By Annie Foreman-Mackey, National Team Track Athlete & Member of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Squad
My breath is heavy and laboured as I crest the hill along Spanish Banks – 3 min 58, 3 min 59, 4 min, done. I stop pedalling and coast for a few seconds before my bike loses momentum and I will my heavy legs to turn the pedals once more. The stars are blinking, and a light ocean mist cools my sweaty cheeks. When I turn my head to the right, my headlamp illuminates two confused walkers who bear witness to this scene. I’ll admit that this is not how I envisioned training for the biggest race of my career.
Choosing to start medical school this fall was not a decision I took lightly. Despite my careful contingency planning, I found myself at an unexpected crossroads this spring. My teammates and I had qualified for and were tracking well towards the Tokyo Olympics in early August 2020. I had also gained acceptance at my top-ranked medical school, University of British Columbia, slated to start in late August 2020. My planning had paid off: I would be “distraction-free” leading into the Games and have the foundation in place to gracefully transition away from cycling after Tokyo to begin my next chapter and medical career.
When the Olympics were delayed, I knew first and foremost that I have a deep commitment to my team and to everyone who has supported me in this cycling journey. The honour of representing Canada on the most public stage is both a privilege and responsibility that I have dreamed of. Sport also has a beautiful ability to unify humanity and offers a small glimmer of hope amidst the disconnection and uncertainty we are facing today.
I am also deeply committed to my work in public health, medicine, and social justice. I strive to be a health care provider able to walk with people through the most vulnerable periods of their lives, to skillfully guide health-related decisions, and to advocate for broader environments that support the health of all people in our communities. I have been fortunate to be able to continue this work throughout my athletic career, completing my Master of Public Health as a part-time student at University of Toronto, conducting research interviews across time zones, and writing the majority of my final papers on airplanes and in team houses across the world.
Over the years, I have lived, breathed, cried, argued, explored, and grown up with my team pursuit teammates. They have been tireless companions through my academic journey, editing policy briefs about harm reduction, listening to hour long practice presentations, conducting mock interview scenarios, outfitting me in business casual clothing, and reminding me to go to bed. Most importantly, they have trusted me to show up for the team when I need to, even when I had to fly from New Zealand to Vancouver for 48 hours to complete my in-person medical school interview in the middle of our build for the World Championships last year.
Though I am familiar with the balancing act of being a student-athlete, this fall has certainly tested my ability to thrive in both undertakings. It has also brought me full circle to my earliest days in cycling, when I was in my early 20s, squeezing in group rides before summer job hours or late at night by the light of my headlamp. Over the past few years, however, I grew accustomed to having the privilege and flexibility to move training sessions around in my days, to wait for the sun, or to finish my rides at coffee shops. Today I put on my kit as I listen to the final minutes of class, drink recovery mix in the shower, and my peers make note of the helmet marks that are still present on my forehead as I log into Zoom for afternoon class.
In addition to embracing familiar student-athlete routines, these past months have also marked an important rekindling of my love of sport, and reminder of the freedom and sense of adventure that brought me to cycling in the first place. It is easy to get caught up in the minutia and tunnel vision needed to perform in the high-performance athlete bubble. At times this is necessary. When the world shut down in March, however, I stepped back and tapped into more creative training approaches. I planned adventure rides, I ran trails, I swam across lakes, and – as I drove across the country to relocate to Vancouver – I rode my bike from Jasper to Banff and then across BC with friends and teammates.
These days, my training includes many of the same key gym sessions and on-bike efforts, but it also includes gravel riding, trail running, and skate skiing. I follow a less stringent plan than what I am used to and I am guided more by listening to my body to prevent burnout or illness. For me, it has been an exercise in trust, both from my coaches and teammates, and in myself to rely on and draw from my now-many years of athletic experience. I have been tapping into the strength that I am able to derive from these complementary athletic and academic journeys, where each supports and strengthens my ability to perform in the other. It is not easy, and I continue to learn where the outer edges of my boundaries lie. But, as with everything one does, it is a work in progress.
This journey is not what I envisioned, but this past year has not unfolded how anyone predicted. Each of us is growing accustomed to the process of repeatedly reimagining and recalibrating our expectations, norms, modes of connection, and sense of purpose. I didn’t dream of beginning medical training – a profession that is built on human connection and physical touch – by sitting on Zoom for 8 hours a day, or having my first patient interactions happen behind masks, face shields, and gloves. I also didn’t anticipate this bizarre bonus year in an Olympic “quadrennial”. I still find it hard to navigate the place of sport in society when the world is reeling and collectively mourning, and when we face a constant stream of micro-decisions, risk assessments, and ethical balancing of safety and responsibility in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In my first family practice visit in September, my preceptor sent me into a room with a patient to discuss a medical condition that I had only minutes ago learned how to pronounce. I felt uncomfortable, incompetent, and was exceedingly apologetic to the patient. Afterwards, my preceptor admitted “I knew that this would be unfamiliar to you, which is why I wanted you to experience that clinical encounter. More often than not you won’t have the answer in medicine, and you have to learn how to navigate the uncertainty, say that you don’t know, and come up with a plan.” This is similar to how we are approaching the Tokyo 2021 Olympic preparations. We don’t know what things are going to look like, but we have to come up with a plan and walk into the unknown. And I know that I will be savouring these final 48 laps around the track in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to fathom a year ago.
With that, I U-turn at the top of the climb and soft pedal down the hill, to begin my next interval under the stars.