not me.”

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Colin Catlin wrote Friday on Facebook that Kelly Catlin “was the one person I had shared almost my entire life with, and I shall miss her terribly.”

Catlin, an Arden Hills, Minnesota, native who had earned undergraduate degrees in biomedical engineering and Chinese from the University of Minnesota, helped the U.S. team win three consecutive world titles in pursuit between 2016 and 2018. She won bronze in the individual pursuit at the track cycling world championships in 2017 and 2018.

“We are deeply saddened by Kelly’s passing,” Rob DeMartini, the president and CEO of USA Cycling, said in a statement. “We will all miss her dearly. Kelly was more than an athlete to us and she will always be part of the USA Cycling family.”

Her sister described her feelings as “mostly numb” because “it feels like we went through the grieving process the first time she did this. It feels so unreal, but I’m glad that after her first attempt we had the chance to be there and let her know how much we cared.”

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