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Tokyo Olympics: Haley Smith is focused on the path forward

Canadian feeling strong and ready for her Olympic debut

Haley Smith Photo by: Bartek Wolinksi / Red Bull Content Pool

The Tokyo 2021 Olympic Games are just a few short weeks away and Canada is sending three athletes for the cross country mountain bike race. Haley Smith will start her first Olympic’s event, alongside Catharine Pendrel and her Norco teammate Peter Disera.

We’re catching up with all three before they head to Japan. Haley Smith is currently in Andorra for a final block of training between the last World Cup in Les Gets and her flight to Tokyo.

Haley Smith Tokyo Olympics Andy Vathis Les Gets World Cup
Haley Smith races an incredibly muddy 2021 Les Gets World Cup. Photo: Andy Vathis / Norco
Canadian MTB: Congratulations on your selection. How did it feel to find out you’d made the team?

Haley Smith: Thank you! The first emotion was definitely relief. It’s been such a long qualification period, and I felt like I’d been living in a state of extreme uncertainty since the beginning of 2019. To finally have confirmation was just like this big cloud had been lifted. And then after that initial relief, the next feeling was some combination of excitement, fulfillment, and happiness.

Is there any relief from having this years-long selection process wrapped up? Or any change in focus?

Yes, definitely it’s a relief. I feel like I can finally focus on the job of being my fastest in Tokyo. The whole qualification period created a lot of stress and pressure, and as a first-time Olympian, I was very new to handling that specific emotional cocktail. It’s been a major lesson in distraction control that I know will benefit me in the long run!

You’ve shared online (Instagram, ect) that some of the results so far might not be what you’d be looking for, in terms of placing. What are the positives you’re taking away from the first World Cups?

I know from training that my fitness is as good, or better, than it’s ever been. I have been carrying around a lot of mental load because of the whole process, and now that that’s been relieved a little bit, I’m really looking forward to seeing what I can do on the race course. Now that I have the experience riding and racing with all that pressure, I feel like I know how to race more freely heading into Tokyo (and beyond!) and that’s a huge positive.

Haley Smith
Smith finished third at the 2019 World Cup in Nove Mesto na Morave, Czech Republic. Photo: Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool
You’ve shown you can be up there – and on the podium – with the best. Now that selection is official, what is the plan or strategy to get back to that pace or form between now and Japan?

My fitness is the same or better than it was surrounding all of my top 10 World Cup performances. No one can predict what will happen in a race, so my goal is really just to race the best and fastest I can. This is my first Games, and it’s really a learning opportunity; it’s a chance to learn about my response to pressure, what the Games are actually like, and how to get the best out of myself leading into them. My missing link this year has been to do with the emotional and mental side of things, and I’ve been working diligently with my mental performance team to make sure those aspects of myself are at their best in Tokyo.

Logistically, what is the plan from now to Tokyo? Where are you training and when do you head… East?

Right now, I’m training with Peter [Disera] and Lespy [Andrew L’Esperance] in Andorra. We’ll head to Tokyo from here on the 18th!

You had a chance to ride the Izu course in 2019. How does that course suit your strengths? Were there any parts of the course where you came away thinking “Ok, I need to work on that” – section or feature or otherwise?

The Izu course is really fun, and very challenging. It’s really on/off – the climbing is not sustained and it suits a powerful rider, which makes it right in my wheelhouse. It’s honestly very similar to the rhythm you find on many Ontario courses! After seeing the course in Tokyo, I knew I needed to work on commitment into features and that has been the key focus of my technical training since then.

RELATED: Canadian racers share their inside lines on the Tokyo 2020 Olympic cross country course</strong

Haley Smith Tokyo Olympics Andy Vathis
Haley Smith and Norco Factory Team teammate Peter Disera. Photo Andy Vathis / Norco
You’re going into your first Olympics on a national team with one Norco teammate and with an Olympic medallist and two time world champion. How valuable is being part of a team like that ?

Team is everything. A good group of people is the magic ingredient that allows everyone to be their best. I honestly couldn’t imagine better teammates than Pete and Catharine. I’m excited to soak up their expertise and approaches, and hope that I can reciprocate by being a teammate that brings out their best.

Earlier this year, you talked with our editor, Matt Pioro, about the mental health side of the pandemic. You’ve been open about that topic in the past, and now more and more athletes have started talking about how the pandemic has impacted their mental health as well. Has the return to racing, and the start of returning to some sort of normal helped with that all?

As things become more normal, I can feel a bit of a lightening. My baseline level of affect (meaning the baseline flavour of mood and emotion that I’m experiencing) has been getting a little better. I’m still struggling, but I’m getting glimpses of Happy Haley. She’s been pretty absent for the last two years, so those little glimmers have given me a lot of hope.

RELATED: Haley Smith knows real toughness

Commonwealth Games, Gold Coast 2018
Haley Smith earned bronze at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast. Image: Rob Jones
The last two rounds have seen the return of fans – in limited numbers in Leogang, then in full force in France. What was it like to finally race in front of fans again?

It was very weird, but also completely normal… if that makes sense? I found it stressful at first, but it’s surprising how quickly you can get used to things again. It definitely made the energy of the event a lot lighter and more fun.

Do you have a first – or favourite – Olympic memory?

Growing up, I was a hockey player and so I was always more drawn to the winter Olympics. I don’t know if it’s my first memory, but I distinctly remember the Canadian women’s hockey team winning gold in Salt Lake City (2002). Hayley Wickenheiser was my idol.

Was there a moment for you that the Olympic became a goal?

Yes, a very specific moment. In 2016, I made the selection pool for Rio, though I was never a real contender and I wasn’t aiming for it. But when my coach came back from Rio, he gave me a Brazilian banknote on which he’d drawn the Olympic rings. He told me he could see me at one of these things, and from then on, it became a real dream and goal of mine.

The Olympic men’s and women’s cross country mountain bike races take place on July 26-27, 2021 at the Izu Mountain Bike Course outside Tokyo, Japan.