Other times, as I rolled into that final town of a bikepacking trip, I was drained in a different way–with dirt, sand, sweat, and grime covering my body and bike, alongside strong women who together have powered their bikes for days through washboard gravel, up mountain passes, through heat waves and torrential downpours.
I strive for moments like these that make me feel alive, stretch my comfort zone, challenge what I believe is possible, and nurture the beauty of intimately shared experiences. These are the instances often captured on YouTube or in photos, tableaus frozen in time. But I am gradually learning the gravity of the days that follow, and how to navigate the moments when this delicate “balance” dislodges, and the sensations begin to unravel.
As a track cyclist on the Canadian National Team, en route to the postponed Tokyo Olympics this summer, I have been balancing my Olympic preparations with my first year of medical school at the University of British Columbia for the past year. As a high-performance athlete, I am familiar with the quest to nudge the edges of possibility, but this unexpected balancing act was an added test. I squeezed training sessions in between classes or after long clinic days. At times, I felt pulled in a million directions, living a contradiction–one foot in the athletic world, which requires the singular focus needed to perform at the highest level, and another foot in a medical community, which was stretched to capacity and rapidly approaching burnout. There were weeks that I would spend long days working in COVID-19 vaccine clinics and then rush home to jump on my bike for an evening ride. My introspective journey was layered with the knowledge that I was going to retire after the Games, and I was searching for ways to exit this chapter of my life with grace and without regrets.
I admit to having a strong tendency to flirt with burnout. By “flirt”, I mean I pile on commitments, one after another, driven not only by my eternal curiosity and excitement, but also by a sense of responsibility or–less constructively–a sense of guilt. I love what I can learn about myself and the world around me by living near or beyond my boundaries. But I sometimes find myself with a sword of Damocles hovering above my head, ready to dismantle the precariously placed puzzle pieces of my life in an instant.
The importance of unpacking these tendencies and developing management strategies sooner rather than later is becoming more and more relevant, especially as I begin my transition from athlete to future medical professional, where burnout is rampant within the profession. Rates of burnout hover around 50% among medical students, residents, and physicians, and tend to be higher among female physicians. Instances of suicide among female physicians are also significantly higher than the general population. I recognize that being able to effectively manage burnout will be critical because it has the potential to jeopardize my ability to provide quality care.
This year, I began looking inwards with greater intention to better understand this aspect of myself after unraveling spectacularly last Christmas. The smallest inconveniences would send me spiraling into tears, my resiliency stores running on empty. I was exhausted from sleepless nights and I felt flustered, anxious, and emotional. I had just moved across the country and survived my first term of medical school in a pandemic. Behind the scenes, I was navigating the ongoing uncertainty about the Olympics and the end of my cycling career, fielding repeated questions about “will the Games happen” and “will I keep racing”. I had rapidly jumped from final exams to back-to-back training weeks, fueled by a feeling that I needed to make up for lost time, as I watched my teammates chipping away at their Olympic preparations across the country. I felt scared to feel uninspired and stressed about my time off slipping through my fingers. I didn’t feel capable of being the person that I wanted to be for the people I love, and the pieces of my life that brought me joy and excitement felt heavy. And, most importantly, I acknowledged that the familiar peak-crash-burn-rebuild cycle was not sustainable.
All did not change overnight. My housemate lent me her copy of “Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle” by Emily and Amelia Nagoski, and I began to recognize the importance of the “release” or “dip” that I felt after big events, that it was completely normal and human, but that there were also ways to more constructively manage the cycles. I could still strive for the peaks, but I needed to have an action plan for the days and weeks that followed. This means earmarking time and space to decompress. It means learning to unapologetically say “no” and to gracefully yet assertively uphold my boundaries. A longtime friend and I began sharing daily gratitude journal entries, helping to slowly re-tune into the beauty of the small moments, celebrate the small steps, and acknowledge the light that is so easy to take for granted. My lens slowly began to adjust.
This reframing of perspective dovetailed a reckoning and rekindling of my relationship with sport. At times in my athletic career, cycling has been the major source of stress and promoter of burnout in my life. Within the structure and pressure chamber of the high performance sporting world, I have struggled to find purpose and meaning in the journey, questioning who I am, who I need to be, who I want to be, and losing touch with the reasons that brought me to sport in the first place. The Olympic uncertainty and ethical challenges of hosting a Games in a pandemic wore on me and added extra layers to this internal journey.
