Rachel Atherton unveils trials of motherhood and downhill dominance

Atherton unveils trials of motherhood and downhill dominance

As the mountain biking community eagerly awaits the return of Red Bull Hardline on February 24, making its debut in Australia at the Maydena Bike Park in Tasmania, the echoes of the Atherton family’s legacy resonate through the rugged terrains of the new downhill racing track.

With Dan Atherton’s creation of the original Hardline course in Wales, the family’s connection to the event runs deep. Rachel, Daniel’s sister and renowned queen of downhill mountain biking, holds an impressive track record, boasting five World Champion titles, six UCI World Cup Champion titles, and the remarkable achievement of a first-ever perfect season in World Cup downhill racing in 2016.

Yet, Atherton’s path to glory has been far from straightforward. In the second episode of ‘Just Ride’ Season Two, she provides a raw and unfiltered portrayal of the challenges that temporarily sidelined her racing career, and discusses her unwavering determination to return to the sport, making her the ultimate comeback athlete.

  • Athlete vs. Mother Roles: Rachel Atherton highlights the challenges she faced as an athlete compared to those she encountered as a mother.
  • Identity Struggle: “Who are you without racing? Who are you without competing?”
  • Unwavering Resilience: Atherton’s career was marked by injuries, yet she consistently triumphed over adversity, returning to racing after each setback.
  • Toll of Excellence: “I got to the point where I wanted to win so much, I was riding so fast, too fast for my body to keep up with. Winning was so good, but I smashed myself to pieces again and again and again.”

Seated in the studio with ‘Just Ride’ hosts Rob Warner and Eliot Jackson, British rider Rachel Atherton opens up about the profound impact of motherhood on her life and career, shedding light on the complexities faced by female athletes as they navigate the delicate balance between family commitments and the high expectations of elite athleticism.

Atherton, who continued to ride almost throughout her entire pregnancy with calculated risk and within her comfort zone, welcomed her daughter Arna in August 2021. Reflecting on the contrasting pressures of her career and being a parent, she says it’s easier to be an athlete than to be a mother: “As an athlete, you train hard and then you rest hard, and that’s the cycle you’re in. The rest is so important as an athlete. You’re competing, you’re racing, you’ve got one day absolutely full tilt. But on Monday you rest, and you’ve got as much time as you need. Being a parent, you’re running on that same adrenaline, but you’ve not got that rest, you’ve not got that time to look after yourself. It’s relentless, 24/7, and that’s what kills you. It’s so gnarly.”

The shift from athlete to parent presented significant hurdles for Atherton, leading her to question her identity: “I struggled for sure. It doesn’t mean I didn’t love Arna. I love her more than anything. But that transition has been so hard – just to find who you are. Who are you without racing? Who are you without competing?” She goes on: “It’s hard in this society, in this day and age, to even feel like that [being a mother] is enough. I felt guilty for just being a mum. I wasn’t racing, I wasn’t training, and I felt so guilty for not contributing to this or that business, and not pulling my weight. ‘I’m just a mum’, and as soon as you start thinking that it’s so bad.”

Before embracing motherhood, Atherton already confronted significant challenges, each requiring her steadfast persistence. Throughout her career, she endured numerous injuries, each posing a threat to her professional aspirations and testing her resilience repeatedly, as she explains: “I had five years of being injured, year after year after year. I had surgery after surgery after surgery. And I thought, ‘This is not worth it. I either need to win and be healthy or quit.'”

“I got to the point where I wanted to win so much, I was riding so fast, too fast for my body to keep up with. Winning was so good, but I smashed myself to pieces again and again and again. And I remember thinking, ‘Something’s got to change. Either I’ve got to accept that I’m not going to win a lot because I’m not willing to go so fast and risk injuries, or I’ve got to make myself so good, train so much more, and be so fast that I can ride at 80% safely and still win.'”

The worst incident she sustained, as Rob Warner recalls, is when she snapped her Achilles tendon at the Les Gets World Cup in 2019, forcing her into an 18-month-long recovery period. The incident raised concerns among many members of the bike community, questioning whether she would ever be able to make a comeback.

“That Achilles, it’s still with me now,” she says. “If you don’t keep on top of the rehab and the strength of that leg.. my calf is emaciated. It’s awful, I’m ashamed of it, don’t look. It’s so small and skinny,” Atherton shares.

“People ask, ‘Is it ever going to be the same again?’ And I’m like, ‘Absolutely not.’ That’s it now. It’s always going to be worse. It’s just the way it is, you know, it’s a price you pay. It’s hard to accept. My legs were the only thing that was alright, and now there’s only one that’s alright. That Achilles injury was really hard to swallow.”

Despite her family responsibilities and a hiatus from racing to recover from her leg injury, she made a triumphant return at the 2023 UCI Mountain Bike World Cup in Lenzerheide, Switzerland. There she secured her 40th title, marking an extraordinary milestone 17 years after clinching her first World Cup victory.

“Before I had that win, it was painful,” she admits. “I’d watch the races when Arna was a little baby, and it’d be a good afternoon of crying and being sad. I really got into it, because it hurt. I wanted to race, I missed it. I felt like that was my place or I felt like that was mine to win. Even if I wasn’t there. And then, after Lenzerheide that year, after that win, I feel way different now. It’s definitely changed my whole perspective on racing again.”

Since that victory, Atherton has felt less compelled to compete and has decided to take an off-season. Looking back at her journey, she admits to yearning not only for the thrill of competition but especially for the structured routine of training: “I miss racing, 100%, [but] it’s more the training I miss, that single mindset, that focus. You know every day what you’re trying to do – trying to be better, you’re trying to be faster, you’re trying to be stronger [..] Just having that focus of you doing your job, you’re doing your thing. Without that, it’s really hard. I mean, what else is going to take that place?”

Through the highs and lows of her career, from navigating the responsibilities of motherhood as a top athlete to overcoming career-threatening injuries, Rachel Atherton has exemplified resilience, determination, and an unrelenting passion for her sport. And as the mountain biking community anticipates her next chapter, one thing is certain: Atherton’s journey is far from over.

Catch the Rachel Atherton ‘Just Ride’ podcast HERE.

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