Friends with the Com­pe­ti­tion

They’re on dif­fer­ent teams. They’re af­ter two cov­eted spots at the 2020 Olympics. Still, they’re sup­port­ing each other

Canadian Cycling Magazine - - CONTENTS - by Tara Nolan

The bonds be­tween Catharine Pen­drel,

San­dra Wal­ter and Ha­ley Smith are not only good for the ath­letes them­selves, but are good for women’s moun­tain bik­ing in Canada

The world cham­pi­onships in Mon­tSainte-anne this past Au­gust pro­vided a week­end of ex­cit­ing, gnarly, nail-bit­ing mo­ments shared, of course, on so­cial me­dia. A photo on Vélir­ium’s I nsta­gram ac­count stood out: Catharine Pen­drel and Ha­ley Smith with their arms around San­dra Wal­ter af­ter she crossed the fin­ish line at the women’s cross coun­try race. Pen­drel re-shared it with her own proud cap­tion: “When your friend has her best-ever world cham­pi­onships on home soil 22 years af­ter her first worlds as a j unior.” Wal­ter con­firmed how much it meant through her own re-share.

There have been sub­se­quent posts where you see Pen­drel and Smith

do­ing a stage race to­gether. Then you see all three at the Olympic test event and at a late-fall train­ing camp. The images stand out. Usu­ally, you see an ath­lete por­trayed in iso­la­tion. But here are three com­peti­tors on dif­fer­ent pro­fes­sional teams with dif­fer­ent spon­sors who are sup­port­ing and mo­ti­vat­ing each other.

There’s more to th­ese friend­ships than sports­man­ship or a shared de­sire to be good team­mates when the women are rac­ing or train­ing to­gether with maple leafs on their jer­seys. The bonds be­tween Pen­drel, Wal­ter and Smith ac­tu­ally make them bet­ter rid­ers. But, the ef­fects go be­yond the trio. Their con­nec­tions and their sup­port sys­tem can fos­ter more strong fe­male cy­clists. They also can show young rid­ers what a fun and com­pet­i­tive cy­cling com­mu­nity looks like, which in turn could keep more girls ac­tive in the sport.

Pen­drel and Wal­ter’s friend­ship goes back to 2006 and 2007. San­dra had fam­ily in Switzer­land and in­vited Pen­drel to travel around with her and do World Cups. Both women re­mem­ber this time fondly when they were split­ting travel costs and stuff­ing things into a tiny car for races. Later, Pen­drel’s hus­band, Keith Wil­son, started coach­ing Wal­ter. Their ca­reers and friend­ship have evolved to­gether. “We were build­ing a friend­ship to en­able us to fol­low our dreams and do what we wanted to do,” Pen­drel says. At home in B.C., they’re able to get to­gether once in a while to ride to­gether for fun.

The t wo even work to­gether be­fore World Cups, pre-rid­ing the cour­ses. “It’s pretty rare to find that per­son who you can ac­tu­ally pre­pare with,” Pen­drel says. “We have this other level of com­mu­ni­ca­tion.” Wal­ter agrees, say­ing they’ve pre-rid­den so many times, they can just make a plan and there is no ques­tion of the goal: “It’s very or­ganic and com­fort­ing.”

Both women speak to the con­fi­dence they give each other, which can help with nerves or to bring one’s head back into the game if they’re feel­ing off. “When they are pre-rid­ing at a ma­jor com­pe­ti­tion, the two of them cre­ate an en­vi­ron­ment where the mood is light and fun, but their fo­cus is on per­for­mance,” Wil­son says. “Both of them have long ca­reers with con­sis­tent high-level per­for­mance be­cause they have al­ways kept it fun.”

And what about sharing lines? “Who­ever has the best legs and the best day – they’re go­ing to win no mat­ter what, whether you’ve showed them your se­cret line or not,” Wal­ter says. “Be­ing able to share in your friend’s suc­cess is re­ally im­por­tant for your de­vel­op­ment and for the long run.”

