Olympian and graduate student talk about mental health and the search for balance

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How did you come to cycling?

When I first started cycling, my family had been practicing pretty much since we were kids. They mostly did endurance and I loved cycling, but I just wasn’t an endurance athlete. Then I discovered track sprinting and I was like, “Oh, I really can do it. I cycle on the track and do the sprint events. My events were the sprint match and the keirin. They are very short and very fast races.

How did you do in your Olympic events?

Just with COVID and all, it was definitely a victory to get there, and there have certainly been impacts from that. The velodrome is obviously very dependent on the location, and therefore to have the facilities closed, obviously, the formation was a little below average. So you can see it (in the results). But I certainly didn’t do badly: I had 13e and 16e in my two events. I was just very happy to be there, honestly.

I live in Colorado Springs and train at the US Olympic Training Center, but our qualifying races were all over the world, so two years of World Cups and World Championships go into the count. points. So with the COVID delay, it was three years, it was a very last three years.

What was it like participating in your first Olympics?

For cycling, it was very special because the velodrome was in fact four hours from Tokyo (in Izu); we were not in the Olympic Village. We had our own satellite village, and for us it was always going to be more like another cycling race. So I didn’t get a chance to experience the village or anything, but because we were outside of Tokyo we were actually allowed to have spectators, and it was quite unique. But just to be there, to make it happen; I think everyone was relieved that (the Games) went down.

What was it like having such a long gap between actual racing events?

We’ve done it so much that you kind of go back on autopilot, like, “Oh, I know how to do that kind of thing”. But it was great to feel that adrenaline and everything again. When you got there it was kind of a shock to the system. But then you were like, “Okay… calm down.” I know what I’m doing.’

When did you first discover a passion for speed cycling, and has the Olympics always been a goal?

I didn’t really start competitive cycling until I was 17, so I was a bit late in the sport. Then I found the velodrome in a year, so I’ve been pretty much only on the track my whole career. I have been racing for 11 years at this stage.

(The Olympics) wasn’t a goal at first, then I was like, “Oh, I’m really good at this. And then I found out that I liked the hard work, the training, and just focusing on that process. In this I created the goal and the dream of going to the Olympics. (The Olympics) was not a goal of my childhood, like some of the other athletes. I’ve been on the US cycling team for about six years.

You completed a health science degree with a concentration in health and wellness promotion at UCCS. What sparked your interest in health and wellness?

I love physical activity and its nutrition side, and I just didn’t want to make a career in elite sport. So, I found it interesting to do studies at the population level, because it allowed me to combine what I like but also to have a greater impact. The ability to have a greater impact on the population is the reason why I chose public health.

I had to enter (the ColoradoSPH Masters in Public Health Graduate Program) after Tokyo (in 2020) and then, obviously, with the delay (of the pandemic), I balanced higher studies and training for the Olympics for two semesters. I am an online student of the Population Mental Health and Wellness Program.

In an Instagram post, you mentioned the COVID disruption, claiming that the pandemic has thrown a ‘curved ball’ at you. How? ‘Or’ What?

Yes, that last Olympic preparation is really stressful, and all you have energy for is training and doing things like nutrition, recovery, sports medicine. So it gets really intense. And then have to do that and school, when I expected to go to school after (the Olympics), it was just a reshuffle.

But, obviously, everyone had to do this during the pandemic. It turned out that having school to get away from the bike a bit was also, I think, a blessing in disguise too.

So mentally it’s a break for you at this elite level – getting away from your sport every now and then?

Yeah, it’s just a lot of pressure (to compete at that level). Getting away from it all and having something else to think about, something else to focus on, is important. Also, there is the aspect of working towards my post-athletic career; because, I think, that was a huge thing about mental health at the Olympics.

Mental health was just one really big topic for Tokyo, and I think COVID exacerbated it. Many athletes have a hard time when they are done competing. They don’t know what to do because their sport is their life – that’s it. And so that also helps a lot to work towards something that I can do after (athletics) and have those plans.

What are your postgraduate aspirations in public health?

I really like community health programs. I love health equity, but honestly I’m just finishing my education and seeing what I find (of interest) in school. I’m not sure what I want to do in particular, but providing more access at the community level to prevent adverse health effects is really interesting to me.

You are interested in the Rocky Mountain Prevention Research Center. Tell me about it.

Last semester, in the spring of 2021, I volunteered on a pilot garden program in their early childhood education classes. It was with their Culture of Well-Being Program in Kindergartens. I wanted more experience in public health, and… they gave me skills. I have found it rewarding to do something that makes a tangible impact on a program that can help children.

Your brother was on an Instagram post with you in Japan. Was he part of the US cycling team in one way or another?

Yes, he is a member of the staff of the national team. He is a bicycle mechanic. Because our families weren’t allowed to go and spectators weren’t allowed (other than cycling events), having someone to share (the experience) with was really special.

We obviously know each other very well, so working together is easy. We don’t have to say a lot of words to get things going, so it was almost like I just had a really supportive teammate I could count on to get my gear ready. It’s just a really well-oiled machine, I guess, that works with my brother.

What will you take away from the challenges you have overcome over the past two years?

I am thinking of flexibility. It was a theme for everyone, but you certainly can’t control (the events). We weren’t even sure if Tokyo was going to happen even with only a few months to go, and so you just keep practicing, but you also think, “I don’t know if it’s gonna happen. So, just more flexibility, and knowing that you can get away with it, even if it’s difficult.

Also, I think the focus is more on mental health. Obviously this is my (academic) focus, but as an athlete it was so important. And I think in Tokyo, with a lot of top athletes like Simone Biles, there was a really big conversation about it. And then in public health, with COVID and all the disparities and negative impacts of the pandemic, I think only mental health really combines everything for me.

Do you plan to participate in the 2024 Olympic Games?

Yes, we’re back in qualifying for Paris 2024 in early spring, as it’s a two-year process. I go to school part-time… so it will probably be a four-year (diploma) program for me instead of a two-year program. I will probably graduate around Paris (Games).

What activities do you like to do to take care of yourself apart from cycling?

Being from Colorado, I really love going to the mountains. It’s something I don’t do a lot because of my competition and training schedule. Having the chance to explore the mountains is a great escape for me.

I see you go by the nickname ‘Purplewatts’ on the US cycling team. What is the meaning of purple?

(Laughs). Purple is my favorite color. It’s something someone made up about me – just my love for purple, and now that’s kind of my motto. It is certainly an identifier. I have purple shoes, my helmet has a purple running stripe and my own cycling kit when I’m not racing for the national team is purple so there is definitely a lot of purple.


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