Heading into the 100-mile Big Sugar Gravel bike race, Haley Hunter Smith knew the winning title of the Grand Prix series was hers to lose. “Mathematically, the only way I wouldn’t win the entire series was if one of two other women took first place at Big Sugar,” Smith recalls. “Once we were halfway through the race, I realized that wasn’t going to happen. I was able to sit at the front of my group of riders and just enjoy the rest.”
Winning the women’s division of the renowned off-road cycling series — in which the best riders in the country compete in multiple races for prize money — was the culmination of months of training and dedication for Smith upon returning to the sport after some time away.
It was also a celebration of how far she’d come in biking career, which had begun during one of the hardest periods in her life.
A Bumpy Ride
Smith, 29, describes her childhood in the small town of Uxbridge, Ontario, as “pretty amazing.” “My parents made such a great life for us,” she says. “My brother and sister and I grew up in our home in the woods, on a few acres of land my parents owned. We played all the sports we wanted.”
Smith enjoyed dancing and playing ice hockey both on a team and for fun. As she got older, though, life brought some challenges to the surface, and in ninth grade, she was hospitalized and diagnosed with mental illness. “I was very anxious growing up,” she recalls. “When I went to high school, that transition sent things out of control for me, and my anxiety sharpened into a food focus. I was originally diagnosed with anxiety and anorexia. Since then, I’ve been re-diagnosed with anxiety and orthorexia.”
When she was released from the hospital, Smith picked up biking. “My dad and brother biked recreationally, and they just loved to ride,” she explains. “I started riding along with them for fun, but I soon learned it was the only thing that made me feel better from my mental illness.”
Smith also worked with a psychologist and psychiatrist and practiced yoga and mindfulness to help manage her diagnoses. “Nothing was as powerful as the bike, though,” she adds. “Being outside grounds me and makes me feel less anxious. I can just breathe.”
After a few years of riding recreationally, Smith — who describes herself as a naturally competitive person — started racing at 17 years old.
“My growth in biking was incremental,” she says. “I started out riding in a Thursday night race series, which is very similar to a pickup hockey game — it’s very casual. Then I started racing in Ontario Cup events. Then, I moved to Canada Cup races.”
From there, she progressed to the Canadian Mountain Bike National Championships in Canmore, Alberta in 2011, before being invited to participate in some World Cups.
By the time Smith was 20 years old in 2013, she was on the professional circuit — and had set her sights on the 2020 Olympics.
For nearly seven years, Smith trained for the world’s largest stage and continued to ride and compete full-time. “I was experiencing a general upward trend in my performance and qualified for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo,” she says.
Smith competed, but the games didn’t go quite as she had dreamed. “I was drowning in pressure, and I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was struggling so much,” she shares.
She finished in a disappointing 29th place — she had typically placed in the top 10 during the qualification period. “I struggled with the pressure and scrutiny that came with competing, and honestly, just really underperformed. It was emotionally, mentally, and physically a lot to handle — and that’s on top of it also being the time of the pandemic. I just didn’t handle it well. I was working with a psychologist and several other performance specialists — a dietitian, physiologist, therapist, etc. — throughout the whole Olympic quadrennial.”
Reflecting on the experience, Smith says she’s learned that really challenging life scenarios like those she experienced around the Olympic Games can bring thinking and actions related to her eating disorder back to the forefront of her mind without her realizing it. So, she decided to step away from the Olympic discipline of mountain biking for a while.
“A few years ago, I would have said I’ve overcome my eating disorder,” says Smith. “Now, I’m not so naive. The thought and behavior patterns that are characteristics of my eating disorder are deeply ingrained, and though those pathways may become buried or disused, they’re still there. I think it’s something I will always have to be aware of and work around. Practicing self-awareness is key.
“Sometimes that looks like a formal meditation practice, and other times it’s just through journaling. Or it’s more of an underlying ‘way of thinking.’ And I’ll be honest, I haven’t formally meditated since the Olympics. It just doesn’t flow for me right now. I’m confident I’ll get into that practice at some point, though, but right now my practice is more informal and unstructured.”
While biking’s place in Smith’s life has only grown over the years, the healing it’s brought as a tool to support her mental health has remained. We spoke with Smith to learn more about her passion for mental wellness and what she’s doing to make a difference in others.
Q&A With Haley Smith
Life Time Editorial | You’re dedicated to helping others who struggle with their mental health. Can you explain why that is and some of the things you’ve done?
Haley Hunter Smith | I’ve been living with my diagnosis since I was young. I go through periods when I feel like I have great mental health, and periods when I feel like I have terrible mental health. I knew people must be able to relate to me.
I realized that I had an opportunity to show kids they don’t have to be defined by a diagnosis and that they can achieve whatever they want. The only thing they need to do is have a dream and have the courage to pursue it. That became my purpose, and my mountain bike became the method.
