A sister remembers
Editor’s note: As reported in the November issue, veteran bike racer and American Birkebeiner skier Cheri Uelmen died from the head injuries she suffered in a mass crash early in the 21-mile Cleghorn Harvest Fest bike race in Pleasant Valley, Wisconsin, on September 7.
Uelmen, 58, was the sister of long-time Silent Sports nutrition columnist Donna Marlor. What follows is Marlor’s moving tribute to her sibling.
Cheri Uelmen was my sister. My older and only sister. Many people have read my column in Silent Sports over the years and never knew the connection between us. Growing up in Ishpeming, Michigan, however, we looked very much alike, and were often referred to as “the Rundman twins.” In later years, when we got together at ski races, our shared nickname was simply “the sisters.”
How do you describe someone who touched so many lives? Cheri’s Caring Bridge website, set up after her passing, got more than 23,000 hits. Hundreds of people attended the memorial run held in her honor in at Tower Ridge in Eau Claire.
I greeted friends, former co-workers, students and neighbors for over four hours at her funeral. It was harder than any race we ever did together because this time she wasn’t there, let alone running or skiing, alongside me. A cold and miserable pouring rain came down the entire day. It was, rightly so, a day only suited for a sad funeral.
But it is December now and I must remember the good times we had.
It will be my first Christmas without my sister and my best friend. For Cheri, her life on earth has ended. But her legacy of teaching and caring lives on. She was an elementary public school teacher and also led aerobics and body pump classes. Financial wealth was never a goal of hers. She gave of her time and talents to everyone, regardless of age or status.
And good did come from her sudden death. More than 70 families benefited from her generous organ donations.
I thought a great deal about what Cheri would want me to say in this memorial tribute. So I’m giving it my best shot. As a holiday gift to you, dear readers, I’d like to share the wisdom and cheer my sister gave me.
‘It’s not the years of your life. It’s the life of your years.’
The year was 2004 and Cheri had sent me a birthday card that, for some reason, I saved. I came across it in a desk drawer. She had written inside the card “you certainly pack your years full.” I remember laughing, thinking maybe I would send the card back to her for her birthday, since she was the one always doing a million things a day.
Below her signature she had added, “I can’t wait until I’m 50 and out of your age group.”
Cheri had a natural energy buzz and a smile that went with it. She could converse throughout a 50K running race, place high in the standings and then go out the same night to celebrate. In order to beat her, I had to do all the right things – watch my diet and get enough sleep. Rarely could I make it to the post-race party, though.
Age, according to Cheri, was only a number. Her energy was legendary.
‘Better than a kick in the pants’
This was one of Cheri’s favorite sayings. We often emailed each other, just quick notes about how much work interfered with our “real” lives. For us that especially meant making time to get outside, even if for just short 20-minute workouts. She knew that 20 minutes three times a week adds up to many hours in a year and over a lifetime. Better than a kick in the pants, you bet.
‘It’s a Vivaldi day’
Even though Cheri taught body pump classes to the likes of pop singer Pink, she had an appreciation of a wide range of music. This started back in grade school when we both took piano lessons. Not many of even her close friends knew she had a wonderful soprano voice. In fact, as a member of the pre-Title IX generation, the only “camp” she ever attended was for music at Northern Michigan University.
During the mid-1980s, when we got together over the holidays, Vivaldi was one of our favorite classic composers. We especially loved listening to “The Four Seasons” cranked on my cheap tape player as we made our way to the Suicide Bowl Ski Trails in Ishpeming, now closed. It was classic-only skiing there back then on beautiful singletrack through the woods. We just skied there for fun. Those are some of the best times I remember of Cheri and I together.
‘Sometimes it’s just one foot in front of the other’
Cheri was always competitive, with no fear for a challenge. Although I originally got her into racing, just short 5K and 10K running events, she branched out into eco-challenges, marathons and inline skate races. She was first to learn to skate ski. But our long-standing sibling rivalry made it absolutely necessary that I learn, too. And do the Birkie.
“Sometimes it’s just one foot in front of the other,” she warned me when I was about to race another Birkie after a ten-year hiatus from racing. Cheri was an expert at focusing on a goal. Her accomplishments showed it.
‘Just don’t think about it’
Nobody has a stress-free life, and my sister had her share of stress. Few people realized she had cause to worry, as her famous smile and energy could fool even her family. But when I pinned her down and got her talking about herself, her list of issues was pretty long: Money, kids with cancer, not having enough time for her grandchildren, her students and her own health.
Whenever her life started looking pretty chaotic, I would ask her how she was handling it. “I just don’t think about it,” was Cheri’s solution. She did worry, but she preferred to spend her time and energy on positive things. Apparently, it worked.
‘And to all a good night’
At times during the past few months I’ve felt bitter. Bike races, I warned Cheri, could be dangerous. You can get mixed up in the pack. But she never listened to me when I said such things. She loved riding her bike and riding fast.
Accidents happen. We fortunately do not know the path our lives will take. I’m just grateful for everyone who was lucky enough to share their time and lives with my sister. She lived in the present, never wasting a minute. Whether it was running in the November rain or jumping in the Dead River after a hot sauna, she taught me that our lives were rich in so many ways that money could not buy.
So in the spirit of Cheri, I would ask you all to embrace the outdoors and your friends and family this holiday season. And for those who knew her best, don’t forget a glass or two of chardonnay afterwards.
Peace to you all.
Donna Marlor, MA, RD, CSSD, is a registered dietician specializing in nutrition for endurance exercise and weight management. She offers motivational coaching and behavioral skills training to change eating patterns. Marlor is a consultant to the Olympic Education Center in Marquette, Michigan, and works with many individual athletes from novice to elite. A former collegiate alpine and Nordic skier, Marlor still enjoys master’s level competition as a skier and runner as well as spending time with her family and chocolate Lab in the Upper Peninsula. She can be reached via www.DonnaMarlor.com and at 906/360-9049.