When Gillian Carleton found herself on the Olympic team as part of the women’s team pursuit squad in 2012, she wasn’t mentally prepared for how difficult it was going to be.
The Fairfield resident had quickly climbed the cycling ranks, winning medals for Canada at the Olympic test event and the World Track Cycling Championships before she made the Olympic team.
Despite her success, she was always comparing herself to other athletes and fighting an ongoing battle with depression, which reared its ugly head as an eating disorder in her early teens.
“I was in a pretty dark place. To get the kind of energy to get out the door and train every day was becoming very difficult,” said Carleton, who felt like she “lucked out” when she made the Olympic team.
“I never felt confident in anything I did, I never felt that I was worth my spot on the team. I just always felt like I was letting myself down and letting everyone down.”
After a bronze medal was draped around her neck at the 2012 London Olympics, Carleton felt validated and relieved she could finally relax, but things in her life quickly changed.
She went from being a bike shop employee to racing professionally in Europe. Some times were really good, she recalled, but the pressure of living up to the expectations of being a professional athlete and Olympian began to take a toll.
The death of a close friend also sent Carleton spiraling into a negative place. Struggling to stay afloat, she was finding it more difficult to get onto her bike and within six to eight months Carleton came back to Victoria for a short break in between races. Plagued by fatigue and a string of physical illnesses, eventually she broke down.
“The thought of having to go back and keep doing it when I just felt like I couldn’t even catch my breath at all — I felt frozen. There was no way I could leave to go back to do that again,” said Carleton, who walked away from competitive cycling in 2014 and sought professional help for her depression — something she had been keeping bottled up for years.
Given her gregarious, outgoing personality, Carleton’s struggle with depression came as a surprise to many of her friends and family, but the team and Cycling Canada were supportive when she started talking publicly about her personal battles. Some people, however, wanted her to keep quiet.
“In the sporting world you don’t really talk about your weaknesses. You want to seem like you got everything under control, so I felt weird talking about it,” she said. “I thought I would lay it all out there because there’s probably someone feeling the same way who doesn’t want to talk about it.”
Carleton has thought about returning to competitive cycling, but has instead thrown herself back into her studies at the University of Victoria where she’s finishing a double major in biology and psychology. Battling depression has been a driving force behind her plans of applying to medical school and specializing in psychiatry to help others heal.
These days, the 26-year-old admits she’s working harder than ever, but feels like things are more in control than when she was travelling with a cycling team in high-stress situations. Depression is something she knows she’ll have to continually deal with, which is why she regularly sees a counsellor and follows a routine that helps when everything else feels like it’s going to pieces.
Carleton still hops on her bike from time to time, but it no longer feels like a chore. On Sunday, she’ll be making the 105-kilometre journey for the third annual Shopper’s Drug Mart Ride Don’t Hide charity and awareness ride for the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA). Corporate teams, school groups, friends and families from 30 communities across Canada will join together to ride.
The message is to get loud about mental health, raise awareness, reduce stigma, show support and ultimately take action for mental health.
“We’ve had this culture for as long as most people can remember — to talk about your feelings on mental health has always been seen as weak,” said Carleton. “People can go through these challenges and they can come out the other side. It doesn’t have to be a success, it’s just making it through another day.”
The Ride Don’t Hide takes place at Ogden Point and includes four ride distances along the scenic coastline. Cyclists of all levels are invited to join. Funds raised benefit CMHA’s mental health programs and services. For more information visit ridedonthide.com.