Ha­ley Smith


Canadian Cycling Magazine - - CONTENTS - by Dean Camp­bell

In the hour fol­low­ing the women’s elite cross coun­try World Cup race at Mon­tSainte-anne, Ha­ley Smith moved around the Norco team setup in the pad­dock. The rider from Uxbridge, Ont., was ex­hausted as any ath­lete would be fol­low­ing a World Cup race. But as she spoke with her team­mates, a small group of peo­ple be­gan to gather out­side the Norco Fac­tory Rac­ing tent. Each was there to con­grat­u­late Smith on a race that had a sig­nif­i­cance she was only start­ing to grasp.

“I was in a daze,” said Smith, two months af­ter her first top-10 World Cup re­sult. “I haven’t yet rec­on­ciled that only seven peo­ple in the whole world beat me that day. I am still in dis­be­lief.” Smith had con­sis­tently placed around 25th at World Cup races, but in Mont-sainte-anne, Que., she had an in­cred­i­ble start, and found her­self rid­ing in the top-four over­all. “Within 30 sec­onds, I knew it was go­ing to be a good day. I just wanted to see how long I could hold that po­si­tion,” Smith said. “I didn’t care if I blew up. That start gave me great free­dom, since I had al­ready done some­thing I’d never ac­com­plished be­fore.”

She ul­ti­mately dropped back a lit­tle, fin­ish­ing eighth at her home event. It might as well have been first place though for what the re­sult rep­re­sents. To move up so many po­si­tions is a big jump that comes only af­ter years of ef­fort and ded­i­ca­tion. While Smith has long been a fierce ath­lete in terms of phys­i­o­log­i­cal per­for­mance, a fo­cus on train­ing her men­tal per­for­mance has been a key facet in her new­found suc­cess.

Smith has been vo­cal through­out her moun­tain bik­ing ca­reer about the

men­tal-health chal­lenges she has faced in her own life. Di­ag­nosed with anorexia ner­vosa at age 14, Smith fell into a dark­ness that has shaped who she is to­day. She speaks to school groups, blogs about her own ex­pe­ri­ences with men­tal health and has cre­ated a book called Takea Mo­ment that is part jour­nal, part colour­ing book and part recipe book.

“For me, anorexia was about far more than body im­age,” wrote Smith in a blog post about men­tal health, body im­age, sport and how all of these can be con­nected. “In re­al­ity, it was about per­fec­tion. I had to be the best. My value as a per­son was tied to whether or not I was the smartest, fittest and fastest. I felt that I had to truly stand out in or­der to be val­ued at the same level as my male peers, in or­der to be thought of as cool, or smart, or wor­thy of be­ing lis­tened to.”

Smith be­gan de­lib­er­ate work on her own men­tal health in late 2013, slowly de­vel­op­ing her skills in manag­ing dif­fer­ent as­pects of how her brain re­acts. At the start of 2018, she added med­i­ta­tion to her tool­box, and uses the app Headspace for both guided and un­guided med­i­ta­tions. She now re­al­izes how much prac­tice is re­quired to com­mit and fo­cus the mind.

“When I first rec­og­nized that this was my big­gest hur­dle in sport, I was still close to the deep­est parts of my de­pres­sion,” said Smith, look­ing back to when she started work­ing on her men­tal health in 2013.

Tak­ing things step by step, Smith ben­e­fits from hav­ing al­lies very close at hand. Na­tional team coach and Smith’s per­sonal coach, Dan Proulx, helped her fo­cus on sim­ple things in a train­ing or race en­vi­ron­ment. Mean­while, Char­lene Hoar, a ther­a­pist who works with the Cana­dian na­tional cy­cling team brought pro­fes­sional, clin­i­cal skills to dis­cus­sions with Smith. “Char­lene re­ally helped re­fine my men­tal game to help me be­come more steady. With Dan, we joke he helps me with ‘farmer Dan psy­chol­ogy,” Smith said of the home­spun and di­rect ad­vice that Proulx of­fers.

When I spoke with Proulx, he said there isn’t any­thing re­sem­bling qual­i­fied psy­cho­log­i­cal ad­vice from him to Smith. “It some­times falls on the coach to be that men­tal sup­port in a race en­vi­ron­ment. I just help sim­plify ev­ery­thing down to the ba­sics,” he said.

