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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw reported 11 additional deaths over the past 24 hours. (photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta
Red Deer active COVID-19 cases drop slightly

Province reports 267 additional COVID-19 cases, 11 new deaths

On Monday, Feb. 22, Island Health listed Glacier View Secondary on 241 Beacher Drive in Courtenay as having a COVID-19 exposure Feb. 17 and 18. Black Press file photo
Red Deer sets new COVID-19 case record

There are now 565 active cases in Red Deer

The Vault Sports Pub re-opened for dine-in on Feb. 8, 2021. Leah Bousfield/ Rimbey Review.
Rimbey restaurants excited to be through second lockdown and re-open to dine-in

All say that the Rimbey community’s support was amazing during the difficult time.

Across the province, there are 2,738 active cases of COVID-19, with 18,417 recovered cases. There have been 288 deaths from the virus in Alberta since the beginning of the pandemic. (File photo)
Red Deer has 564 of central zone’s 766 active COVID-19 cases

Government of Alberta identifies 328 new COVID-19 cases Sunday

COVID
Red Deer up to 546 active cases of COVID-19

Province added 380 additional cases Saturday

Bookings for COVID-19 vaccines for people age 75 or older start Wednesday. (File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Updated: Delays for seniors booking for vaccine appointments

By 9:20 a.m. Wednesday, 4,500 seniors had booked their appointments

Black Press File Photo
Valentine’s Day shooting in Maskwacis leaves one male in hospital, one male in custody

19-year-old Francis Edward Nepoose from Maskwacis has been charged with attempted murder.

Red Deer Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Anne Kirker is expected to sentence Satnam Singh Sandhu on Friday. Red Deer Advocate file photo
Updated: Sylvan Lake man pleads guilty to manslaughter for strangling wife in 2019

Kulvinder Sandhu was strangled and died in hospital several days later

Sentencing delayed in the stabbing death of Samantha Sharpe, of Sunchild First Nation. (Red Deer Advocate file photo)
Central Alberta man not criminally responsible for killing his father in 2020: judge

Psychiatrist testified Nicholas Johnson was psychotic when he killed his father

The cover of “Hometown Asylum: A History and Memoir of Institutional Care.” (Submitted)
Ponoka-born author writes history of old mental hospital

“Hometown Asylum: A History and Memoir of Institutional Care” covers 1911 to 1971

Jacqueline Buffalo. (Photo submitted)
TikTok connects Indigenous women during pandemic

Maskwacis influencers share their stories

Todd Hirsch. (Image: screenshot)
ATB vice president gives financial forecast to Ponoka chamber

Predictions for reopening of the economy and recovery outlined

The 24/7 Integrated Response Hub is currently located in the Wetaskiwin Civic Building. Shaela Dansereau/ Pipestone Flyer.
Wetaskiwin business owners concerned over 24/7 Integrated Hub’s impact downtown

Downtown businesses have had loss of customers, threats, increased property damage and break-ins.

Meteor spotted over Edmonton, Alta., on Feb. 22, 2021 by several, who took to social media to share their surveillance camera captures. (@KixxAxe/Twitter)
VIDEO: Fireball meteor streaks across sky, spotted by early-morning risers in Alberta, B.C.

Videos of the quick streak of light flashing across the sky before 6:30 a.m. MST

Most Read