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Alison Jackson: I Belong Here

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BIG FISH

I’m from a town called Vermilion, which is in east-central Alberta. It’s a town of maybe 4,000 people. I really wanted to be a farmer and just play outside and be with the animals. I had a lot of 'outdoor energy', which eventually got directed into sports. I played just about every sport that was offered in town - gymnastics, soccer, athletics - and for the most part I won everything that I did, but it was on a small scale. I was a big fish in a small pond. I remember with gymnastics, because it was so small in my town, when I would go to the city for a camp it was this ‘woah!’ moment. I didn’t even realize people could do the types of things these girls were doing. You were just immersed in something with people that were so much better than you. The good thing is you learn so much quicker when you can see what is possible.

I find that with cycling too, and it’s one reason why I love racing in Europe. I raced for two years as a pro in North America, and then last year I threw myself in the deep end and raced for an Italian team. In North America I could, with a certain degree of confidence, pick races on the calendar and say ‘I’m going to win this one.’ But in Europe, you’re racing with the best of the best, and you can be on the lower end of the totem pole. I’d rather that than to continue being the big fish in the little pond. 

 

BELIEF IS MORE POWERFUL

For the Rio Olympics, Canada only had three spots for the road race. I was in contention for a spot, but I was named the 4th rider - the first alternate. It was great, but really I just sat at home and watched the race on TV. That was my second year of being a pro cyclist, so now I have a pretty good idea of what it takes to get back there. I mean, the safest option is always to podium at the World Championships, or be Canadian national champion. For me it’s about gaining more experience, winning some races and learning how to be the best teammate. Hopefully it will make me a more complete package for 2020 in Tokyo.

My coach and I are thinking about the smaller, more detailed stuff - the marginal gains. It’s everything from how I train, to focusing on the mental skills, learning how my body reacts to nutrition, and doing aerodynamic testing. The little things will make a big difference in the end. I’m super easy going as a person, so the main thing is fitting all of this to me and my personality. Other types of athletes might be super rigid and detailed and structured, and I definitely need to add some of that in and try it. But for me, having my teammates, my family and my husband believe in me is more powerful than some of the rigid science stuff. 

 

I'M A SOCIAL PERSON

Some of the things I hadn't considered when I turned pro was stuff like how you’re supposed to do your taxes. They never tell you that, but when you think about it I’m travelling all over and in Europe we race in so many different countries. Do I need visas for all these countries? And if so, am I visiting or working? Even some of the financial planning is difficult, because parents are always keen for you to save for a house.

All that said, I think I thrive when things change and everything is new. Travelling and meeting new people is awesome. In Italy, though, it was so much more about the racing and less about having friends on the team. I’m a social person and I love telling jokes and laughing, and making people laugh - the silly stuff. That's what I have loved about North American teams; there’s a bit more emphasis on fun and personal connection. But with the language barrier and the cultural differences that wasn’t really part of it in Italy. It’s really hard to make jokes in another language. Or, sometimes at the dinner table my teammates would start talking faster and faster, and by the time I’d figured out the joke they’d already moved on. It made it hard to make friends on the team, so the hardest part was sitting there realizing I haven’t laughed in a couple of days.

“Yeah, I've always had really positive self talk and I think it comes from how I was raised. My family is really big on faith and belief in God, which has instilled in me a really grateful kind of attitude - like hey, you're here for a purpose.”

VAN LIFE

My dad is still doing the farm thing; we raise bison. My husband works with Dad for some of the busy periods, then he travels around with me for the rest of the time. We mostly live out of a van, which some people find funny but it totally works for us. My husband doesn’t race and doesn’t ride road bikes but he likes being a nomad and living on the road, so he was the one behind the van life for us.

For a while we wondered how we could fit our seemingly very different career and life goals together. It seemed like our schedules were mostly clashing instead of complementing. It took some getting used to, but once we figured out the right mix of give and take it has been great for us. We both love the wilderness, exploring new places, simple living and chasing the sun. It’s been really neat to see how God has made us complementary to each other, while being really different as well. There are times where maybe living out of a van doesn’t make sense, but this is a really good way for he and I to be together while I do what I want to do, which is make the Olympics. He just really wants to see the world and meet new people. So, sure, we’re not both professional athletes out riding around together, but we have a complementary lifestyle and sometimes you need to think outside the box to be able to keep pursuing what you really want.