Proulx has been with the na­tional team for more than a decade. He’s worked with ev­ery­one from de­vel­op­ment ath­letes to the stars of the sport, in­clud­ing twotime world cham­pion and three-time World Cup cham­pion Catharine Pen­drel. “Ha­ley grew up watch­ing Catharine race and win, so she’s seen what’s pos­si­ble,” Proulx said. “This year is the first year that Ha­ley is re­ally a com­plete cy­clist. She trains more than her com­peti­tors. Her tech­ni­cal skills have im­proved dra­mat­i­cally. The men­tal side of it is huge. “She prob­a­bly would have iden­ti­fied as ner­vous when she started races a few years ago. Now she’s chill, con­fi­dent.” The pair first met at a tal­ent ID camp in 2012. Proulx was im­me­di­ately struck by Smith’s work ethic and de­sire to im­prove. In 2014, Smith moved to Vic­to­ria to join the Nextgen pro­gram, train­ing through the mild Van­cou­ver Is­land win­ters. Dur­ing the race at 2018 Mont-sainte-anne, Proulx moved around the track from near the tech zone over to the base of the Mar­motte climb, feed­ing info to his ath­letes and mon­i­tor­ing their per­for­mances. “We, as coaches, know that per­for­mance in train­ing shows up be­fore it shows in

com­pe­ti­tion,” said Proulx, who saw Smith’s break­through com­ing, even if few oth­ers did.

The first glim­mer of a change hap­pened at the Com­mon­wealth Games, in Aus­tralia this past April. Smith came into the event with a lot of neg­a­tive thoughts. Her pre-sea­son train­ing had been ham­pered by ill­ness, and the World Cup opener in South Africa re­flected that fact. Ar­riv­ing in Aus­tralia, Smith was one of two fe­male Cana­dian rac­ers; the other was Emily Batty.

“I felt like a B rider at an A event,” Smith said. “I was strug­gling with why I was there. I felt like peo­ple were ex­pect­ing Catharine to be there, and not me. I in­ter­nal­ized that idea and it got the best of me.”

The day be­fore the race, Smith was prac­tis­ing her starts and was get­ting set at the start line when she looked over at Proulx and said, “I can’t do it,” be­fore break­ing down in tears. Twelve hours later, that low point be­came the cat­a­lyst for tak­ing a fresh look at things. She re­vised her goals. The plan was to put aside any self-doubt and en­joy the ex­pe­ri­ence of the Games.

On race day, Smith pulled up to the start line feel­ing for­tu­nate to race rather than un­de­serv­ing. When Smith crossed the fin­ish line in the bronze-medal po­si­tion, it was the un­ex­pected re­al­iza­tion of a dream. “I think that was a day where I had a re­ally good day, and other peo­ple had sub­par days, so part of me thinks I got re­ally lucky,” said Smith. “I know I earned my spot to be there based on my pre­vi­ous year, but the per­spec­tive I took away was that you just have to savour your good for­tune and that you get to do these events. If you can re­ally rel­ish it and ig­nore the chat­ter in your own ear or the me­dia or where ever it’s com­ing from, en­joy­ment in your own mind is what you need.”

By the time Mont-sainte-anne rolled around, Smith had ar­rived at the start with a dif­fer­ent mind­set than she had had at other races. She be­gan the race with no ex­pec­ta­tions for a spe­cific re­sult and found her­self bat­tling among the heavy hit­ters in the top 10. “Ev­ery rider has that glim­mer of what could be,” said Catharine Pen­drel, who re­turned af­ter an in­jury to race the World Cup in Mon­tSainte-anne. “That’s usu­ally all the con­fi­dence you need. Ha­ley’s shown she’s ready. She’s now one of those lead­ing

“my goal is to make it so that kids don’t ex­pe­ri­ence what i ex­pe­ri­enced, or don’t have to do it in a way where they feel alone.”

ladies in the sport.”

Pen­drel’s own break­through came in 2007, when she earned a sixth place at worlds. The fol­low­ing sea­son, she got her first World Cup podium and fin­ished fourth in her Olympic de­but.

“Ha­ley is hard-work­ing. She’s thor­ough, and you can tell she re­ally wants it,” Pen­drel said. “She has enough ex­pe­ri­ence now to re­ally do well.”

Dur­ing the mid-sea­son, Smith emailed Pen­drel to ask if they could be team­mates for the Swiss Epic, a five-day stage race tak­ing place right af­ter the world cham­pi­onships. At the time, Pen­drel was still re­cov­er­ing from in­jury, and the email res­onated. Pen­drel knew how hard Smith had been train­ing and felt the younger rider would be “an awe­some part­ner.”

