Laura Ann MacKay was born on Feb. 3, 1973, in Fort McMurray, Alta., to Albert “Bert” MacKay, who worked for Great Canadian Oil Sands (now Suncor), and his wife, Caroline, then an administrative assistant at a local community college. The third of four kids, Laura was a curious baby with an adventurous spirit. Instead of crawling, she “sort of bumped along on her bottom,” says Caroline. “Even then, she was thinking outside the box.”
From a young age, Laura, who had blond hair, green eyes and a wide smile, was very driven, says Caroline. Encouraged by her parents, who had immigrated from Scotland in the mid-’60s, she “tried awfully hard in school—the type of girl who always finished her homework.” She was just as diligent about piano lessons, and practised without prompting, Caroline says. Though Laura was quiet about her accomplishments, underneath she was fiercely competitive, with an eye always on improving her personal best. (In high school, she excelled at typing, and set a long-standing record for the fastest speed.)
Growing up, Laura was not the most athletic among her siblings—Ross, Marion and Rory—but she enjoyed sports, playing softball and floor hockey. An Oilers fan, her favourite player was Glenn Anderson, a forward known for his quick drives to the net. Imbued with a strong sense of family, as a child she told her mother’s boss “My father is Albert MacKay,” Caroline recalls, “as if that should mean something.” Laura’s goofy side shone through when, at the age of 11, she recorded herself singing I’m In The Mood For Love.
Sensitive to those around her, Laura “realized that some people had more breaks in life than others,” says Caroline. As a teenager, she volunteered at a food bank and a suicide prevention hotline. While studying psychology at the University of Calgary (she got her undergraduate degree in 1996), Laura went jogging every morning. During a visit to Fort McMurray, her runs took her past a group of homeless people, tenting on the banks of the Snye waterway. When they called her over one morning, she obliged, sitting down to “have a cuppa with them and talk,” Bert recalls.
Laura grew into an independent woman who “loved the now,” says Caroline. After earning her master’s in psychology from New York State University, she backpacked through Europe and Egypt. (The pyramids were a particular highlight.) Her career as a mental health therapist began in High Level, a small town in northern Alberta. At first, exercise was a way to occupy herself. But she soon became a serious runner, and when she moved to an Edmonton suburb a few years later, she started competing in marathons.
A fan of live music, Laura met Travis Eltom at a bar in June 2004, after attending a Matthew Good concert. She’d recently completed her first triathlon, which interested Travis, a police officer who was a runner and cyclist. The pair shared an interest in people, and connected instantly. “We could talk for hours,” he says. He proposed on her birthday in 2006, while on vacation in Mexico. Laura thought engagement rings were “a bit overdone,” says Travis, and wanted a bike instead. He got her a Felt F4C, painted a brilliant shade of red. They married in Mexico the following year.
Laura, who never thought of herself as athletic, “was always looking for a challenge,” says Travis, “and her challenge always had to be the toughest one.” When she started training for triathlons, she “could only swim well enough to prevent herself from drowning,” he says. But after completing her first Ironman—a gruelling 3.9-km swim, 180.3-km bike ride and 42.2-km run—in Penticton, B.C., in 2005, she told the Stony Plain Reporter, “I’ll do it again, but now it becomes a bit more about the time.”
Her determination was infectious, and before long, Travis was hooked, too. They trained and competed together, travelling to the U.S., Mexico, Chile and Spain. Laura “had no quit in her,” says Travis. When she fractured her elbow in a bike crash outside of Jasper, Alta., last year, her primary concern was the condition of her Felt. (Laura needed surgery and physiotherapy, but the bike was fine.)
In late January, Laura and Travis, who were training for an Ironman this fall, went to Tenerife, one of Spain’s Canary Islands and known as one of cyclist Lance Armstrong’s favourite haunts. After riding her red Felt to the top of Teide, the highest peak in Spain, she wrote an email to her parents about “cycling through the clouds,” says Caroline. On Feb. 4, she and Travis were descending a steep, winding road, en route to the village of Masca. On the final switchback, Laura lost control, slamming into the rock face. She was airlifted to hospital, but the head injuries she had endured were too severe. Laura had just turned 37.