Smith was brought into the fold a bit more re­cently – there are 13 years be­tween her, and Wal­ter and Pen­drel, a fact all three of them ad­mit they don’t re­ally no­tice. Pen­drel had seen Smith com­ing through the na­tional moun­tain bike pro­gram and both had worked with Dan Proulx, Cy­cling Canada’s head coach for moun­tain bik­ing. When Pen­drel was side­lined with a bro­ken arm in 2018, Smith reached out to ask if she’d be

“We were build­ing a friend­ship to en­able us to fol­low our dreams and do what we wanted to do.” —CATHARINE PEN­DREL

in­ter­ested in do­ing the Swiss Epic that fall. “It gave me the goal at the per­fect time, and some­thing to strive for,” Pen­drel says. So the two got to know each other bet­ter. In 2019, they won Epic Is­rael. Wal­ter says she’s learned a lot from Smith as she has got­ten to know her, as well.

Ac­cord­ing to Fast and Fe­male, an or­ga­ni­za­tion with a mis­sion to keep girls healthy and ac­tive in sport (Pen­drel and Smith are both am­bas­sadors), “The first and most fun­da­men­tal rea­son girls par­tic­i­pate in sports is for a sense of be­long­ing.”

“I think it’s im­por­tant for sport to be por­trayed as a so­cial en­ter­prise,” says Smith. Adds Wal­ter: “For me, moun­tain bik­ing started as a so­cial ac­tiv­ity and I got into it through friends – one of the main things for me is that it’s some­thing that I share with peo­ple who I care about and that’s what makes it so fun.”

The Cana­dian na­tional team seems to take the idea of a shared ex­pe­ri­ence to heart in how it has shaped its pro­gram. “Even though it’s an in­di­vid­ual sport, we’ve al­ways used a team ap­proach,” Proulx says. “We know that rid­ers are stronger when they can work to­gether.”

But, how can you be com­peti­tors and be friends? “Some­one else’s suc­cess doesn’t mean you won’t have your own suc­cess,” says Smith mat­ter of factly. “It’s a mas­sive en­ergy drain to hold your­self off from what could be pos­i­tive en­ergy in cre­at­ing re­la­tion­ships.” The al­ter­na­tive is lone­li­ness and iso­la­tion.

For Smith, who con­sid­ers her­self an in­tro­vert, so­cial con­fi­dence has al­ways been an is­sue. Dur­ing the past cou­ple of years, how­ever, she feels bet­ter equipped to put her­self out there. “I think hav­ing sup­port­ive re­la­tion­ships in your field of pur­suit is one of the big­gest im­pactors on your well-be­ing.”

Steven Bray, a pro­fes­sor of sport and ex­er­cise psy­chol­ogy at Mcmaster Univer­sity, is cur­rently do­ing re­search that looks at men­tal fa­tigue and how it af­fects phys­i­cal per­for­mance. He comes from an alpine ski rac­ing back­ground, but it’s easy to find links be­tween alpine ski­ing and moun­tain bik­ing – in which suc­cess largely de­pends on an in­di­vid­ual’s per­for­mance. In each dis­ci­pline, friend­ships de­velop as ath­letes see one other at com­pe­ti­tions. He agrees that by sup­port­ing fel­low team­mates, rather than just fo­cus­ing on your­self, you can reap the benefits men­tally. “You

“Some­one else’s suc­cess doesn’t mean you won’t have your own suc­cess. It’s a mas­sive en­ergy drain to hold your­self off from what could be pos­i­tive en­ergy in cre­at­ing re­la­tion­ships.” —HA­LEY SMITH

can push each other to achieve more. Through that sup­port, you’re able to do more than you could on your own,” he says.

“When you have some­body on your team who says, ‘I be­lieve in you,’ that gives you so much more en­ergy to over­come what­ever it is that you’re feel­ing,” Bray adds. Cer­tainly pos­i­tive at­ti­tudes and feel­ing sup­ported by com­peti­tors can only help, es­pe­cially in the pres­sure cooker that is com­pet­i­tive rac­ing. In other words, the good karma you put out into the world can only help you.