Dur­ing the five days of rac­ing, the two moved into the lead of the women’s divi­sion and held the po­si­tion to the fi­nal podium, win­ning in dom­i­nant fash­ion. It marked a change in their re­la­tion­ship. The two have be­come bet­ter friends. While just a few years ago, Smith was too in­tim­i­dated to ride with Pen­drel, they’re on much more equal foot­ing now. “It’s re­ally showed me how far I’ve come to be able to race the event and have such a good time,” Smith said.

“I’m not used to hav­ing some­one push me on the climbs, but Ha­ley was driv­ing a lot of it,” Pen­drel said. “It’s one thing to have one strong per­for­mance. It’s very dif­fer­ent to have sev­eral days of strong per­for­mances back to back.”

Be­fore the pair would ride as team­mates in the Swiss Alps, each would race as coun­try­mates at world cham­pi­onships in nearby Len­z­er­heide. “I went into the race and took all the lessons I learned at Sainte-anne and tried to ap­ply them to worlds,” Smith said. Ini­tially, the world cham­pi­onship event went very dif­fer­ently com­pared with the World Cup race.

“I had a ter­ri­ble start. I got to the top of the first hill on lap one in about 28th,” Smith said of Len­z­er­heide. “I don’t re­mem­ber many specifics about the race other than that I felt good. I felt fast, and felt the course suited me, and all these pos­i­tive things were re­in­forc­ing each other and help­ing me to move for­ward – like when I would pass some­one or get to a par­tic­u­lar sec­tion where I knew I was good. I was just get­ting more and more con­fi­dent as the race went on. I had a big de­sire to go, to in­vest ev­ery­thing and see what it amounted to.”

Smith fin­ished in sixth place, some­thing she said she still hasn’t re­ally man­aged to grasp fully. “I had a pretty near per­fect race men­tally and phys­i­cally. It’s some­thing I’m go­ing to savour for a long time be­cause those don’t come around that of­ten.”

Af­ter the race, she posted to In­sta­gram: “When op­por­tu­nity and the free­dom to try align, magic can hap­pen. To­day was just so cool – sixth at world champs is a dream.”

For all of the ex­cite­ment and cel­e­bra­tion, there was still an­other sur­prise to come. “Just got out of the back­coun­try to read this re­sult. Wow. Way to go! Just wow!” read one of the com­ments on the post, made by Cana­dian Olympian and men­tal-health ad­vo­cate Clara Hughes.

“I’ve never spo­ken with Clara, just ad­mired her from afar,” said Smith. “It was a huge fan-girl mo­ment for me. She’s been a re­ally big role model, and some­one who re­ally in­spires me.”

That in­spi­ra­tion has proven pow­er­ful in part be­cause Smith’s am­bi­tions aren’t re­ally rooted in race per­for­mance. When she speaks about the fu­ture, rac­ing is a big part of an even big­ger am­bi­tion.

“I be­came func­tional again by work­ing on my men­tal health through sport, and then car­ry­ing that over to the rest of my life,” said Smith. “I’ve been as­tounded that when­ever I do a talk at a high school, for ex­am­ple, or re­visit my own his­tory in my blog, ev­ery sin­gle time with­out fail I get at least one per­son who reaches back who says ‘Thanks for post­ing that. I am go­ing through it,’ or ‘I know some­one who’s go­ing through it and I feel bet­ter for hav­ing heard that.’ That kind of stuff makes me feel like I have more of a pur­pose.

“That’s the ‘why’ be­hind why I race. It’s not just about the Olympics or a World Cup podium for me. It’s about how can I im­pact the world. How can I leave a mark that is pos­i­tive. My goal is to make it so that kids don’t ex­pe­ri­ence what I ex­pe­ri­enced, or don’t have to do it in a way where they feel alone.”

Smith on course at the 2018 Mont-sain­teAnne World Cup

Smith races at Nové Město Czech Repub­lic

At the XC world cham­pi­onships in Len­z­er­heide

On the start line at the Mon­tSainte-anne 2018 World Cup

Smith on route to bronze at the 2018 Com­mon­wealth Games

Smith and Pen­drel share the lead­ers jer­sey on Stage 3 of the Swiss Epic

Alb­stadt, Ger­many World Cup

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