HAD A STRONG 2018SEASON. SHE MIGHT HAVE BEEN THE ONLY ONE SURPRISED BY HER SUCCESSES
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