In the wake of the 2020 Olympic Summer Games in Tokyo, AfterShokz Athletes have certainly made their presence known on the world’s biggest stage with stellar and inspiring performances. Canadian cyclist, mountain biker, and newly-minted Olympian Haley Smith is one of those elite athletes who motivated our #ShokzSquadCAN with her own Games debut. AfterShokz chatted with Smith about her training regimen, her post-Olympics reflections, and how she manages her mental health in one of the most competitive, gruelling, and thrilling sports in the world.
AFTERSHOKZ: How does it feel to have competed in your first Olympic Games now that Tokyo has come to an end?
HALEY SMITH: Now that I’m back home and the dust on the last quadrennial is beginning to settle, I’m able to process my feelings around the Olympics a little more. It was a really special experience, but being an Olympian doesn’t change or define who I am. It was the work leading up to this goal, my determination to keep getting back up, and the commitment to the dream itself that created and defined who I am. It’s cliche, but this experience taught me that it really is the journey that has the most impact, rather than the end result. And the best part is, I’m not done with this journey! I’ll be taking a bit of time to reset, but the next mountain top is already beckoning.
That said, I feel an immense sense of pride and gratitude that I had the opportunity to represent the Maple Leaf and that, above all, I never gave up on this dream.
AS: How did becoming an Olympian change your life as an athlete and a person?
HS: Becoming an Olympian doesn’t change you. Nothing is magically different. It’s the process of dreaming, working, and persevering that shapes who you are. It’s the process of attempting to become an Olympian that changes and defines you. I am being really honest when I say that I don’t feel any different having gone to the Olympics compared to how I felt before except, of course, that I could use a really long nap!
AS: What was training like? What kind of training equipment, drills, and practices did you use to get Games-ready?
HS: In mountain biking, we train year-round. The Olympics, while the pinnacle event, is not the only thing that we train for. We also race a full World Cup schedule and World Championships every year. So, the training for the Olympics looked much like for any other season.
I spend around 1,000 hours each year on the bike, split between the trails and the pavement, working on the entire spectrum of fitness including long endurance, threshold, tempo, maximal aerobic efforts, sprints, and more. A large portion of my training time is also spent deliberately working on mountain bike-specific skills while on the trails. In addition to the on-bike training, I also spend a fair amount of time in the gym lifting throughout the year, but particularly in the off-season and pre-season.
Another significant part of my training centres on the mental aspect. This includes meditation, consultations with my mental performance coach, and deliberate mental stresses added to training to help get me prepared to fight and access the full depth of my capabilities on race day.
AS: As a female sport cyclist, do you feel the sport has become more inclusive? If yes or no, why?
HS: I feel that mountain biking is pretty inclusive with respect to gender. For the first time, the men’s and women’s field at the Olympics provided equal numbers of starting positions. On the World Cup circuit, each stop also has both a men’s and women’s event. Prize money is equal. Television coverage is equal. There is definitely still room to grow in terms of gender inclusivity with respect to the number of professional contracts signed by women as compared to men for example. However, significant strides have been made even in the short duration of my own career.
There is a lot of work to be done to promote inclusivity that extends beyond gender, especially when it comes to race. Cycling has historically been a very white space and that needs to change. I’m not exactly sure how to impact that change myself, but I’m learning.
AS: You’ve spoken about coping with mental illness in the past as an athlete and a young person through cycling. Can you share with us some ways you’ve protected your mental health throughout your professional career?
HS: I’ve made it no secret that mental health and illness are things I struggle with. This battle began for me well before I began riding. In fact, riding has been my primary wellness management strategy throughout my life. That said, becoming a professional racer and chasing the Olympic dream does bring its own level of stress and pressure that taxes my coping mechanisms. I’m learning that sometimes the right answer is to push through and continue trying, but other times, the right move is to back off and say, “not today”. I’ve had to learn about that balance and it’s been the biggest thing in protecting myself over the last 18 months of the pandemic and Olympic qualification.
In a similar vein, I’ve also learned that sometimes your focus needs to be purely selfish and internal in order to care for yourself and your performance. At other times, extending your focus and energy to be more community-minded and relationship-minded can really help you maintain perspective and motivation. These two trains of thought are really important in preserving your mental health because they essentially all point to the importance of balance and self-awareness to maintain health.
In a more practical sense, some specific strategies I’ve used to protect my mental health include working with mental health professionals, spending time with loved ones and investing in relationships, developing a mindfulness/meditation practice, taking dedicated breaks (this is something I really need to keep working on!), and keeping a gratitude journal. These things may sound cliche, but these specific tasks and focal areas are very good at helping to rewire the neural pathways in our brains that can allow us to manage our mental health hiccups.
Did you like this interview with Canadian Olympian Haley Smith? Read our exclusive interview with American Olympian Meb Keflezighi next.