Canada’s Haley Smith makes a jump during the women’s cross-country race at the Nerrang mountain bike trails during the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, Australia, Thursday, April 12, 2018. When COVID-19 swept across the country last spring, forcing lockdowns and cancelling sporting events, Canadian mountain biker Haley Smith’s response was swift — train harder. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Rick Rycroft

Canada’s Haley Smith makes a jump during the women’s cross-country race at the Nerrang mountain bike trails during the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, Australia, Thursday, April 12, 2018. When COVID-19 swept across the country last spring, forcing lockdowns and cancelling sporting events, Canadian mountain biker Haley Smith’s response was swift — train harder. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Rick Rycroft

Canadian mountain biker Haley Smith climbing back from ‘rock bottom’

Haley Smith was physically and mentally drained

When COVID-19 swept across the country last spring, forcing lockdowns and cancelling sporting events, Canadian mountain biker Haley Smith’s response was swift — train harder.

The aspiring Olympian didn’t realize that the laser-like focus would result in a breakdown.

“I just squeezed too hard. I eliminated the fun stuff. I was only a training machine. And I paid for it,” she said.

The 27-year-old Smith has spent months working her way back from “rock bottom” and is now sharing her story as part of Bell Let’s Talk Day to help spark conversations about mental health.

It isn’t the first time she’s talked publicly about her journey. For years the native of Uxbridge, Ont., has spoken to high-school groups and athletes about her experience living with anxiety and overcoming a life-threatening eating disorder that saw her hospitalized at 14.

She talked about mental illness as if it were something in her past.

Then came the pandemic.

With daily life upended and much of the racing season scrapped, Smith turned her focus to getting as fit as possible in a bid to secure a spot at the Tokyo Olympics. There were weeks were she trained for more than 26 hours.

By fall, she had developed insomnia and an anxious twitch in her leg. Her heart raced, even when she was resting. Old habits of severely restricting food crept back into her life.

Rock bottom came in October when she was set to compete in four World Cup races in six days. But Smith couldn’t complete the second race, forced to settle for a “did not finish” result.

“I had a complete breakdown that night. Full crisis mode,” she said. “That was it. Not being able to get myself across the finish line of that race was the indicator that, OK, something’s not right.”

Smith was physically, spiritually and emotionally drained as she returned to Canada and began her 14-day quarantine. For the first time in her career, she had to spend two full weeks away from her bike.

In Europe, Smith had realized she was in trouble. But now locked down, she had to face her self-destructive habits head on.

The time reminds her of being hospitalized at 14.

“I had to eliminate exercise. I had to deal with eating. … I had to fully shut out thoughts of racing because it was the end of the year,” she said. “It was very much a cold turkey.”

While challenging, the harsh realities she faced in quarantine kickstarted Smith’s recovery. She’s spent the past four months gradually working her way back to a place where she’s happier and healthier, and her approach to mountain biking is more balanced.

“It’s been scary and really difficult,” she said. “But I feel the best I’ve felt in two years. I feel like I have energy to do things physically and emotionally. I feel like my baseline level of joy or emotion is so much higher that I feel like a different person now.

“But it was a very incremental thing. Tiny little things got better every day.”

Smith’s recovery has included resuming sessions with her sports psychologist and a psychiatrist, and adding a sports physiologist to her team.

Her physiologist’s first observation was that she simply wasn’t eating enough. Smith made adjustments and has found that the added fuel has had a huge impact on her mountain biking.

“When I’m training now, for the first time in two years, I’m seeing improvement. … For a long time, I thought I was maybe just at my ceiling. And now it’s become apparent that I’m not at my ceiling,” she said.

Not only does she have more energy and feel stronger, Smith feels better mentally, too.

“Training’s just more enjoyable now,” she said. “Obviously it’s still very challenging and there are a lot of days that I don’t want to be on my bike. But for the most part, it feels fulfilling. And I just feel strong and solid again.”

She’s also overcome a silent fear.

Because she started competitive mountain biking as a teenager, Smith had long been self conscious that she didn’t actually enjoy her sport and was only continuing to pursue it due to her highly competitive, stubborn nature.

“I’ve never really ridden my bike not for training,” she explained.

That’s changed in recent months as she recovered and the world around her remained gripped by the pandemic.

“In the last year, I’ve actually realized that I love to ride my bike,” said Smith, who’s now living and training in bike-friendly Victoria, B.C. “Whether it’s a road bike or a mountain bike or whatever sort of terrain it’s on, it actually brings me a lot of happiness.”

