Q&A: Katie Compton on depression, getting help, and moving forward

America's most decorated 'cross racer reflects on how a positive doping control was the catalyst for addressing underlying mental health issues.

Photo: Jake Orness

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On Monday, Katie Compton will start a new job working a Certified Nurse’s Assistant (CNA) in the Intensive Care Unit at a hospital in Colorado Springs, Colorado. A year ago, she was in Europe racing World Cups as a 15-time American national champion cyclocross racer.

Sandwiched between Compton’s new career in healthcare and her illustrious cyclocross career was the moment that changed her life.

In February, the 43-year-old received an email from the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) stating that she tested positive for an anabolic agent during an out-of-competition test administered on September 16, 2020. After months of legal battle, Compton accepted a four-year ban from competition.

Last summer, Compton completed the coursework to become a CNA while working for a homecare agency in Colorado Springs. She hopes to become an RN. She also started taking medication and doing therapy to begin unraveling chronic depression she believes has been latent for nearly a decade.

She said that she feels better, both physically and mentally, than she has in years.

Compton spoke to VeloNews on the phone from her home in Colorado Springs in mid-November.

VeloNews:  Katie, how are you? 

Katie Compton: I’m doing much better. I’ve been in therapy for months now. I have a great therapist. He’s actually out of Michigan, a friend put me in touch with him. It’s behavioral therapy for depression. Dialectical behavioral therapy, DBT. It’s been super helpful. It’s given me skills to retrain my brain to be less depressed. And more positive. I didn’t realize how depressed I was before things fell apart. I was probably depressed for 10 years off and on. With racing, I kept putting it off. I was exercising a ton, which helped me deal with it, manage. it. In February everything changed. And I was like, ‘shoot, I’m really depressed, this isn’t good.’ It forced me to get help. It go to the point where I couldn’t function until I got on medication.

VN: So, it wasn’t that the doping charge caused the depression.

KC: It forced me to get help because it was so bad. A friend of mine who I did a ’cross clinic with a couple years ago, she’s a psychologist. She reached out to me and said ‘I think you need help.’ We were emailing back and forth, typing things out, and it was like, ‘I sound miserable.’ I was also having suicidal thoughts all the time. I thought it was completely normal. My husband was like, ‘Katie, that’s not normal.’ I’m like, ‘you don’t have these thoughts every day?’ 

With therapy and meds, I haven’t thought about it in weeks. I think you don’t know what’s normal until you get help. That’s when I realized it wasn’t normal. Being happy is a feeling I never felt at all. It’s different now. 

It’s literally been a lifesaver. 

I didn’t realize how I had such a negative thought loop that was never-ending. The fact that I can talk about it now is a huge step. Three months ago, I’d be crying through the whole thing and saying I can’t do this. The hardest part was asking for help. The friend, she almost made me: ‘You have to do this.’

VN: Is this something people will be surprised to learn about you? 

KC: Probably. I was really good at keeping it secret. You want to put on a happy face. With the media and stuff, no one wants a Debbie Downer. I think with the racing, I just faked it for so long. You do it [racing] because it’s something to focus on. Without that, I was forced to focus on me.

Compton has taken to running high above her home in Colorado Springs.

VN: Are you riding?

KC: Yes. I’m riding more now than I was a few months ago. It went in waves. When February hit, I stopped riding completely. I found out two days after I got back from Belgium. Mark and I were already talking about retiring in December. In January, I was done. It wasn’t good for our relationship, my mental health. I was in a bad spot. The plan was to get home, decompress, rest, and reevaluate.

I didn’t really get a chance to decompress. Once I got the email, it was like, ‘fuck, I have to fight this.’ But part of me was like, ‘I’m definitely done.’ I made the decision to fight it for my reputation but I was done. I wasn’t going to pursue racing, I just didn’t have the desire. 

I was mostly running all summer and riding on weekends. With school I was just too busy. I was working doing homecare. Then, fall hit and I was done with the CNA program and waiting to take state testing which took forever because of Covid. I started riding more with friends, maybe once or twice a week. Just mountain biking. It’s been so good to catch up with people I haven’t seen for years because I was always racing.

