Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Klassen sisters share story of faith

Accident could have been tragic

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Cindy Klassen is still skating.

Sister Lisa is still flying.

Together, they've also started to share their personal stories with faith-based groups around the country -- one story highlighted by a historic Canadian sports pinnacle, the other by a near-death experience.

This weekend, the Klassens are to speak at three locations, beginning tonight at 7 at Grant Memorial Church at an event called I Will Not Be Shaken: A Remarkable Journey. On Saturday morning, the Klassen sisters are to speak at the breakfast launch of Caring for Spirit, 9:30 a.m., at the Aulneau Renewal Centre and then at an event for Calvin Christian Schools that evening at 6 at Fort Garry Place.

Cindy Klassen, now 33, is still competing internationally and hopes to qualify for the Canadian speedskating team at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia. Klassen has won six Olympic medals in her illustrious career, including a Canadian record of five at the 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Turin, Italy.

Lisa, 28, made her own national headlines in February 2008 when the car she was driving plunged into the icy waters of the Red River. She was pulled to safety and revived by passing motorists.

It's rare for the Klassens to speak about their personal lives. Cindy became a national heroine in Turin but is admittedly shy and never seeks media coverage. Lisa was inundated by the news media after a recovery described as miraculous, but has since quietly resumed her career as a flight instructor near Portage la Prairie.

"Public speaking isn't something that comes natural to me, and I don't really like the spotlight," Cindy said. "But to be able to do it with her (Lisa) is extra special."

Added Lisa: "Something about doing it together makes it a little less nerve-racking."

There were a few tense nights in February '08 when Cindy wasn't sure she'd see her younger sister again. The night of the accident, Klassen's brother, Kerry, left a cryptic message on her phone: "Call home. Lisa's been in an accident."

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"I just remember it was like someone punched me in the gut," Cindy recalled. "My legs went weak. I felt sick to my stomach. Because my first thought was that it was a plane crash."

Instead, she learned Lisa's SUV had jumped the guardrail on the north Perimeter Highway bridge and plunged 15 metres into the still-frozen Red River. Lisa was pulled out of the river by two passing motorists who applied CPR until paramedics arrived.

"It sounded like she wasn't going to make it and I had to wait until the next day to catch the first flight," Cindy said. "The amazing thing is that I was praying that whole night and God had really given me peace in that time. I was able to release her into His hands. I felt He was comforting me and telling me it was going to be OK. I didn't know if she would survive or not or if I would make it home in time to see her alive. But I just felt that peace."

Hence the Klassens message of faith on their speaking tour.

"To take an experience that wasn't so great, like the car accident, and turn it into something good, to give hope to people who might be struggling with something similar, that's really a blessing to me," Lisa said. "But something really unique about the experience is you meet people who've had amazing experiences or incredible struggles and you can identify with them.

"She (Cindy) has had some tough times, too, and I've had some good times as well. It hasn't been one-sided for each of us. But it's been great to incorporate that, how our faith is important whether it's a good time or a bad time."

Lisa doesn't have any recollection of her accident. She's only heard the stories. "It's more that I'm grateful about how it turned out," she said.

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Other than a couple of bouts with vertigo a couple of years later, Lisa has been symptom-free and continues to teach young pilots at Southport.

Cindy Klassen's gold-plated Olympic career is less certain, however. After showing signs of improvement since the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, where she was hobbled by two major knee surgeries and far from the podium, the speedskater's recently completed 2012 season was a bust. A back ailment suffered last summer begat an illness that begat other nagging injuries.

"It was pretty bad," the one-time Canadian Athlete of the Year allowed. "It seemed like so many things were going wrong. (But) I'm itching to get back at it. I'm hoping this year will be better and I can have a strong finish."

More faith will be required for Cindy to qualify for the 2014 Canadian Olympic team later this year. If she can stay injury-free, she will attempt to crack the lineup in the 1,500 and 3,000 metres, maybe even the 5,000.

And then? "I think it's time to move on," she said. "That's the scary thing. I'm not sure what the next step will be."

For now, the sisters feel blessed, using their words, just to be sharing the same stage now. Not to mention youngest sister, Faye, who lives in Calgary with Cindy after a childhood when Cindy's training and European tours made family reunions difficult.

"We're a really tight family, all of us," Lisa said. "The times where we're all together are the best. It's really awesome. I've really believed we've grown tighter, even with the distance."

"This was definitely something we never would have predicted," she said. "It's amazing how things turn out."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 12, 2013 A4


Updated on Friday, April 12, 2013 at 6:26 AM CDT: replaces photo

8:30 AM: adds video

10:26 AM: corrects church name

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