With the start of the new year comes Kaitie Antonneau’s sixth year with the Cannondale p/b Cyclocrossworld team, and perhaps her biggest race of the season: the 2017 USA Cycling National Cyclocross Championships.
As last year’s bronze medalist and a former U23 champion, plenty of eyes will be on Antonneau. Yet no matter what happens, her biggest battle has already been fought. This season, Antonneau has had to clear some dark obstacles to get back on a path of personal growth and self-acceptance.
All grown up
I have known Antonneau for some time and I’ll state bluntly and biasedly: I adore Kaitie Antonneau. From becoming the U23 champion, to college graduation, to now being home owner in Colorado and engaged to be married –I feel I have watched her ‘grow up’ and maybe you have felt the same.
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 elites and 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.
Pressure and Dark Monsters
“[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.”
Asking for help
Antonneau specifically asked us to share the passages above with our readers in the hopes that it may reach someone who too has felt lost or depressed.
“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,” Antonneau said.
And her advice to those experiencing the same is simple: talk and “do what you need to do – to be a better you, better athlete.”
For Antonneau this path includes sessions with sports psychologist Kate Bennett at Athlete Insight.
“My sessions with [Bennett] 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,” she said.
“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 [Bennett] and am able to just let all my walls down during our meetings.”
“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 overcoming them.”
Onwards and Upwards
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 this weekend, 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,” she said.
She laughed when asked about her race predications, avoiding placing any expectations on herself and gushing over her mentor and 12-time national champion, Katie Compton, instead.
“Well, Katie Compton has won every National Title since like forever! She’s just amazing! Really, she is amazing to watch,” she said. “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.”
Paying it forward
The experience and guidance of the Cannondale/CXWorld U23 development program has no doubt led to Antonneau’s athletic success. She started with the team at the young age of 18 and made the selection to represent the US at the UCI World Cyclocross Championship team the same year.
“During those early years, it was because of those women that my love and development grew for the sport,” Antonneau said. “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 was more than happy to step it up and pay it forward, mentoring U23 rider Emma White.
On race days, Antonneau advices on things like what line to ride through technical sections, tyre choices and pressure or gear selection, but it’s off the bike where the mentorship perhaps has the biggest impact.
“I love this role. I can 100% relate to her experience of racing a full cross schedule and being a full time student,” said Antonneau. “I remember those high stress days, and mentoring her is a situation I am comfortable and confident in.”
Between speaking openly about her struggles, serving as a mentor and starting a Yoga Teacher Training program, Antonneau seems to have found a passion for teaching others and speaks excitedly about what the future hold. Such a stark contrast from where she was in November.
In talking with Antonneau I noticed that my ‘young’ friend isn’t so young anymore. I’m staring at a mature woman who is committed, capable and sincere. An incredible athlete, brave enough to show her vulnerable side.
“I don’t have it all figured out,” Antonneau said 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”