Beyond the Pearls
FROM PODIUMS AT WORLD CUPS AND MAJOR GAMES TO OLYMPIC HANGOVERS AND BROKEN BONES, MOUNTAIN BIKE CHAMPION EMILY BATTY SPEAKS CANDIDLY ABOUT SUCCESSES, FAILURES AND SACRIFICES THAT HAVE COME THROUGHOUT 17 YEARS OF RACING
Mountain bike champion Emily Batty discusses the successes, failures and sacrifices that have come throughout 17 years of racing From podiums at World Cups and Major Games to Olympic hangovers and broken bones, the rider from Brooklin, Ont., speaks candidly about all facets of racing at the top levels of the sport
If you look really closely at Emily Batty’s Red Bull Bontrager helmet, you’ll see outlines of Buddy, her Welsh terrier. This little piece of home and love and normalcy that Painthouse Customs incorporated as a surprise accompanies the professional mountain biker, Pan Am gold medallist, multiple national champion, Olympian and World Cup finisher around the world as she races. Although Batty may be a mush when it comes to her dog, she has proven she has the physical and mental strength to meet (sometimes, partially meet) goals against the best riders in the sport. She also has the reserves to do charitable work off the bike. But counter to those highs are lows, such as injuries, the time needed to heal and dealing with professional disappointments. And handling the lows requires a certain toughness, too.
Batty believes sharing her feelings online and i n person, rather than hiding them, helps get her through those hard times. On her Instagram account in April, after the Commonwealth Games, you can see a shot of Batty, head down. “Sometimes, you gotta take it on the chin and when life pushes, you push back harder,” Batty writes in a post about her dissatisfaction with her fourth-place finish and her year thus far. Then in May, she was smiling on a
podium after coming fourth at the uci mountain bike World Cup in Nové Město na Moravě in the Czech Republic (in uci races, fourth gets you on that podium). Peppered in between are shots of her riding and racing, and behind-the-scenes glimpses of her life – training, sitting by the pool, at a photoshoot, with Buddy. Highs and lows.
Batty says she also works closely with a sports psychologist, who she credits with being a significant person on her support team for the past couple of years. But the main pillar of support is Batty’s husband and coach, Adam Morka. “My husband has always been there for me and is very level-headed when it comes to the highs and lows that sport brings to life; I don’t understand how he can figure things out and be so calm,” she says.
In truth, Batty says she’s often so busy she doesn’t have time to process what happened at a race as she moves on to the next task at hand or event. “I’ll make some notes to work on and learn from and implement moving forward, but life moves fast, and there is no time to dwell,” she says.
Of course, moving on isn’t always easy. For example, there’s the buildup and hype around the Olympics, which abruptly diminish as soon as the Games come to a close. Athletes who fall shy of their goals have to regroup and deal. Batty speaks of the “Olympic hangover.” “It’s the same feeling as burnout with an exception: you can’t take a break from racing because it’s your job and I'm contracted with my sponsors,” she says.
“The Olympics take the edge off mentally and physically because you’ve earned yourself to a place that’s been fuelled by the Olympic motivation. The good athletes can find another level or dig a little deeper the year before the Olympics. Unfortunately, you end up paying for it for a year or two afterward. Athletes don’t just move on. We put our heart and soul into those events. Once they are over, it feels like part of you is missing,” admits Batty, who found it tough to move past her fourth-place finish, two seconds shy of a medal, at Rio 2016. However, Tokyo 2020 and likely Paris 2024 are part of her current plan.
For the rest of this season, Batty plans to defend her national title in Canmore, Alta., race some more World Cups, including Mont-sainte-anne, and then compete at the world championships in Switzerland. She feels she should have a good shot at a medal at worlds. There will also be the chance for a breather before a few fall events, including a cyclocross race series she is launching in October.
Fans of the sport have had the opportunity to see mountain bike racing evolve before their eyes. As the popularity of the discipline grows and the gap narrows between athletes, the stakes edge higher. As Batty explains, the race tracks are shorter, some of the climbs are being removed to keep the racing tighter until the very end, and the courses are more technical and action-packed.
A good example of this progress is the short-track format that was added officially to the calendar of the uci mountain bike World Cup events in February. This new element determines the seeding and starting order of the cross country Olympic-format races. The short track is intense to watch. Batty thinks it’s good for the sport, but questions whether the uci has figured it out. “I feel like they rushed the idea to the surface before really planning it out,” she says. “Now some of the athletes are questioning the format and layout of the schedule and the race itself.” Batty also feels there needs to be stricter parameters around course design, as well, to ensure safety for the riders. “There are only seven World Cup races per season and we as riders need to make every one count.”
The scars are visible on Batty’s knee from last year’s gnarly crash on a technical, rocky section at the Cairns XC
“AS YOU NEAR THE TOP OF THE SPORT, IT SOMETIMES FEELS LIKE PEOPLE WOULD R ATHER SEE YOU FAIL THAN SUCCEED. THIS YEAR HAS HAD A BUNCH OF THAT.”
world championships, where she rode part of the last lap of the race with a gaping wound (the photos are not for the faint of heart), placing seventh, before seeking medical attention.
When it comes to fear of injury, Batty says she thinks the fear is missing. “Honestly, you become so numb to it and you’re so emotionally invested that the physical pain is secondary. Usually it’s the emotional impact that hurts the most. I’m still not over crashing at the London Olympics and breaking my clavicle; I’m not sure I will ever be,” she says.
