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Cyclist’s Mental Health Series #1: Alison Tetrick

Robyn Davidson
3 Mar 2022

2017 Unbound Gravel winner Alison Tetrick is the first to talk in our new series on mental health

‘If you called me eight years ago, I’d have given you a lovely interview, but I don’t think I would have admitted how much fear and anxiety I had in my sport, as I can now’

Many media outlets have pinned Tetrick as the ‘Queen of Gravel’, with the American winning Unbound in 2017 – setting a new course record in the process – and being a three-time winner of the unofficial Gravel Worlds by Nebraska’s Pirate Cycling League.

She talks Cyclist through her mental health journey, including studying biochemistry, spending months recovering from a traumatic brain injury (TBI), and the freedom gravel provides.

‘You don't want to tell people because you want to get hired’

Photo: Wil Matthews

Tetrick is both talented and talkative. While she’s open about her mental health now, it hasn’t always been that way.

‘Mental health is a big thing for me. That’s evolved throughout the years and being in cycling. Sometimes you hide that as a professional athlete because showing vulnerabilities can be like blood in the water to the wrong people.’

Athletes don’t have to vocalise their mental health. But it’s also no surprise that even when some would prefer to tell those around them about mental health concerns, they choose to stay quiet. For all that open conversations about mental health are becoming more accepted, it’s still easy to feel pressure to appear ‘strong’.

‘It is true, you don’t want to tell people because you want to get hired. Then you don’t want a competitor to chop you in a corner knowing you have a propensity for a panic attack, so you have to fight all that.

‘As an athlete, you want to be tough and fearless. That's how you win, people don't want to see the chinks in your armour.

‘Therapy helped. I did it later. It was quite unhealthy early on. But in defence, when you’re going through something initially, you’re not the wisest person about it.’

‘Men have their own issues too because of masculinity’

Photo: Lezyne

Mental health issues can be further exacerbated by external stimuli such as societal expectations and stereotypes.

‘There’s not enough talking but I don’t think that’s limited to sports. I think also as women or female-identifying, we have a huge issue. Some of the issues I first dealt with in my concussions and traumatic brain injury situation were, is it that time the month? Or I’m just being moody. Then I was guilty of putting those labels on myself.

‘Men have their own issues too because of masculinity. Some think they need to be the tough Rambo-type guy. You have men who think they shouldn’t cry in public. They have their own side of the equation. I think that we don’t have a safe space and that extends to all careers.

Tetrick’s career was put on pause after she suffered a TBI from crashes in 2010 and 2011, followed by months of rehabilitation. She discussed how beneficial a support team can be.

‘I survived a TBI. It goes right into that mental health aspect too. I’m a very focussed and very driven person, all these things, but a brain injury changed some of my responses.

‘What I learned was the importance of getting a support team or group around you that you trust. Accountability partners are great. Also something I would highly recommend, and this isn’t just for head injuries but mental health, is a more external third party.

‘Say you’re dealing with anxiety and you tell your parents or best friend, they might still want you to act like you were yesterday or as the person they remember you’ve been. I really do like that safe third-party accountability partner that’s not attached to you as emotionally as others.’

Tetrick describes how at Unbound this year, she feels like she got a concussion after rear-ending someone, going from a high speed to a sudden, complete stop, and says she had to deal with symptoms for days afterwards.

Unbound had previously given her a career highlight when, in 2017 for her first gravel race, she won and set a new course record.

‘Unbound was very freeing’

Photo: Wil Matthews

Tetrick’s move from road to gravel was ignited by a desire to be in control of her own race schedule and set her own goals. This is also something that Nathan Haas cited in his switch to the discipline.

‘Unbound was a goal for myself. That’s why I fell in love with gravel. It was a pivotal point where there would be no team manager giving you a calendar and saying where you’re going and what you’re doing. You have no control that way.

‘In terms of mentally preparing, I don’t think I did any at all. It was my first ever gravel race. That was the longest I’d ever ridden my bike at that point. Before that I’d only gone for 120 miles.

‘Unbound was very freeing if that makes sense, it was a nice mental health thing.

‘I’ve won races, I’ve been on the podium at UCI World Championships, I’ve done all these things, but this was the moment I was probably most proud of myself.

‘I called my grandpa and I’m sitting on a corner of this curb in Kansas crying.

‘He would usually be the first person I call when I lost or won. When I failed, I would cry, and he would say “it’s okay to feel that way”.

‘My grandfather didn’t find the bike until his fifties. Right out of high school, he was drafted so he never got to express an interest in any sports because of that era. But later in life, he found bikes. He would pick up my hands and tell me I should race bikes.

And race bikes she did. In our interview, we discuss how we had both expressed a desire to understand what was going on with our brains, both studying psychology at college and university.

‘I grew up on a cattle ranch in California. Organised sports weren’t really a part of my life until about junior high. I got a full ride scholarship to play tennis in college. Loved it, studied biochemistry.