“When rid­ers can work to­gether, their chances of suc­cess go up con­sid­er­ably,” says Proulx. “Our women’s team has an ever-in­creas­ing level of co-op­er­a­tion and trust that makes a big dif­fer­ence when they com­pete against the rest of the world. A pos­i­tive vibe and ca­ma­raderie act as a force mul­ti­plier.”

Smith, who came to moun­tain bik­ing from hockey in which there is a built-in team struc­ture, felt like an out­sider at first when she started rac­ing. She soon re­al­ized that those feel­ings were all in her head. “My old­est friend­ships have come from hockey be­cause of that forged-in-the-fire ef­fect,” she ex­plains. “As much as I like to think and say that you can be re­ally close friends with your com­peti­tors, which you can, it’s harder in an in­di­vid­ual sport than hockey. My ten­den­cies to be pro­tec­tive of my re­sults and my rac­ing – they’re chal­lenged in this in­di­vid­ual sport be­cause you have to be able to cel­e­brate the vic­to­ries of your com­peti­tors even when you didn’t have a vic­tory.” Smith has re­al­ized that sup­port­ing and celebratin­g your team­mates and friends’ suc­cesses makes you feel less bad about your own fail­ures.

“Ha­ley came from team sports, and I re­ally think that a team en­vi­ron­ment is im­por­tant for her, and she misses that in moun­tain bike rac­ing,” says Smith’s fiancé

and cross coun­try racer, An­drew L’es­per­ance. “To have friends like San­dra and Catharine do­ing the same thing as her, sup­port­ing each other and build­ing that team en­vi­ron­ment through their friend­ships, is awe­some.”

Pen­drel cred­its hockey with giv­ing Smith a whole other per­spec­tive on sport, which has the po­ten­tial to help other rac­ers. “No one racer is amaz­ing at ev­ery­thing, but if you sur­round your­self with peo­ple who are ex­perts at one as­pect, you can maybe im­prove one as­pect for your­self, too,” she says.

A 2008 pa­per pub­lished by the Women’s Sports Foun­da­tion, which was founded by ten­nis leg­end Billie Jean King, fea­tures a list of rea­sons why girls drop out of sports at two times the rate of boys. A lack of pos­i­tive role mod­els is one of them. Even though so­cial me­dia has the un­for­tu­nate, in­ex­orable power to af­fect a user’s self-es­teem, the amount of peo­ple putting out pos­i­tive mes­sages should swing the pen­du­lum i n the other di­rec­tion. Be­ing hon­est about how hard it can be to cope at the elite level, both phys­i­cally and men­tally, while show­ing re­spect and joy at op­po­nents’ suc­cesses can only help to en­cour­age new young ath­letes. “It’s great to see lead­ers within the team mod­el­ling team­work and col­lab­o­ra­tion for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions. It’s im­por­tant for young peo­ple to see that,” says Proulx.

Wal­ter says ev­ery once in a while, a young ath­lete will come up to her or text her. “When I was 12 or 13, I would never have called up a Tr­ish Sin­clair or a Les­ley Tom­lin­son and asked them to go for a bike ride with me,” she says. “I’m re­ally hop­ing we’ve cre­ated this wel­com­ing, ap­proach­able en­vi­ron­ment so that they’re able to do that.

I would have loved to have those op­por­tu­ni­ties as a young ath­lete. We have so much to share, so much ex­pe­ri­ence, and we want to share that and be seen as ap­proach­able.”

Smith says she wishes she had learned th­ese lessons ear­lier in her ca­reer. “I would tell a young racer to chal­lenge them­selves to cel­e­brate the suc­cesses of their com­peti­tors; it makes you grow and makes the whole pur­suit less stress­ful and more ful­fill­ing,” she says. “I would tell them too that every­body wants to be their friend. Open up your heart and let peo­ple i nto your jour­ney.” Smith be­lieves if you can teach young girls to be friends with their com­peti­tors, they’ll prob­a­bly stay in the sport longer.

