How the pandemic sidelined pro mountain biker Haley Smith, and how she healed
TORONTO -- There was a time when elite Canadian mountain biker Haley Smith spoke about her struggles with mental health in the past tense.
From an early age, Smith was a perfectionist with anxious tendencies who had an overwhelming need to do everything flawlessly. In her pre-teen years, her anxiety manifested as a life-threatening eating disorder that put her in hospital at risk of heart failure.
Following one of the darkest chapters of her life, Smith turned to mountain biking. She said the simple act of trying not to crash while biking through the woods helped her achieve fleeting moments of clarity.
“I found that the hour, hour-and-a-half that I was out on my bike, I stopped being anxious. My brain just became quiet,” Smith told CTVNews.ca in an interview on Wednesday from Victoria. “My life sort of restructured to be about this new pursuit.”
The story of how mountain biking helped Smith regain control of her life is a story that, over the years, she’s become comfortable sharing. She’s spoken openly about her teenage struggle with disordered eating and anxiety so many times that she said it began to feel like something that was behind her.
Then the pandemic happened.
“The pandemic really shook my foundation of stability, and it made me feel very certain about what my life looked like, what I was doing in my life,” she said.
Smith was well on her way to clinching a spot in the Tokyo Olympics following a bronze on the 2019 World Cup circuit. When COVID-19 arrived and the world ground to a halt — including the historic postponement of the 2020 Olympics — Smith responded by trying to control everything she could.
But what she failed to acknowledge, she now admits, was that she was suffering emotionally. Smith was hardly alone; a recent survey of Canadians’ mental health suggests that more people than ever are reporting feelings of anxiety and depression during the second wave of the pandemic.
Slowly, Smith felt her mental health slipping as she fell into old thought patterns characteristic of her eating disorder at age 14. She developed insomnia, began severely restricting her food intake and felt her heart racing even when she was still. Eventually, she developed a deep sense of apathy toward life.
All the while, she kept training for the World Cup season in Europe. In October, when race day came along, she was unable to get past the finish line.
“I just broke down in the middle of the race. I pulled over into the side of the feed zone and I just burst into tears,” she said. “It wasn’t that I was injured physically. It wasn’t that I had a mechanical (problem). I just couldn’t get myself to continue.”
Later, she went to the house she was renting and had “a complete breakdown,” leading to a moment of crisis.
“I realized that I was in a bad spot, and it became very clear in that race.”
THE ROAD TO RECOVERY
The days that followed were challenging, Smith said, and she leaned on her husband — a fellow athlete — for immediate support. She then reached out to a sports psychiatrist, who helped her on the path to healing.
Over time, Smith has changed her mindset around mental health. Now, she says, she doesn’t see her struggles as a teenager as something isolated in her past.
“I think the second bout of this has made me realize that this is going to be ongoing, probably for forever,” she said.
“I thought my mental illness was a discrete thing that I went through. But now I see it more as those thought patterns and those behavioural responses, they’re there. They’re in my brain. That neural pathway is so well worn that they’ll probably always be there. And it’s about training my brain to choose a different behavioural response.”
Those new behaviours include Zoom chats with loved ones, exercise, getting outside as often as possible and a mindfulness practice that includes daily affirmations. For instance, on Wednesday, her daily affirmation was “I am a positive person.”
She’s also found it important to take breaks from the news cycle, particularly when it comes to pandemic-related updates.
“So when I’m sitting down to eat dinner in the evening, I don’t think about it, I don’t check in with my phone. It’s just me and my husband and the space — physical and virtual space, I suppose.”
LETTING GO OF CONTROL
The pandemic has raised serious questions about whether the Tokyo Olympics, officially scheduled for July 2021, will be able to happen. For someone who struggles with uncertainty, Smith responded by creating a detailed contingency plan of what she’ll do if the Olympics are postponed again.
“And once I’ve dealt with that, once I have that safety net of knowing I have a course of actions if things don’t proceed as planned, then I can focus full-gas on Plan A, which is that things go ahead as planned and that, fingers crossed, I get to be there.”
On Bell Let’s Talk Day, Smith said she’s sharing her story in hopes that someone else might see themselves in her experiences and find hope. She remembers how important it was for her, back in 2010 when the first Bell Let’s Talk Day was launched, to have a space to openly discuss mental health. At the time, she remembers not knowing a single person who was going through an eating disorder.
“Not because there weren’t people — guaranteed there were — it’s just that nobody talked about it,” she said.
Particularly with eating disorders, Smith said there’s a stigma that they’re superficial or not as serious as other problems.
“I really want to change that because an eating disorder is so serious and it’s so much more than a superficial thing that’s just how you think about your body.”
For anyone struggling with their own mental health, Smith offered advice from her own personal experience.
“Going through it doesn’t mean that you’re going to be unsuccessful or that you’re a failure or that you’re weak. This experience is just a small element of who I am, and sharing it just helps normalize the conversation a little bit.”