On a warm, sunny summer day in 2005, years before the thought of racing competitively ever crossed her mind, Marie-Claude Molnar went for a long bike ride along a paved road south of Montreal.
On a whim, she changed her planned route.
“Instead of going to Hemmingford, which was where I was originally going, I decided to change direction and go to the United States because it’s something cool, right?” Molnar recalls.
That decision nearly cost Molnar her life. She got to the border, snapped a photo and then headed north, along Highway 221.
She never saw the vehicle that hit her but was told later it was travelling about 110 km/h.
Molnar recounts her story calmly as she sits in a quiet café in the Longueuil borough of Saint-Hubert on Montreal’s South Shore, the smile never leaving her face.
“I ended up in the windshield, which is made of glass, and glass cuts,” she explained, showing the long scars on her biceps. “So that’s how I almost lost both of my arms.”
Molnar’s life changed in an instant. She knows she might have died, but for some “magic” that happened that day. Shortly after the crash, a trained paramedic who happened by in a passing vehicle rushed to her aid.
“He had to put his fingers into the arteries to stop the blood,” Molnar said. “Apparently the paramedics who took me in charge called him later on to say that I was deceased because I had just lost so much blood. So he was able to save my life.”
Molnar spent the next three weeks in hospital.
“I had a light head trauma because I was wearing a protective helmet, of course, and also partial amputations of both arms and maybe like 20-ish fractures in my left leg.”
Quickly back in the saddle
Molnar’s physical injuries did not change her passion for cycling.
Getting back on the bike was one of the first things she thought about after regaining consciousness. She wanted to ride as soon as possible, to quash any fears that might surface.
“The accident happened on July 12, and on Sept. 1, I was back on my bike on the road. I went for a short bike ride with my father,” she said.
Molnar focused on her recovery rather than dwelling on why she’d been struck down. She didn’t even follow closely what happened to the driver, although she heard he’d been arrested and sentenced to jail time.
Molnar said she just moved on. The doctors later said her attitude played a big part in her recovery.
“It was easier and it went quicker than it could have been because I was just positive about it,” she said. “Yes, it was something absolutely terrible, of course, but I was just going forward.”
Another life-altering moment
Fast-forward to 2009. Molnar decided to give competitive cycling a go. She contacted a coach and signed up for Défi sportif AlterGo — an adapted sports competition held every year in Montreal promoting healthy lifestyle for people with functional limitations.
She finished third in the time trial in the C4 category, which includes athletes with lower limb impairments.
The then-25-year-old’s results turned some heads. The national team invited Molnar to a training camp in Bromont a few weeks later.
Just months after her first-ever competition, Molnar found herself on the podium in Italy at the road World Championships with a bronze medal around her neck. It was her first of two medals in that competition.
Molnar was just getting started.
Over her 14-year career, she was twice crowned world champion. Molnar won 30 national titles, and she took the bronze medal at the London 2012 Paralympics.
She is no longer competing internationally, but now she is paying it forward, after being named a Défi sportif ambassador for the event’s 40th edition.
“It’s a great honour,” she said. “The Défi sportif has always been an important race. It played a crucial role in my career.”
She has a message for all the athletes taking part in this week’s events.
“Have fun and enjoy the moment. Go out there, dream big and try because you never know what can happen,” she said. “Sport has that capacity to bring people together.”