Be­yond the Pearls


Canadian Cycling Magazine - - CONTENTS - by Tara Nolan

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


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


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.”


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

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