VN: Is riding triggering for you?

KC: It was. That’s also part of the reason I stopped. Every time I got on the bike I was angry. It wasn’t doing me any good. But I like exercising. I’m not really riding road or ’cross anymore. But the mountain bike is different. I grew up doing it and I feel like it’s a different sport.

VN: Is it weird to all of a sudden be a civilian? To go from being a famous bike racer to a CNA doing homecare? 

KC: It’s funny, some people do know who I am. In the hospital there were a few people who knew who I was. When I took my state exam the woman who checked me in was like, ‘are you the bike racer?’ And it’s like, ‘yes, and, how much do you know?’ 

Either they don’t care or they don’t know. Honestly, no one cares. Outside of the bike world, nobody cares. It’s kinda nice. I like that I have that precious career and lifestyle and now I have this 180-degree change. I’m working and learning and no one knows who I am. I think they’re just surprised that I’m fit. They’re like, ‘you’re so skinny, you’re so little.’ I’m not considered little or skinny in my previous world, but I’ll take that compliment. I like it. I like the anonymity.

VN: Does your mind wander to racing, the doping charge, etc, at work?

KC: Not usually. That’s one thing I really liked about home care, or CNA work. I’m focused on someone else. I don’t have to think about me. I like helping people. I realized that through the process of doing the work that I feel good when I help others. It’s been meaningful and purposeful. On a selfish level, it also feels good to help people. It’s nice making people feel good. They appreciate me, and it’s a nice change from the thankless world of bike racing. 

VN: Has your experience changed your perspective on doping? 

KC: I do look at it differently. I know I was accused of something I didn’t do and I suffered the punishment of having a positive doping control when I didn’t do anything. I could only fight it to a point.

The thing is, I’m not the first, and I won’t be the last. 

I did everything I possibly could to be a clean athlete. I didn’t take anything. There’s nothing I could have done to avoid this, which is scary. I can’t be the only one who did everything in their power to be clean and be caught. 

VN: Does it give you empathy for others who’ve had positives? 

KC: Only for ones who didn’t do it. Not for the Lance group who did it and lied. But I do feel for people who are in my boat who have a positive anabolic and they don’t know where it came from. They [USADA] make it impossible. It’s expensive, they don’t give you a lawyer. If you want to defend yourself it’s up to you. It’s impossible unless you have 100k in the bank. Your hands are tied. It’s not a fair process. Even in the regular legal system, you’re innocent until proven guilty. With USADA you’re guilty until you can prove your innocence. It’s an uphill battle. I do have empathy, like for that runner. She’s $200k into it and she still can’t defend herself. I bet she didn’t do it, but it’s still gonna ruin her career. This can ruin your career, your livelihood, your life. 

VN: How have people treated you? Did you get hateful messages?

KC: I went through a phase where I didn’t look at social media, didn’t read anything. I shut everything down for two months. My friends and family, people who know me and my character and history, everyone knew it wasn’t legit. They believed me. It was the ones who don’t know me, who see me from afar. I’m not going to change their minds anyway. They don’t know me as a person.

I went through my Instagram account probably three months ago and decided to clear out stuff, delete things or block people. I was crying, people are so mean. So I deleted and blocked stuff, untagged myself. 

Then, I started focusing on positives. The fact that people who know me sent the kindest, nicest, supportive messages. There were so many good people who were on my side. I focused on that.

And I also know I didn’t do anything. Everything I’ve accomplished was 100 percent legit. I’m sitting with that instead of focusing on the perspective of what people think.

VN: Why did you say yes to speaking with me?

KC: I think because enough time has passed. I’m still angry and bitter about some things, and I’ve had people reach out to ask me about it, and I’ve said no. I feel like it’s time. Since I’m doing better mentally I think I can manage it better, I’m in a place to have a conversation.

VN: You said you’re not following the ‘cross season this year. How is that? 

