Clearing Obstacles: Katie Antonneau's journey from depression to self-acceptance
With the start of the new year, comes Kaitie Antonneau's sixth year with the Cannondale p/b Cyclocrossworld team, and perhaps her best chance yet at a podium at the 2017 USA Cycling Cyclocross National Championships.
The former U23 champion is coming off a stellar 2016 season, which saw plenty of podium, but more importantly for her, personal growth and self-acceptance.
Her goal for CX Nats is simple: have the race she knows deep down she is capable of.
I have known Antonneau for some time and I'll state bluntly and biasedly: I adore Kaitie Antonneau. I feel I have watched her 'grow up' and maybe you have felt the same.
From the U23 champion, to college graduation, to now being home owner in Colorado and engaged to Luke Keogh. Working with the team, I remember watching Antonneau race many years ago, and people calling her - The Little Badger.. I never called her that, instead I called her - The Silent Ninja. Because that is exactly what she was. She possessed a quiet pre-race demeanor yet when she was out on the course she'd slay the field. She'd then come back to the team trailer, and calmly and kindly ask, "hey, Jen, how is your day going?" She had just finished destroying women twice her age and she was asking how I was! But that was and still is Antonneau - thoughtful, full of class and silently destroying the women's field in the world of cyclocross.
A few years have passed since Antonneau transferred from the U23 field into the elite sand she is no longer the 'silent' ninja. Instead, she's become somewhat of a Roaring Ninja - finding her voice as she has come into her own.
Far from stoic, Antonneau's bravest act yet has been allowing others to see her vulnerable side as she talks openly about her depression and the challenge of finding yourself while dealing with the pressure of being a female professional cyclist.
"[I made] a big step forward," Antonneau told me, admitting that she was in a bad place coming into the 2016 season.
"I had the mindset of 'if I don't do better or equal to what I did at this race last year, then that means I suck or I haven't improved.' The depression was already there, but I always ignored it. Bringing that mindset into this season with me really caused that depression to surface. I had a huge amount of unhealthy pressure that I was placing on myself. There is a balance that I'm still trying hard to find. I can't continue to live in a way where I'm so laser focused on my cycling goals and so paranoid about being responsible with my money and choices I make in life so that I will be all right and stable in the future."
Antonneau's lowest point came in November, just a few but formative weeks ago.
"I wasn't able to ignore the dark monsters inside my head anymore. Literally all of November I laid on the couch. I couldn't get up. I didn't see a reason to do so. I was in a very dark place." she said.
Solace came in acceptance.
"I've accepted it and now i'm doing everything I can to learn how to manage it and better myself in a way that works for me. I've had to go back and figure out the reasons why I love riding and racing my bicycle. I had to go back and figure out how to do it for me, how to find the healthy and appropriate amount of pressure I can put on myself without going off the deep end," she said. "I am fortunate enough to have a very solid and amazing group of individuals in my circle. I'm on my way back to the path I want and deep down know that I am capable of."
Antonneau entered and completed her most recent races with renewed focus and joy. As a result, she had strong results in Antwerpen and Namur, and will line up at CX Nats this weekend as a podium favorite.
"I walked away from this most recent Europe block being able to honestly say I did the best I could in the moment and I allowed myself to be proud of that," Antonneau said, "Which is something I have really been working on. I didn't dwell or compare it to how I've done in the past at these particular races. In Antwerp it was a very nice race with a very stacked field... The more opportunities I have to race the best in the world - the better I do."
Going into Nationals, Antonneau is excited but wouldn't admit to any hard goals.
"I'm excited! I've never been to Hartford so I'm looking forward to. I'm 100% focused on having the race I know I am capable of. Predictions [laughing] Well Katie Compton has won every National Title since like forever! She's just amazing! Really she is amazing to watch. I've learned so much from her. We are really lucky , truly we are. The U.S has a strong field of women. That's all I'm going to say: For now," she said.
The intuitive success and ability of Cannondale/CXWorld U23 development program has no doubt led to Antonneau's formative years. She started the team at the young age of 18 and made the Elite Women's World team the same year. "During those early years it was because of those women my love and development grew for for the sport. It's very important that the Cannondale/Cyclocrossworld program continues to excel. It is 100% the top model team oriented cyclocross program in the United States. It's very important to keep level and continue to grow our sport.
No longer the youngest on the team Antonneau more than happily has stepped up as mentor to young U23 Emma White. "I love this role!" gushes Antonneau. "It's so fun and special to finally have Emma White on the team. She's so young but already so accomplished."
Indeed she is, Emma White has two Junior Road World Championship medals already and still has a few more years to content in the U23 category for cyclocross. Antonneau is the perfect mentor to Emma as she herself understands the demands the young college U23 is going through. "I really like being a mentor to Emma, and can 100% relate to her experience of racing a full cross schedule and being a full time student. I remember those high stressed days and mentoring her is a situation I am comfortable and confident in. I also give her advice on race weekends regarding technical sections, tire pressure, tire choices, and gear selection."