The microcosm of professional mountain bike racing can also present various challenges and expectations beyond simply getting on the bike and racing, challenges that Batty characterizes as the political side of sport. They can be frustrating. “There are phases in your career,” she says. “In the beginning, when you’re having a lot of success early on, the support comes naturally and there is good momentum. As you near the top of the sport, it sometimes feels like people would rather see you fail than
succeed. This year has had a bunch of that. All that noise is holding me back, but I’m learning to deal with it. It comes with the territory of being a professional athlete, and at the level I’m racing at.”
Morka, who has been her coach since 2009, offers constant support as they travel from training blocks to races and back home again to Brooklin, Ont., where they live. When asked separately if there is a difference between coach Adam and husband Adam, they both laugh and say there isn’t, really. “The one thing we naturally do is selectively talk about training and racing at the right moments. He better not ask me about training, racing or business before coffee and breakfast,” says Batty. Morka’s answer was to choose his timing on training- and business-related questions wisely.
Morka describes Batty as an incredible worker. “Her physical work capacity, mental capacity and ability to stay present and focused on the task at hand is world-class and why she is where she is,” he explains.
It’s not just Batty’s husband who keeps her grounded, but her fans, too. “They genuinely get me through the tough times with all their messages of support, and they lift me up. It’s incredible,” she says.
While her spare time is at a premium these days – “The past few years of travel and level of commitment has been insane!” she says – Batty does make time for giving back to the sport that has shaped her life.
In 2017, the Emily Batty Project was launched with the goal to get #Morekidsonbikes. The program is centred on three major components: awareness, fundraising and mentorship. “Our efforts are focused on working with the Durham Shredders at the moment,” she says of the not-for-profit youth mtb program. She adds that they’ll be hosting a riding clinic at nationals in Canmore, Alta., this year, as well.
Tim Vanderjeugd, the sports and marketing director for Trek Bikes, a longtime Batty sponsor, also notes the work Batty has done for the National Interscholastic Cycling Association (nica). Vanderjeugd says that while Trek
“MY FANS GENUINELY GET ME THROUGH THE TOUGH TIMES WITH ALL THEIR MESSAGES OF SUPPORT, AND THEY LIF T ME UP. IT ’S INCREDIBLE.”
obviously wants to align with successful athletes, it’s not all about the winning. “She offers us an incredible package as an athlete and as a person,” he says. “She’s not doing this work as a side project; I love her devotion to it and her interactivity with her fan base.”
Outside of her more altruistic work, Batty is also an inspiration to young women who are looking to enter the sport and who have started racing competitively. Haley Smith, who edged out Batty for bronze at the Commonwealth Games, says that while there has never been a formal mentorship, she thinks Batty has been an important mentor as she is willing to share her knowledge and has a way of interacting with younger riders that is very empowering for them. “I’ve learned a lot from Emily, both with respect to bike-handling skills and with offbike elements of the sport, as well,” Smith says. “She is a wizard on a bike and a great human being.”
If a young woman were to ask Batty for advice about getting into racing and going pro, Batty says she would tell her the following: “Make friends in sport, ride with the guys, and race and ride in all disciplines and other sports as much as you can while you’re young. Have fun with it and don’t ever let anyone tell you you can’t.”
Something should maybe also be said about the sacrifice it takes to lead the life of a pro athlete. “This job is 24/7 and you can never turn it off,” Batty says. “The moment you turn off, you’re going backwards and there is someone in line to take your spot.”
While I wasn’t going to pry into Batty’s personal life beyond Buddy, her fur baby, the topic of having a family did inadvertently arise. Assumptions can be made as a woman reaches a certain age range. Men don’t have to worry about jeopardizing a sponsorship deal by having a child – or about making a “comeback” after having a baby, as we’ve seen with tennis phenom Serena Williams, who has been very open about the challenges that she faces as a pro athlete and as a new mom. “There is the assumption that women have shorter careers because at some point they are going to settle down and have kids because their window is small,” says Batty, adding that she’s not
sure that has to be the case anymore because women can safely have healthy children later in life.
Batty herself says she’s very focused on her career at the moment and that the first thing she’d want to do is enjoy life a little bit before having kids. “What many people don’t know about me is that I have been racing since I was 13 years old,” says Batty, who turned 30 this past June. “I was never forced into racing, but I transitioned into the sport at a very early age. If you fast forward to today where I’m on contracts, have 450,000 fans worldwide, have expectations to perform, et cetera – I’ve never had the liberty or freedom even to learn who I am, let alone bring a child into this world and begin caring for them.” There is a longevity to mountain biking that can see 20-year age gaps on a podium. “You can still compete at a reasonably high level as you become older and it’s just as fun,” Batty says. “As Geoff Kabush would say, ‘Keep riding until the fun stops.’” Batty admits that she is proud of her career arc thus far, and neither satisfied or dissatisfied. “I can’t imagine walking away with unfinished business: that would eat at me for the rest of my life. Honestly, I’m not done getting better. I won’t be retiring anytime soon; I don’t even want to think about it, to be honest.”
“I’VE NEVER HAD THE LIBERT Y OR FREEDOM EVEN TO LEARN WHO I AM, LET ALONE BRING A CHILD INTO THIS WORLD AND BEGIN CARING FOR THEM.”
leftEmily Batty tackles a technical section at Mont-sainteAnne during the 2017 World Cup
top leftBatty on the podium at MontSainte-annetop rightBatty races at the World Cup event in Albstadt, Germany in May
belowBatty at Albstadt in May
leftSelfies in South Africa
above Batty with some dedicated fans at Mont-sainte-anne
opposite Batty takes time in the media scrum to sign autographs for kidsaboveBatty at the Nové Město short track race