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

Volunteers from Semiahmoo Secondary joined with members of the Lower Mainland Green Team and the White Rock and South Surrey Naturalists Wednesday to remove invasive plants from White Rock’s Ruth Johnson Park. (Contributed photo)
Students, volunteers remove invasive plants from White Rock’s Ruth Johnson Park

Day-long project a collaboration between city, Lower Mainland Green Team

Labour Minister Harry Bains addressing Surrey Board of Trade digital meeting Friday. (Screen shot)
Labour Minister says Surrey businesses’ resilience through pandemic ‘impressive’

‘Surrey’s effort in bending the curve has been among the best,’ Harry Bains says

Raj Singh Toor (left) with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudea after an official apology for the treatment of Komagata Maru passengers in 1914. (Contributed photo)
Request made for City of White Rock to honour Komagata Maru passengers

Raj Singh Toor confident city will rename ‘street, park or city asset’ in honour of 1914 tragedy

A memorial to Hudson Brooks grew quickly outside the South Surrey RCMP detachment following his July 2015 death at the hands of police. (File photo)
Inquest yields ‘sliver of justice’ for South Surrey’s Hudson Brooks: brother

Beau Brooks says he’s not optimistic call for increased RCMP training will bear fruit

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C. on the COVID-19 situation. (B.C. government)
Dr. Bonnie Henry predicts a ‘post-pandemic world’ for B.C. this summer

‘Extending this second dose provides very high real-world protection to more people, sooner’

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Malawian police guard AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines after the shipment arrived in Lilongwe, Malawi, Friday March 5, 2021. Canada is expecting its first shipments of AstraZeneca vaccine next week. (Associated Press/Thoko Chikondi)
B.C.’s daily COVID-19 cases climb to 634 Friday, four more deaths

Currently 255 people in hospital, 66 in intensive care

A crashed helicopter is seen near Mt. Gardner on Bowen Island on Friday March 5, 2021. Two people were taken to hospital in serious but stable condition after the crash. (Irene Paulus/contributed)
2 people in serious condition after helicopter goes down on Bowen Island

Unclear how many passengers aboard and unclear where the helicopter was going

Supporters rally outside court as Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church is in court to appeal bail conditions, after he was arrested for holding day services in violation of COVID-19 rules, in Edmonton, Alta., on Thursday March 4, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
‘Law remains valid:’ Pastor accused of violating health orders to remain in jail

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms is representing the pastor

The Netflix logo on an iPhone. B.C. delayed imposing sales tax on digital services and sweetened carbonated beverages as part of its response to COVID-19. Those taxes take effect April 1, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Matt Rourke
B.C. applies 7% sales tax on streaming, vaping, sweet drinks April 1

Measures from 2020 budget were delayed due to COVID-19

Chief Don Tom of the Tsartlip First Nation was outraged after Green MLA Adam Olsen revealed on social media that the community had been experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak – a fact the First Nation had chosen to keep private to avoid racist backlash as experienced by the Cowichan Tribes when an outbreak was declared there in January. (Black Press Media file photo)
B.C. First Nation ‘outraged’ after Green MLA reveals COVID-19 outbreak

Tsartlip First Nation chief shares concerns about racist backlash, MLA apologizes

A lawyer wears a face mask and gloves to curb the spread of COVID-19 while waiting to enter B.C. Supreme Court, in Vancouver, B.C., Friday, Aug. 28, 2020. British Columbia’s highest court has sided with the land owner in a dispute over public access to public land. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. high court finds in favour of large landowner in fight over access to pair of lakes

The Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club launched legal action after the cattle company blocked road and trail access

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference in Ottawa Friday, March 5, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Trudeau holds firm on premiers’ health-care funding demands, COVID-19 aid comes first

Premiers argue that the current amount doesn’t keep pace with yearly cost increases of about five per cent

Most Read