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  Kate Smith Blog: Step Up From Junior To Elite - A Year Of Learning  
  February 4th 2019 By Kate Smith  
  Kate Smith racing at BC Superweek in Canada. Photo: Scott Robarts
  2018 for me was really just one big learning curve, with far more lows than highs. But I guess, when you are in a High Performance environment, this is what you signed up for and have to deal with. I think the most important thing I learned last year is there is no one forcing me to do this, I am not getting paid nor many other benefits, the only real reason I am choosing to ride my bike at this level is because I love it. Otherwise why would I put myself through it all if I'm not enjoying it? And that's not to say you're always going to be loving it, there are certainly moments that make you question what you are doing, but for me I couldn't see my life going any other way. So, for those interested, this was my experience diving in the deep end that is High Performance sport. Hopefully my story so far can reach other juniors who may be experiencing the same sort of transition.

Early last year I wrote an article on my time in Australia, fresh out of juniors, 18 years old, and riding UCI events Tour Down Under, Herald Sun Tour and Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race. You can read it here so I won't say much about it again. Summed up, this campaign set me up for a year of real elite level racing and kicked my head in a bit (but I wouldn't have had it any other way). It was a true test to see how I stack up against some of the world's best women's riders and gave me confidence I could make it to this level one day. I now had renewed motivation to get stuck into this elite racing and training like a pro.

Off the back of this, I found out I was selected to be a level three carded rider in the Cycling New Zealand Women's Track Endurance programme, based off my recent performances at Junior World Championships and training camps. In hindsight, I don’t believe I was ready for this, nor had the results to back this up, but of course I was never going to turn down an opportunity like this.

Not long after, I headed over to North America with a friend for three months of various road racing. Once again, another massive learning curve, racing in North America's biggest cycling series Tour of America's Dairylands and BC Superweek, as well as other UCI races chucked in around the three months. The two criterium series entailed 21 days of racing with three days off spent mainly travelling. Heading over there I expected some fast and gutsy racing, which is exactly what I got. Going into each race I had to throw away the idea that I was not as experienced nor physically capable as many of these women, and just had to give it everything I got and push back. It worked for most races, I had some credible results and tried some new tactics. The atmosphere and lifestyle of racing in the US is completely different to NZ, in a good way, and is something I definitely want to be a part of in the future.

Looking back on it, I cannot even begin to explain how cracked I was, not only physically but even more so mentally. This was my first self-supported trip overseas, where every last detail was organised by the two of us. It made me really appreciate having support back home. This really meant we had to be on top of our game, but at the same time everything sort of fell into place. That's something I love about this sport, you have these crazy adventures sometimes which you look back on and can't believe actually worked out, and you can make connections with people all over the world. Much of this trip could not have been done without the help of the friendliest host families, team managers and just strangers who we linked up with. Everyone over there was more than happy to help us out, and I can confidently say I met some awesome people I still stay in touch with.

Upon returning from this trip at the start of August, in theory I should have had some time off to recover, but I had Oceania Track Championships in my sight, and in my mind, recovery was not as important as not missing the training sessions (yes, I actually thought like that). Pretty much straight from the plane, without returning home, I moved into a new flat in Cambridge. To my credit, this only took me a day and a half, so I got settled back in to life and training in the NZ track programme pretty quickly. I was happy, extremely fit, and motivated to continue my hard work. I was back into Uni by now and already starting to find a job to help support living in Cambridge, as I was convinced, I would be able to juggle everything. I mean most athletes are able to do this so why shouldn't I? Plus, I like to keep busy. It's not good for an anxiety-driven person to have too much time to think.

The following months were the hardest I have ever experienced. A whole new lifestyle, new training, new coaches, far more pressure on my shoulders and I was a two hour plane ride away from my personal coach and parents, so couldn't just get away when I needed to. I never adjusted to any of this, I was never comfortable nor had a good routine going. Every day was a struggle, but at the time I thought this is what high performance sport is, I just need to be tougher. So, I continued to work at a café (which funnily enough was what I enjoyed most), study online and train crazy hours. Mixed in with appointments, meetings, social events, I continued to slowly crumble each day.

I was probably not much fun for anyone to be around (sorry) and I always thought it was my fault that I was going backwards on the bike, that I couldn't do the training that was required, and I wasn't going hard or sacrificing enough. I was scared of what people were thinking, that I was weak and didn't belong there or would never make it. Coupled with this was the frustration and confusion that I knew I was good enough – I had ridden fast times and had great races before, I'd won Junior World Championships team pursuit medals and helped set a New Zealand junior record – so I knew I had it in me, but the harder I tried, the worse it was and the not knowing what was wrong had me just feeling awful about myself.

I am well aware of what it takes to be in high performance sport and the pressure that comes with it, I mean I grew up watching it with my dad being heavily involved in high performance sport. But I do not believe it should have been at the cost of my mental health, and I know there is a better way for me to do what I love and still be successful (and happy). Cycling was consuming me, and I just wasn't enjoying it anymore. I was falling out of love with this sport, and my mental health was beginning to suffer because of it. I did have support from within the programme from coaches, my teammates and support staff, but I guess one of the things about mental health, that while people may care, until you have been to the dark places it is really hard to understand each individuals experience. And the impact that mental health can have on performance can often be too simplistically put down to 'just not good enough'.

As a result, with some advice from family and friends and consultation with my coaches, I decided to go home and have two weeks completely off. This would have been longer, but I had committed to a lot of racing that was still to come in the season, and with my personality I never like to pull out of things regardless of my form. The break was refreshing, but not enough. Back up north, I once again began to fall into this miserable, fatiguing hole. I was furious at myself, why was I feeling like this? I had just given myself a break, I should be better. But mental health cannot be fixed overnight, it is a much longer and complicated process and is nothing to be ashamed of.

Reflecting back, I feel I was very naïve throughout all of this. I didn't realise there isn't one perfect training programme that suits all cyclists, and that with my past training and physiology, I needed a different approach. I guess this doesn't fit in with the programme, or maybe I am just not ready for it at this stage and perhaps rushed into it at such a young age. With many more years in this sport (I hope) I want to enjoy it. I also learned the hard way that mental health can have a detrimental impact on your performance, no matter how hard you are training. I always like to think now, 'happy head fast legs'. However, top level sport is not all about glory, it's lonely too which is why support and guidance from the programme, family and friends with an emphasis on development is vital. Especially to juniors coming into this elite world with a whole lot of eagerness to get to the top.

This sport isn't for everyone, only those who are willing to put much of their outside life on hold. In saying this, I do not believe in shutting yourself off from life's experiences but there are times when you have to make tough lifestyle choices. Professional cycling can be very demanding, and there does need to be an element of this otherwise nothing comes of it. But it is about having perspective - that it's not the end of the world, and you shouldn't have to carry it everywhere.

I think for me, what really helps, is looking back on the reasons why I do love this sport. The adventures, the people, the scenery, the different cultures I get to experience, the things I learn and growing to be a better person. Always making sure I'm riding not because I feel I have to, but because I want to. Then I find myself back in touch with why I'm doing this and can get back to training hard. Which is the stage I am at now and will continue to do throughout 2019, with a fresh mind knowing what I need to perform to my best and being in an environment in which I am comfortable to do so. I don't know where this sport will take me or how far I will go, but I am positive I want to continue this journey and give all I can. I am grateful for all the people who have supported me along this journey – coaches, fellow athletes, friends and family - and I wouldn't want my life any other way, but also keeping in mind that riding my bike is just one part of my life.
 © 2016