KC: I’ve left that world behind. I have a few friends who are still racing, so I keep up with them to see how they’re doing. I will kinda follow through what they’re doing. But I’m not looking at results. I’m not watching any races. I’m not following anything on Instagram that is racing or riding related. I stopped following people who post about races.

It’s like having a really bad breakup but you still love the person. I needed to cut ties completely and not look at it. 

VN: I have to ask the token retirement question: Are you going to race gravel? 

KC: No. My god. That’s the thing, even talking to my lawyer about this months ago, he’s like, ‘you can still race gravel, it’s unsanctioned!’ I’m like, ‘you don’t get it.’ I’m not gonna do any more bike racing. Been there, done that. I got everything I need out of racing. I’m not competitive anymore. I would give up too easily. I don’t want to do eight to ten hours on washboard on a gravel bike. I’d much rather ride a full-suspension mountain bike than gravel. Granted, maybe five years down the road things could change, but I doubt I’ll be riding enough. I might do some running events if I feel like getting competitive again. 

VN: So none of those infamous group rides in the Springs?

KC: I haven’t done the group ride since October of last year. Maybe before then. It’s also too fast. I couldn’t keep up, there’s no way. Even with a fast Trek Madone, I still don’t think I could keep up. And I don’t have the desire to suffer. That ride is so fast.

VN: How have your sponsors been?

KC: They’ve been great. They can’t be necessarily supportive through the public eye, but they’ve all been super supportive behind the scenes. Empathetic. They feel for me. Again, these are people that know me. There’s a reason they’re always supported me. They still care. But obviously they can’t do the sponsorship part, which is totally expected. 

VN: How do you feel physically?

KC: Well I have this MTHFR gene mutation. Mental health stuff and allergies are a big part of that. Pretty much all my health issues stem from that gene mutation.

Honestly, I’m doing better healthwise because of the SSRI I’m on, which has been life changing. I should have been on it earlier, it’s helped more than just depression. My asthma and allergies are fine because I’m not doing that intensity. I still eat really well. My diet is still like I’m racing just so I can feel better. I feel like healthwise I’m better than when I was racing. I’m running, doing more core and upper body. I have to move heavy people around in beds now! I need to be stronger. I’m trying to be more balanced. 

VN: Right, super fit doesn’t mean super healthy. 

KC: I look back at all the times I’d bury myself and have asthma attacks and not be able to breathe and feel awful. I raced through mono, chronic fatigue — I couldn’t tell the difference. I was so used to feeling shitty. It’s like, ‘wait, when did I have mono?’ 

VN: Does life without racing feel foreign to you, or is it more familiar than you imagined?

KC: I love it. I love not racing. I wish I would have retired three years ago. I should have retired sooner, just for all of it. I feel better. I like waking up in the morning and being like, ‘I don’t feel like exercising and it’s fine.’ I can spend more times with friends. I can drink if i feel like it. I don’t have to travel. I didn’t realize how over it I was until I stopped. I was on a big adventure ride with a friend recently, and I said, ‘I love the fact that I’m not racing my bike.’

The transition is hard, especially mine. I wouldn’t recommend transitioning the way I did to anyone. 

VN: Have you been able to shift your focus away from how your career ended?

KC: I’m working on that too. A major life change when you’re in your 40s and borrowing money from your parents to pay a lawyer and then I have to start all over? That sucks. I think coping-wise, at least I’m not stressing about racing, travel, performance, if I can breathe. I can just focus on the next step. I love learning. School’s been a great distraction. The CNA stuff has been super rewarding. There’s so much good to focus on. I’m trying to remember all the good from bike racing minus the last two, three years and focus on the good that’s in front of me. If I can gloss over the last 24 months, everything is better. And then I also think about, OK, I’ve gotten through it. I’ve survived one of the worst periods. So I’m proud of that, too. 

Part of me is sad because I didn’t get to celebrate anything. That’s been a challenge. But you don’t always get you want. But you can move forward the way that you want.


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