Saturday, July 2 2022

BMX world champion Jessie Smith was on the brink 12 months ago, seriously contemplating suicide, in part because of a high-performance system that let her down.

Smith retired from the sport aged just 20, while hanging by “an absolute thread”.

Five months later, someone she shared the high performance space with – Olivia Podmore, is said to have died of a suspected suicide.

Jessie Smith walked away from top-level sport in 2021, aged just 20.


Jessie Smith walked away from top-level sport in 2021, aged just 20.

With an independent review on Cycling NZ and athlete wellbeing just days away from publishing, Smith is ready to share her story. She knows it’s confronting, but it’s her reality. It is also the reality of others, she says.

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“The reason I walked away and quit was because I was headed for death,” she said, holding back tears.

“With everything coming out with Liv (Podmore) and the investigation, it just brought out that appreciation and gratitude for where I came from and where I am now.

“Unfortunately, the system let me down. It failed many others.

When Smith was first selected into the high performance environment, she felt privileged. But life was quickly eaten away by his sport. To cope, she “did” alcohol, drugs and self-harm. She knew that if she continued in the sport, she “wouldn’t be here today”.

“You just want a break. Every second, every minute, every day, your brain says to itself… ‘what did I do wrong? What can I do better?’ It’s a continuous cycle of endless negative shit. You are eaten up by it.

In 2019, Jessie Smith was world champion.  She also fell into depression.

Nico van Dartel

In 2019, Jessie Smith was world champion. She also fell into depression.

The descent into depression began before the 2019 World Junior Championships, which she won. It didn’t help, she says, that Cycling NZ (CNZ) didn’t select her for the championships because she didn’t register in time for the national championships – a mandatory qualifying event.

At first, CNZ stood still, with one official saying it would “open a Pandora’s box” if a waiver were granted. She called. In the end, it caught on.

Smith first raised mental health issues with his coach at the start of 2020, months after the world champions’ victory and following a severe concussion. 2020 has been plagued by Covid-19 lockdowns and no international travel.

Then, in January 2021, she received an email advising her that her Developmental Enhancement Scholarship was not being renewed based on “current training, performance and [CNZ’s] vision of your future performance potential.

She says receiving news of the loss of funding and selection by email was standard practice.

” They do not care. We know it’s not an easy task to make these decisions… but it’s the way you do it and the way we see it,” she says.

“That’s what Liv saw. She saw her coach go scout out other athletes. Liv saw herself not being selected, she was going through the process and they didn’t care.

“And when …. a place becomes available [at the Tokyo Olympics] the coach says “no, I’ll give it to someone else”. They wonder why Liv did what she did.

CNZ acting chief executive Monica Robbers said the letter was delivered after “significant consultation with Jessie”, but acknowledges that “this practice of emailing a letter was poor and it is not more practice”.

Jessie Smith has reached great heights in her BMX career.

Dominico Zapata / Stuff

Jessie Smith has reached great heights in her BMX career.

As a professional athlete, Smith says he was told in a meeting to stop working and commit to his sport. Because of this request, Smith says she lived in poverty.

Robbers says CNZ is unaware of this practice, and “it is a practice that would never be tolerated.” She said high performance staff who have dealt with Smith on career management “have never been more than fully supportive and there is correspondence on file that represents that view.”

Smith missed rent payments and sometimes wondered where his next meal would come from.

“There were months when I didn’t have a rego or a WOF because I couldn’t afford it. There were months when I ate pretty rough because I couldn’t afford it.

In March 2021, she left the program, citing welfare.

In January 2021, Cycling NZ's high performance director Martin Barras emailed Jessie Smith saying her funding was not being renewed.

Dominico Zapata / Stuff

In January 2021, Cycling NZ’s high performance director Martin Barras emailed Jessie Smith saying her funding was not being renewed.

At that time, she emailed CNZ High Performance Director Martin Barras and other staff. She thanked the organization for its support. It was all a ruse.

“I had to put on a forehead. It was horrible. I didn’t want to cut ties.

Through her recovery, Smith was able to access resources outside of the CNZ program.

His decision to seek help elsewhere was, in some ways, due to a lack of trust in certain parts of the system.

“I felt like I was never taken care of. That I was just a commodity. Many athletes feel the same way. You feel replaceable. That’s the reality.

“There were two or three people who really cared about me as a person. That’s all we want…is to be seen as a human being and not just an athlete.

Robbers says Smith received “significant support” from CNZ and also paid for private support.

“Jessie deserves a lot of praise for her openness and willingness to talk about things openly. She’s been very brave.

Smith shared her mental health struggles with other athletes, including mentor and friend Sarah Walker and Podmore. Because Smith was struggling with his own battle, it was difficult to support Podmore through his.

“She was the light of the room, the happy go-getter. That was exactly how I was. But because I wasn’t well, I just needed to be there for me. I could see what she was going through. In her last months, she was running after life.

Jessie Smith described Olivia Podmore (left) as

Alex Whitehead/Photosport

Jessie Smith described Olivia Podmore (left) as “…the light of the room, the happy go-getter”.

Smith didn’t share a few things with the staff in the space, as word would get out to coaches and selectors. Livelihoods and dreams would be at stake, she says.

“You don’t want to talk because you think if you say anything it’s going to come back, and it’s to your detriment. [CNZ] have control.

Robbers says “there is no substance” to the staff’s allegations that they breached confidentiality.

On Monday, the independent review of Cycling NZ and athlete welfare is due to be made public.

Robbers says a review of the BMX program was also done because “we recognized there were issues in that program and things CNZ could do better.”

Smith hopes the findings of the two reviews will be a turning point.

“Let’s learn and change for her [Olivia’s] legacy. That’s what Liv wanted.

Jessie Smith says she is following in the footsteps of canoe racer Aimee Fisher by choosing to go her own way.

Aaron Gillions/Photosport

Jessie Smith says she is following in the footsteps of canoe racer Aimee Fisher by choosing to go her own way.

There is a happy continuation of Smith’s story. She’s back from retirement, recovering from recent surgery, and doing an “Aimee Fisher.”

Smith is following her own path, as is kayaking world champion Fisher, who quit Canoe Racing NZ’s high performance program due to welfare concerns.

“It takes so much courage and mana. What she has done shows us that we can do it. We don’t have to fit their mould.

The 2024 Olympics in Paris are in Smith’s sights. She just wants to give her best and enjoy the ride. She is currently looking for sponsors to help her get there.

“You are more than your sport. You are more than your success. You are more than your coach thinks. You are more than your parents think. Honestly, what we do in life should be about our happiness.

“Liv’s passing was my biggest wake-up call. It put me in the biggest hole of my life. But she also saved my life, in a way.


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