‘I still had a competitive gene when I graduated college. I’m working in a lab, looking at everyone being active and thinking, what the hell am I doing? At the age of 22 I didn’t want to work to play. I wanted to play while I worked.

‘It’s not that I didn't enjoy the research and the science, but I just felt trapped. I still probably deal with that in general.’

‘I raced on antidepressants for two years and didn’t tell anyone’

Given that we’re constantly evolving throughout different stages of our lives, I ask what advice Tetrick would give reflecting on previous versions of herself.

‘It’s hard, looking back at our younger selves,’ she says. ‘Now we can embrace it, we should all talk about [mental health] more. I raced on antidepressants for two years and didn’t tell anyone at the time.

‘I was so angry about it because people would say, “You’ve gained weight, you’re not as fast as you used to be, what’s wrong?...” – not meaning to sound harsh, they just held you up to this standard.

‘They’d say, “You've changed…” Fuck yeah, I’ve changed. It’s nice to look back at that version of myself.

‘In 10 years, I'll look back at this version of myself and probably think the same thing. If I went back and talked to Baby Bike Racer Alison, I would just want to tell her to have more confidence in who she is. Own your truth. There was so much in my life prior to bikes, and then being a professional athlete, gaining popularity and winning races.

‘Realise that when you walk one block left, no one cares about the bike race. But when you’re in it, that’s your life. So you have a bad day on the bike, and you forget that if you leave that hotel and walk to the coffee shop across the street, they might not even know there was a bike race.’

‘To choose my health over a result is the biggest thing I learned’

Photo: Wil Matthews

‘But you value your whole self-worth on your results. I think I tried to please people and when you try to please everyone, from management, to coaches, to national teams, the selection and all of that, and you’re trying to be something for everybody, you’re going to fail. You’re never going to feel good or successful or valued.

‘And if you don’t fit in, it’s okay. Just be truthfully you. Maybe that doesn’t make me the best bike racer, but later you’ll appreciate that you didn’t try to mould yourself to some societal expectation.

‘Even now, sometimes a loud car will pass or I’ll be in a race and something about the air in the road will bring back a memory and then I just freak out and shut off.

‘To choose my health over a result is the biggest thing I learned. But that takes a lot of confidence and a lot of reinforcement to keep reminding yourself and it’s something we should talk about, but people put athletes and accomplishments on a pedestal.’

Tetrick explains how she has dealt with the disappointment of not going to the Olympics, a goal she had set for her career.

‘I’ve accepted it, but I’m still sad about it. I did every other race that I ever wanted. I didn’t win all of them by any means. But I participated and did the best I could.

‘At one point in my career, I watched teammates that went and won medals. I saw that it costs a lot. For some people it might cost less because they have a different personality or different support team.

‘But for me, it was going to cost too much for my health and wellbeing. So you go, I think I’m done with that goal. With something like Unbound, it was about what I could get out of my myself that day. I was never scared about the result or not winning.

‘I just wanted to see what performance I could pull out of my deepest, darkest places.’



What works for Tetrick might not work for you, but what I have learned is by facilitating conversations about mental health and sharing stories, we can see what works for others.

As former Orica-GreenEdge videographer Dan Jones mentioned, cherry-picking from others’ strategies can be a great way to see what works for us.

Tetrick says a good starting point is to ‘acknowledge who we are each morning that we wake up. The fact is, we’re constantly evolving and changing. The other big thing I learned is to just give myself grace. Just accepting who I am when I am.

‘For me, it’s about keeping things simple and centred when you feel yourself short-circuiting, which is what I call it. Maybe one day you think “I’m going to be productive” and then you get there and think “this is the worst day of my life” so you binge Netflix or organise your closet.

‘I grew up in a Christian family. I had to learn how to read longer things again after my head injury. It was a beautiful time I had with my mother where we read the Bible, just a chapter a day.

‘But these were verses that were really ingrained in me from childhood, and it doesn’t have to be that if that’s not your thing, but what works could be resetting to something that’s just ingrained.

‘Is it meditation? Is it religion? Is it a song? Just going back to basics where you don’t need to put that much energy into it.

‘Another tip I have is that I’m a list-maker. I love lists and I can categorise them. So things I need to do, should probably do and then others like a mindfulness or productive list.

‘But sometimes our headspace can’t do that. If not, just start deleting photos off your phone. Even then I’m being productive.’

You can follow Alison Tetrick on Twitter and Instagram. Support her bandana project for diversity in cycling through scholarships here.

The next instalment of Cyclist's mental health series will be out soon.

Helplines

UK and Ireland 

  • Samaritans: 24/7 on 116 123 
  • Mind: 9am-6pm, Monday to Friday on 0300 123 3393

United States

  • Mental Health America: 24/7 on 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255

Canada

  • Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566

Australia

  • BeyondBlue: 1300 22 4636

New Zealand

  • Lifeline 24/7 Helpline: 0800 543 345

India

  • Sneha India: 10am to 10pm on 91 44 24640050

South Africa

  • Lifeline National Counselling: 0861-322-322

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