I identified early on that to be able to perform–should I be given the opportunity–I would have to take a non-traditional route to the Games. My coach took a largely hands-off approach, giving me the space I needed to self-coach and follow my own path. When my heart wasn’t in cycling, I ran trails, cross-country skied with friends, swam across lakes, or did home workouts with my housemates between classes. I reconnected with the joy and freedom that comes from going on adventure rides and taking a less structured approach to sport.
It was through this process that I learned that cycling didn’t have to just be a source of stress, it could also be one of my most powerful tools to mitigate stress and burnout, especially as I manage the demands of medical training and the bigger life events and decisions that I will undoubtably face in the coming years. When life feels heavy, I can go outside to outride or outrun the stress. I am immensely grateful for the years that I have already committed to honing my craft as an athlete, in finding comfort in discomfort, holding form under fatigue, and keeping calm under pressure–skills that will undoubtably be vital in my journey as a future physician and beyond.
High performance sport has taught me a number of important, transferrable lessons. First and foremost, sport has been a vehicle to find my voice and learn to advocate on behalf of both myself and others. At times I have been told that I need to be more selfish, even more aggressive, to perform at the highest level. In some ways, I hope to challenge that narrative. Yes, being assertive is critical and it is important to be able to ask for what you need to perform at your best. But there is a way to invite, rather than demand, support. There are times where performance needs to take priority over other parts of your life, and this is where your ability to communicate with those around you becomes essential. As a natural peacemaker, this continues to be a lifelong learning activity for me, being able to use my voice effectively and upholding these boundaries. The athletic world has held space for me to put these skills to practice and to develop a quiet confidence with which I can walk forward into for the rest of my life.
In addition, being an athlete has taught me how to truly listen to my body. We’re often hyperaware of a little niggle in a muscle, tickle in the throat, or the various manifestations of training fatigue. It is one thing to hear your body, it is another to have the confidence to listen and respond; when to have the strength to stop a workout early or to take an unplanned day off, and when to say to your body “I hear you, I honour you, and you are capable of more.” As a woman, developing awareness and ownership over your own body is particularly empowering. This body awareness will be a useful tool in managing burnout. An astute friend of mine asked me: “What are your early signs? When will you know when you’re close to the edge?” She encouraged me to consider what it looks and feels like when my resiliency bucket is starting to deplete. I’m admittedly still learning what this looks like for me, but as I move forward, I hope to also translate this body awareness into how I listen to my future patients, to honour and hear their bodies, to work together to find a way forward and create spaces where they, too, feel empowered.
Finally, my journey in sport has helped me to tap into the importance of community and collaboration. So much of my athletic journey has been shaped by the strong women with whom I’ve shared the process. We have spent much of the past years living and training together in countries around the world. To ride a world class team pursuit, you each have to be completely committed to a team performance, to ride selflessly, and to have unwavering trust in each other as you barrel around the track at 55-60 kilometres per hour, just centimetres apart, with no brakes. You learn to read the body language of your teammates and adjust to the moment-to-moment sensations of the day. I find immense joy in sharing moments like this, the sense of solidarity, togetherness, and strength that is derived from creating something that is much greater than the sum of its parts. To create in this way, however, it truly takes a village. I am sustained and supported by the countless friends and family members who have stood by me with unwavering love and support, who pick up phone calls at all hours of the day and night, across oceans and time zones, who check in on the good days and the hard days. Though critical as an athlete, nurturing this safety web of support will continue to be essential in the coming years, as sources of strength and perspective through life transitions and in navigating the edges of burnout.
It is with this newfound perspective and appreciation for the role that sport can play in my life that I throw my leg over my bike and step into my pedals one final time in Tokyo this summer. The countdown begins. The crowd hushes. A camera scans our faces through our visors. I feel my teammates breathing on my left. Taking one final deep inhale, I curl my fingers tightly around my handlebars. My entire body is on guard, trembling in anticipation for this moment.
Photography by: Nick Wammes
 Templeton, K., Bernstein, C. A., Sukhera, J., Nora, L. M., Newman, C., Burstin, H., … & Busis, N. (2019). Gender-based differences in burnout: Issues faced by women physicians. NAM Perspectives.
 Duarte, D., El-Hagrassy, M. M., e Couto, T. C., Gurgel, W., Fregni, F., & Correa, H. (2020). Male and female physician suicidality: a systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Psychiatry, 77(6), 587-597.