Both Smith and Pen­drel ad­mit­ted their per­for­mances at the world cham­pi­onships at Mont-sainte-anne

were dis­ap­point­ing. “There was a cer­tain com­fort in see­ing each other at the fin­ish line and know­ing that we gave the best we had,” Smith says. “When we looked back and saw San­dra cross the fin­ish line, it was a very happy feel­ing. Though I didn’t have the race I wanted, it was cool see­ing a team­mate have one of her best races ever. Her race also put four Cana­dian women in the top 20, which was a sweet mo­ment to be a part of.” Adds Pen­drel: “San­dra reach­ing her goal that day was the cherry that ab­so­lutely made the cake.”

One up­com­ing event that will be both a phys­i­cal and men­tal test hang­ing over all three rid­ers’ heads this win­ter is the Tokyo Olympics. At the mo­ment, Canada has two spots for the women’s cross coun­try com­pe­ti­tion since it’s sit­ting in fourth place in the uci’s Olympic qual­i­fi­ca­tion rank­ing. If a Cana­dian had fin­ished in the top-five at the world cham­pi­onships in Septem­ber, she would have Olympic pri­or­ity. Now, Cy­cling Canada will be look­ing at per­for­mances at World Cups. The World Cup at Nové Město in the Czech Repub­lic at the end of May will mark the fi­nal event that the sport’s gov­ern­ing body has listed for Olympic se­lec­tion.

Back in the fall, Wal­ter got a last­minute op­por­tu­nity to join Smith and Pen­drel at the Olympic test event in Ja­pan af­ter a late can­cel­la­tion by Emily Batty. Pen­drel points to the pos­i­tive en­ergy Wal­ter brings to the team and says that Proulx wouldn’t have ex­tended that in­vite to just any­one. “He knows what a good team­mate she is to Ha­ley and me,” she says. “Just her be­ing there raises the whole level of the team.”

Wal­ter said she kept hav­ing to pinch her­self. “I was so en­er­gized by the op­por­tu­nity and re­ally savoured it,” she says. “The Cana­dian team is so strong and the chances of me making it to Tokyo are so slim.” Wal­ter ac­knowl­edges her role was to sup­port learn­ing the course. “We were es­sen­tially cre­at­ing lines that are go­ing to be rid­den in the Olympics. The rocks looked like puz­zles we had to fig­ure out.”

“Ev­ery­one is pretty ner­vous,” Pen­drel ad­mits. “We’re all go­ing into next year with high pres­sure and want­ing to have a high per­for­mance at that first event.” Ul­ti­mately, she knows that who­ever gets to go will rep­re­sent the coun­try well.

As hard as it will be for the women who don’t make it to the Olympics, you know they’ll be cheer­ing like hell for their fel­low Cana­di­ans, root­ing for them along with the rest of the coun­try. Smith, Pen­drel and Wal­ter have a friend­ship that is more pro­found than mere sports­man­ship. Th­ese are re­la­tion­ships based on trust and re­spect and a love of rid­ing to­gether.

“When I had my podium at Nové Město, as soon as they crossed the fin­ish line, they hopped a fence they weren’t sup­posed to, to come and hug me,” Smith says, re­mem­ber­ing the re­ac­tions of Pen­drel and Wal­ter at Smith’s first World Cup podium fin­ish this past May. “You can choose to be pro­tec­tive and reclu­sive, or you can soak up their en­ergy and try to give it back. It’s not al­ways first na­ture to be that way, but that’s how I want to be. They’re mo­ti­vat­ing me to be­come a bet­ter per­son and com­peti­tor.”

“I’m re­ally hop­ing we’ve cre­ated this wel­com­ing, ap­proach­able en­vi­ron­ment. I would have loved to have those op­por­tu­ni­ties as a young ath­lete. We have so much to share, so much ex­pe­ri­ence, and we want to share that and be seen as ap­proach­able.” —SAN­DRA WAL­TER

right and be­low Smith and Pen­drel race the 2019 Epic Is­rael

above Pen­drel and Smith take the over­all win at the 2019 Epic Is­rael right Smith and Pen­drel at the fin­ish of the 2019 world cham­pi­onships, Mont-sain­teAnne, Que.

above Wal­ter rides to her bestever world cham­pi­onship fin­ish, 18th, in Que­bec op­po­site top Pen­drel on course at Mont-sain­teAnne, Que.

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