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The best sports book of 2010 is heartbreaking ... and heartening

The best sports book of 2010 isn't really a sports book. Generally speaking, sports books concern tackles and home runs and sub-four-minute miles. They delve into the psyches of athletes and the souls of teams. From Howard Bryant's brilliant The Last Hero: The Life of Henry Aaron to Peter Richmond's riveting Badasses: The Legend of Snake, Foo, Dr. Death and John Madden's Oakland Raiders, the past nine months have brought us some marvelous reads.

Nothing, however, compares to this.

When a copy of Dear Cindy, Love Mom: Letters of Love, Loss and Life showed up on my kitchen table three days ago, I figured it was yet another publishing company freebie already destined for the recycling bin. Do this job long enough and the books come and go, almost always alongside letters from perky 21-year-old publicists that read:

Dear Jim Pellman: [FILL IN BOOOK NAME] is a book I love, and I am sure your readers will love, too. It is the touching story of [FILL IN ATHLETE'S NAME] and his drive to overcome [FILL IN MALADY]. Blah, blah, blah.

This time, there was no perky publicist. No letter. Just this, written on the opening page of Elaine Roberts Schaller's masterpiece:

Early Monday morning April 23, 2007, my daughter Cindy left her Lower East Side Manhattan apartment and began the day with a bike ride on Riverside Drive. She was training for her first Ironman Triathlon in Lake Placid, N.Y. in July. This would be a busy day with training for the 100-mile portion of the race, a packed schedule of personal training clients, and a run in Central Park.

But this was not to be a typical day. Midway through her ride, Cindy suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm and died at the young age of 33. No one could have predicted her death. Cindy was a dietician, a trainer of trainers, a consultant to Fitness Magazine and the embodiment of good health.

Shortly after her daughter died, Elaine was advised by a therapist to begin each day by writing to Cindy. That's what this book is: a raw, gritty, brick-to-the-gut, 167-page series of letters from a distraught mother to her athlete-daughter who is unable to read them. It is the first book that has ever made me cry, as well as a 100-million decibel reminder to live with vigor and passion.

Writes Schaller in her August 1 entry: A picture of you from last year's St. Anthony's Triathlon haunts me. Your hair is pulled back and braided, and you've just completed the race. There's a triumphant look on your face. You're the picture of health. How can you no longer be alive?

It's a snapshot fixed in time. You will never grow older, never have children and never enjoy the next fifty years. This was all there was for you. Just one more year after that photo was taken.

In the year's span that she composed the letters, Schaller, a previously unpublished Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., resident never thought about turning them into a book. This was, after all, the most private, gut-wrenching experience of her life. In the days and weeks and months following Cindy's death, Schaller was often paralyzed. She couldn't sleep. (Page 97: We wake up in the morning and expect everything to be normal. And in one instant, normal can change forever.). She couldn't eat. She couldn't focus for prolonged stretches. (Page 38: I concentrated on my golf swing, enjoyed being with our friends and laughed a lot. Then I came home and you were still dead.).

She thought of her daughter endlessly, and desperately wanted to trade places. I am a zombie, dazed, in a stupor, she writes on May 30 after going for a haircut. I look at the other women in the shop blankly, sadly. I'm sure they're wondering what could possibly be the matter with me and I want to shout at that them I HAVE LOST MY DAUGHTER. How can they be talking about their stupid inanities when I HAVE LOST MY DAUGHTER AND I WILL NEVER SEE HER AGAIN?

Over time, however, Schaller's mindset began to change. The letters served a purpose -- not to erase the rawness, but to help her cope with it. They were notes to herself as much as they were to Cindy; reminders that life is precious, and that her daughter wouldn't want her eternally mourning.

"I hope there can be value in the book to people," she says. "We experience loss and we feel so alone. But there are others who have gone through it. Others like me."

Schaller and her husband Earl self-published Dear Cindy, Love Mom with no expectations. "Absolutely none," he says. "We have 42 copies printed." Then, something surprising happened. A whisper became a buzz. A buzz became a yell. With nary an ounce of publicity, the book recently cracked Amazon's top 70,000, and is now on back order.

Best of all, a daughter has not died in vain.

The family started the Cindy Lynn Sherwin Memorial Foundation to sponsor events that promote physical health. The organization has worked closely with the Brain Aneurysm Foundation (BAF) to increase funding and awareness. A growing number of marathoners and triathletes are competing on behalf of Team Cindy, raising money in her name.

Three years ago, Schaller, searching for whys, blamed endurance sports for leaving her daughter vulnerable to a brain aneurysm. Now she embraces them.

"In my mind what we're doing with the foundations is the marriage of what she lived for, the triathlon, and what she died of, a brain aneurysm," says Schaller, who is donating 100 percent of the proceeds from the book to the BAF. "It brings a lot of satisfaction, but I'll never be able to kick up my heels and be overjoyed about the successes."

Schaller pauses.

"Because no matter how much we accomplish," she says, "Cindy's not here."

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