Smith’s sights are still set on making her Olympic debut in Tokyo — she’s just adjusted the focus to the things she can control.

No longer is she checking the daily COVID-19 case numbers or focusing on the minutiae of the pandemic. Instead, she’s following rules and regulations and regularly checking in with herself about how the ongoing global situation makes her feel.

Smith continues to train and, if the international mountain biking season goes as planned, she’ll race in two World Cup races in May that will count toward Olympic qualifying.

Races from 2019 will also count and her third-place world cup finish from Nove Mesto, Czech Republic last May could secure her spot on the Canadian team set to compete in Tokyo.

“I’m planning as if I’m going to be (at the Olympics) because that’s really the only way I can operate,” she said.

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

mental healthPro sports

Just Posted

The City of Red Deer sits at 249 active cases of the virus, after hitting a peak of 565 active cases on Feb. 22. (Black Press file image)
Red Deer down to 119 active COVID-19 cases

Province identifies 179 new cases Saturday

Member Terry Parsons’ custom built track vehicle.
Forestburg’s Area 53 Racetrack gears up for action-packed season

Site will also host a portion of the ‘Miles of Mayhem’ event in July

Sabrina Wilde in front of a recently purchased monster truck. Submitted.
Thorsby business women a finalist for 2021 Alberta Women’s Entrepreneurship Award

Sabrina Wilde with Lone Wolf Mechanical is a finalist for the entrepreneurial award.

Grade 12 students at Wetaskiwin Composite High School took place in the annual water fight off school property on June 11, 2021. Shaela Dansereau/ Pipestone Flyer.
Graduating students in Wetaskiwin throw water fight after being told it could result in suspension

Students were told their participation could result in them being barred from graduation ceremonies.

At an outdoor drive-in convocation ceremony, Mount Royal University bestows an honorary Doctor of Laws on Blackfoot Elder and residential school survivor Clarence Wolfleg in Calgary on Tuesday, June 8, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
‘You didn’t get the best of me’: Residential school survivor gets honorary doctorate

Clarence Wolfleg receives honorary doctorate from Mount Royal University, the highest honour the school gives out

Flowers and cards are left at a makeshift memorial at a monument outside the former Kamloops Indian Residential School to honour the 215 children whose remains are believed to have been discovered buried near the city in Kamloops, B.C., on Monday, May 31, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
‘Pick a Sunday:’ Indigenous leaders ask Catholics to stay home, push for apology

Indigenous leaders are calling on Catholics to stand in solidarity with residential school survivors by not attending church services

“They will never be forgotten, every child matters,” says Sioux Valley Chief Jennifer Bone in a video statement June 1. (Screen grab)
104 ‘potential graves’ detected at site of former residential school in Manitoba

Sioux Valley Dakota Nation working to identify, repatriate students buried near former Brandon residential school

Denmark’s Christian Eriksen receives medical attention after collapsing during the Euro 2020 soccer championship group B match between Denmark and Finland at Parken stadium in Copenhagen, Saturday, June 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner, Pool)
Christian Eriksen in stable condition, Euro 2020 match resumes

Eriksen was given chest compressions after collapsing on the field during a European Championship

As stories of the horrors of residential schools circulate after the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc First Nation announced it had located what are believed to be the remains of 215 children, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said he feels a connection with the former students. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
2 sides of the same coin: Ex-foster kids identify with residential school survivors

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip says the child welfare system takes Indigenous children from their families

Airport ground crew offload a plane carrying just under 300,000 doses of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine which is developed by the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies at Pearson International Airport during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Wednesday, April 28, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
1st batch of Johnson & Johnson vaccines won’t be released in Canada over quality concerns

The vaccines were quarantined in April before they were distributed to provinces

The arrest south of Winnipeg occurred before Bernier was to arrive at a protest in the city. (Twitter/Maxime Bernier)
Maxime Bernier arrested following anti-rules rallies in Manitoba: RCMP

He’s been charged with exceeding public gathering limits and violating Manitoba’s requirement to self-isolate

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives for the G7 Summit, at the airport in Newquay, United Kingdom, Thursday, June 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Details on Canada’s vaccine sharing plan coming Sunday, up to 100 million doses

Canada’s high commissioner to the UK says details will come after the G7 summit

Most Read