Now established as a big-sister mentor, Antonneau has readily admitted she herself has needed guidance. Last season Antonneau turned to Kate Bennett Sports Psychologist of Athlete Insight in Denver, CO. "My sessions with Kate really made a difference in my personal life and in my athletic performance. It was an exciting and successful year working with her because I had put a lot of hard work in both on and off the bike, so I wanted to see what I was capable of." says Antonneau
A lot of good came from her work with Athlete Insight. Kaitie opens up further explaining how her and Bennett had to work with new and different struggles this year and that led to Kaitie having to dig deeper than she ever has. "I realized, I'm just in a different place this year. We as humans are always learning and evolving. It's so comforting to know I am comfortable enough with Kate and am able to just let all my walls down during our meetings." Antonneau goes thoughtfully quiet for a moment. Then explains, "I think you have to be open to always evolving. What worked for you two years, or a year ago, may not work for you now. And that's okay. I think it's important to recognize that - we will always be in a different place, facing new struggles or a new ways of looking at things, and new ways of over coming them" Antonneau says.
Kaitie is focused, sincere and over our Skype chat I notice my 'young' friend isn't so young anymore. I'm staring at a woman who is committed, capable and secure with herself. She is on a path - a way of living that she is comfortable and confident enough so to talk openly about. "I am, like I said - I am on my way back to the path I want and a path I know I am capable of. And this is part of it. Talking to you. Talking to others. Acknowledging any dark monsters that you might need to address. Talking to a sports psychologist - do what you need to do - to be a better you. Better you, better athlete." smiles Antonneau
Kaitie finishes off our conversation expanding upon the importance of being present and enjoying the moment of - now - and how these simple concepts have been one of the most important tools she has brought into her life. "I don't have it all figured out, [smiling] but I like my direction and where I am headed and I've never been more excited for the future and trying new things! I just recently registered to get certified in a Yoga Teacher Training program! I'm really excited about this!"
Antonneau's conversation has left an impression on me. Thoughtful, honest, raw and real. All ingredients for finding a path that works - for you.
Do you have a coach?
I do. I've been working with Kristin Armstrong now for three years. It's been a very positive experience for me. I enjoy our phone conversations because we are very different in a lot of ways but it's funny because also very similar. She really cares and is invested in helping me to become the best athlete I can be, but more importantly the best person I can possibly be.
With Kristin Armstrong as your coach, who else has been your mentors, guiding you through when you first started out up to now?
Katie Compton and Mark Legg have been important mentors in my development throughout the past seven/eight years. I'm a visual learner and I could write a novel about all of the stuff I have learned and witnessed from Katie and Mark. SO MUCH VALUABLE on and off the bike information. Along with Stu Thorne and Tim Johnson. And yes, Kristin Armstrong in the more recent years. I'M VERY LUCKY!
Speaking of mentors and staff. Who do you like better, Joe Devera or Stu Thorne? Be honest Kaitie:
[laughing] NO! Oh, my gosh. I can't say. I know who. But, I can't say. I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings [huge smile] They both are amazing!
Good answer Kaitie. You have seen some significant changes in the CX realm of racing. What are your thoughts as to where it is headed, and what would you like to see for the CX community?
My thoughts on where cyclocross is in the United States, is - It's present and strong but we really need an actual series. The USGP model was a great one. I understand that a series costs big money but the series model has value and meaning. In Europe, there is the Supersprestige and BPost series. All of the racers go attend each race that makes up the series, not half there and the other half somewhere else. There is a real following and a real importance on those races. You have the best all racing together in one place. Here, we have several UCI weekends all over the country on one weekend and I think it's ridiculous, sometimes even annoying. I don't believe that is helping to grow our sport. The people involved in our cyclocross community though are some of the BEST people involved in cycling! The community is still definitely so strong, so many people on various levels of the sport who have such a passion for it. It's amazing and I love being part of it.
2017 goals for road?
For 2017 road season, I will be riding for Cylance Pro Cycling. Right now, it makes sense for me to be on Cannondale all year round. It seems like a great group of women and I'm excited to be part of it.
Have you ever considered racing one discipline?
Yes, I am starting to get to that point now where I'm seriously starting to consider this. I just love cyclocross so much and if you do the whole season, the actual calendar season is from September - the end of February.
Top three most proud moments of your riding career - THUS FAR - and what are you 'still' wanting to learn and or obtain?
My second place at the Valkenburg World Cup in 2015. My third place at the Jingle Cross World cup in 2016 (my whole family was there in person to see what one so it was extra special). My eight place at the World Championships in Zolder in 2016. This season, I've allowed myself to truly be proud of these accomplishments because I've finally recognized how hard it is to accomplish. That is what I have learned - and still am learning. It's all balance of accepting, learning, and growing.
What does success mean to you as a professional cyclist?
It's natural for athletes to be competitive and want to be the best. Success to me though - IS BEING IN COMPETITION WITH NO ONE. Just aiming to improve, to be better than I WAS BEFORE. You can find a lot of small and big success in this. Whether it be another World Cup podium or riding a technical section better than you did the previous lap you just did six minutes ago.
What does the world need more of? Less of?
More respect to this beautiful earth we live on. Less self-centered, small-minded individuals.