Biking for Healing

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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.

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