 

Photos courtesy of Alex Jackson

ADAPTABLE

I think being an athlete has taught me to be adaptable and to control your reaction, so when real life gets stressful or hard or chaotic, I’m able to stay calm and assess the situation. Just deal with what’s happening right now. If there’s a problem, my self-talk kicks in and says “It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay.” It might hurt, it might not be a nice situation, but just go through the process and problem-solve it. Cycling has a ton of ups and downs and things that are unexpected, and if you let these outside stressors get to you then it’s no good for your performance. The same is true in life. If you work through it step-by-step it helps, rather than taking on all the stress and emotions at the same time.

I’ve learned through being an athlete that sometimes things are full-on, and other times they’re more relaxed. There are going to be times in life where you really have to be full-on 100% attention, where it takes a lot of effort all at once, but then you’ll get other moments where you can chill. Whatever moment you’re in, you need to be fully engaged to what that situation has to offer.

SHE'S SUPER INSPIRING

I think when I was younger I definitely took my mom for granted. She did all this stuff for me and was super helpful and would make anything I wanted come true. Now I recognize there’s a lot of work that she did, and a lot of sacrifices she made to encourage me. Last year she had breast cancer and she’s taken the whole thing with so much grace, which just reaffirms a lot of how she interacted with me when I was younger. I really see now. I admire her and all the things she did on the sidelines, or behind the scenes, that were never properly recognized. I think she’s super inspiring.

I’m really thankful for technology like FaceTime and Skype that keeps us connected. I love social media, mostly because that’s how I keep up with how other people are living their lives. I’m not physically there, but I get to keep in touch. When I signed my first professional contract I knew that I was going to have to miss out on some family time and other social things, like weddings. In my first year as a pro, my best friend from college was getting married and I was really sad when she told me the date because I was racing Redlands that day. I’m sure it was a hard thing for her to understand why. I mean, she’s my best friend and I’m choosing this bike race over her wedding. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing for her, but I was confident in my goals and made the decisions that were best for my career. Even now I have FOMO, but you have to be okay with the consequences.

 

“One of the exercises I did when I was running at university was to imagine seven different ways I’m going to win this race. Once you can figure out seven different ways, when you get to that critical moment you have a more automatic reaction rather than having to think about it on the spot.”

YOU BELONG HERE

I use a lot of keywords, and sometimes they’ll even be specific to that particular race. Often it can be as simple as “you belong here,” which helps you believe in yourself when you’re new and no-one knows your name. Absolutely you belong here at the front of the peloton, or next to the world champion. In Europe, I really had to tell myself that I belonged because athletes at the top, top end all know each other and they expect the same people to be around when it gets to the pivotal point in the race. So when someone new comes along they almost team up to get them out of the way. I had to keep telling myself that I belonged and that, big fish in little pond or not, I could do it.

 

YOU NEVER REALLY KNOW

I’m big on building reference points to have in the back of your memory. Something like when you have a hard race and you didn’t think you could do it, but you get through it. I had this one race last year where we had a terrible preparation going into it. I had to wake up at 4:30am for a 6:00am flight. It was six hours to France and then we did another six hour drive to get to where the race was. When we eventually got out for a ride my legs felt terrible, I was so tired from the travel. We raced on the WorldTour the next day. It was meant to be a good course for me, but my legs felt terrible and I’d convinced myself that I wasn't going to win. At the end, though, I was at the front of the group and when it came time to sprint I was passing people. Oh my gosh!But, it was too late. I missed an opportunity to be aggressive or go for it because I had given up before I even started. Now I use that as my reference point: even if the preparation doesn’t go to plan, always put in 110% because you never know what you’re going to have at the end of the stage. 

FOLLOW ALISON

Footnotes: Words by Alison Jackson, Photos by Matt Clark (Stirl and Rae Photo), Edited by Cody Royle, Published by Travis McKenzie, Copyright NTSQ Sports Group

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