I started to speak publicly about it in my early 20s, and that was scary at first. But when I went through the worst of my struggles in ninth grade, I was so alone because nobody talked about that kind of stuff yet. It was “pre-destigmatization” era.
And I know for sure that, statistically, there had to have been other girls and women I knew going through something like that. At the time, though, because no one talked about it, I didn’t know a single other person who had experienced that sort of mental-health struggle.
So, I made a choice that I would do whatever was in my power to make sure no one else went through it the same way I did, feeling isolated and like they’re “crazy.”
I spoke at local clubs to raise awareness and reach girls, specifically, who might not otherwise have been reached. It progressed from there and became like a pro-bono volunteer speaking gig that I would do.
Through that, I ended up being connected with a lot of people who were going through something similar for one-on-one mentor relationships. That’s something that has been really challenging but fulfilling for me.
There’s also an organization called Cam’s Kids that helps kids manage anxiety, and I helped launch that organization as their first youth ambassador.
I’m currently advancing my education in hopes of continuing to make a difference. I chose to go into sports psychology for my master’s and am in a lab (also referred to as a research group) that focuses on youth development. This is a group of master’s and doctoral students and faculty members who conduct qualitative and quantitative research into youth development through sport.
I hope that in the future I can make impacts on sports policies and sports delivery — the providing of sports as an experience and opportunity for youth in terms of programming, leagues, etc.— so kids are given a better outlook and more mental-health skills when they’re younger. I also hope to impact the media’s representation of sports.
LTE | What skills have you learned from your life experience that enables you to help other people?
HHS | First of all, eating disorders like anorexia and orthorexia don’t make sense. It is counter to evolution for your brain to try and starve you to death. You will likely never feel understood by someone who hasn’t gone through it because they often can’t get it fully.
That’s something I get a lot of feedback on from girls — although sometimes boys do come up to me as well, but I see it more with girls: They’ll often say to me, “Wow, no one has ever said exactly how I feel.” I think that’s a unique aspect of these types of diseases.
I’ve reached a point in my life where I’ve had 14 years to make sense of my mental-health struggles, so I have a relatively concrete conceptualization of what I go through and what happened to me. I think I understand it relatively well and I’m willing to be very open about it.
I feel a responsibility to share my story. I’m driven to share it. That’s probably the biggest part about what I bring to others; it’s not just a willingness to share, but I believe this is part of my purpose.
LTE | What advice would you give to someone who is struggling with their mental health, or knows someone who is struggling with these issues?
HHS | The first step is to tell somebody. It will make the situation so much better, and it takes courage to do that. If you can even just tell one person, that is the first step to finding support for your journey to better mental well-being.
You don’t deserve to feel this way, you don’t have to feel this way, and you don’t have to be a prisoner to this disordered way of thinking. If you can take that first step and share what you’re feeling with someone, I highly encourage you to do it.
LTE | What have Life Time races meant to you?
HHS | I was first introduced to the Life Time cycle events, which have brought relief and enjoyment for me in recent years, through the Life Time Sea Otter Classic, which I’ve raced nearly every year — with the exception of peak COVID years — since 2012. This race is even where I met my husband, Andrew L’Esperance, who is also a professional cyclist.
The race intrigued me to try other Life Time events. Racing for about 90 minutes was routine for me, so riding UNBOUND for 11 hours and the Leadville Trail 100 MTB for seven hours in the mountains in Colorado, was wild. The physical challenges were monumental, and I’m really surprised that I got through them. They were so fun.
I credit some of my achievements to the social aspect of racing. During a race, you come together with other people for a moment in time, even if you’re not on the same team. I just love the camaraderie and the cooperation. It feels like you’re in it with the people around you to get you through it.
My husband and I actually both competed in the Life Time Grand Prix in 2022. Each rider had to commit to racing at least five out of the six races in the calendar year, and their results from each race combined for a grand total at the end of the season, determining both a men’s and women’s winner.
LTE | What’s next for you with riding?
HHS | I haven’t fully made up my mind yet if I’ll pursue the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. Right now, I feel very motivated by the kind of racing that I get to do in the Life Time cycling series. It feels more fulfilling, particularly socially, although I do have Olympic dreams deep down. It’s just not a goal that I can force; I have to be gentle with that goal because my first experience was kind of traumatic.
LTE | You found biking to be therapeutic for you. What advice would you give to someone who wants to try biking for the first time?
HHS | Don’t be intimidated. It’s supposed to be fun, and it doesn’t matter if you’re not wearing the “right” gear or if you look goofy. It’s just a fun thing to do and it’s great for your mental and physical health.
An easy way to get into biking is through gravel or riding on rail trails. It’s a little safer and you don’t have to worry about traffic. I’d say just don’t be intimidated and give it a try. Don’t worry about what you look like or if you feel like you don’t belong on a bike because the answer is yes, you belong.