Kate Courtney on the Olympics, climbing 100K feet, and using her platform to help others

World Cup champion Kate Courtney has been busy these past few months raising funds for COVID-19 relief, training for her new 2020 goals, and using her public platform to promote change.

Photo: Kate Courtney

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Kate Courtney recently climbed 109,000 vertical feet in 10 days of riding. The purpose of the World Cup champion’s climbing for COVID relief project was two-fold: to raise money for the World Health Organization’s Solidarity Fund and to serve as a huge training block. Yet, in many ways the former world champion’s 10 big days on the bike epitomize just how uncertain, challenging, and full of opportunity last three months have been.

Although Courtney knew she was fit enough to complete 10 days and 100,000 feet of climbing, she didn’t quite know how she was going to do it. The routes weren’t fully dialed before the challenge began. Would people contribute financially to the cause? And then, just as she was beginning to build momentum around the project, another, more-pressing crisis shifted the cycling community’s attention away from the coronavirus.

‘A huge responsibility’

Courtney has 403,000 followers on Instagram, 18,300 on Strava and likely hundreds of thousands more on other social media platforms. While she has always posted readily, bringing us into her gym strength workouts and on her California training rides, without podium pics or pre-race words of wisdom, Courtney and other athletes have found themselves with a void to fill.

Nevertheless, current events can provide more than ample content.

Courtney says that, as an elite athlete with a large social platform, the last three months, and in particular the last few weeks, have been challenging.

“There’s a lot of issues coming up that may seem political but that are, in my opinion, tied to human rights,” she told VeloNews. “As athletes that are are leaders in our communities, it’s important to step forward and say that type of behavior isn’t consistent with the values of our community.” 

Courtney was just two days into launching the Climbing for COVID Relief project when the protests and consequent conversation around the killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor reached fever pitch in the U.S. As the lines between personal and professional began to blur on other cyclists and bike industry platforms, it became clear to Courtney that she also needed to say something other than promoting her fundraiser.

“I have struggled with what to say in this moment because frankly I don’t believe my voice is the one that needs amplifying,” Courtney wrote on Instagram on May 31. “But I feel it is important to acknowledge and support this fight for justice and equality.”

Courtney told VeloNews that she considered canceling the Climbing for COVID Relief project that week. She called friends and mentors in the sport and thought deeply about whether it was the right thing to do. If it had been a fundraiser for anything other than COVID, she said, it would have been canceled.

“But I think this is a time where we’re all learning that compassion is really important,” she said. ” More compassionate acts are better than less right now. It felt difficult from a communication standpoint to show that ‘yes, I’m struggling with both of these issues at once.'”

In many ways, Courtney said, having a public platform is a huge honor. She gets to advocate for the things she loves and loves to share — riding bikes, being outside, and pushing limits. She also sees it as her responsibility to inspire a new generation of cyclists. Yet as the current national conversation around police brutality and racial injustice shows, holding a microphone isn’t just for shouting good news. 

“It also comes with a huge responsibility,” Courtney said. “To really make sure that the messaging you’re putting out into the world is appropriate and in line with your personal values requires a lot of thought and effort and time behind the scenes.”

Hope and heartbreak

Launching her Climbing for COVID Relief challenge at the same time that many others in the cycling space were focused on calling out racial injustices in the sport may have thrown Courtney for an unexpected emotional loop, but dealing with dueling emotions has become the new norm over the past three months.

After the Olympics were postponed in late March, Courtney wrote about the narrow space between heartbreak and hope in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.

“Some moments, I am overwhelmed by love and connection, grateful for the opportunity to create and learn in a world that has slowed to take a deep breath,” she wrote. “Other times, I feel heartbroken and discouraged by a timeline that demands constant reworking and mounting fear over just about everything.”

While social media and news coverage make it easy to see how cyclists have shifted their physical training during the disrupted race season (to Zwift and Everesting and everything in between), the emotional journey doesn’t always get the same airtime. Courtney said that, in the first few weeks of the pandemic, she was still fixated on “refreshing the news feed every day, waiting to see how I could restructure.” As she realized she couldn’t expect any answers about ‘the next race’ each day, or the next, or even the next week, Courtney says she had to shift her focus elsewhere.

“I had to find ways to stay motivated that aren’t tied to having a date on the calendar immediately,” she said. “I would say the biggest emotional change is just settling into the current situation and being less tied to intermediate goals. My long-term vision of competing in the Olympic Games is on the calendar, it’s a solid vision, and I’m really focused. Then, I have the immediate goals of ‘I’m going to climb X this week,’ or hit these numbers in training. But I’m less worried about the ‘how do I train if I don’t know what’s happening in two weeks.'”

Kate Courtney poses for a portrait at the UCI XCO World Cup in Snowshoe, USA on September 8, 2019 // Bartek Wolinski/Red Bull Content Pool // AP-21GXH69TW2111 // Usage for editorial use only //

The certainty of uncertainty

This newfound comfort level with uncertainty is helping to guide Courtney through the next months. She says that her current training goals are actually more tied to Tokyo in 2021 than to Europe this year. However, having a dramatically compressed World Cup calendar tentatively scheduled to begin in early September does alter the course a bit.

“The overall focus is just being ready for anything at this point,” she said. “Being ready for when we get that call to action. I’m lucky to have a coach with experience delivering people to races ready to perform. I’m hoping we’re able to play it right.”

The mega miles and vert Courtney racked up during the Climbing for COVID Relief project should provide a huge deposit in the training bank, but perhaps more importantly helped her continue to hone in on another aspect of training that she’s been able to focus on during the last few months at home: recovery.

Recovery is a huge part of the process,” she said. “The coronavirus has been great for recovery. Not running around at home, seeing friends, running errands. Of course, not having travel helps, there’s a lot of hustle and bustle involved, packing, unpacking, washing clothes. It’s been a really great time to be home, slow down a bit and focus on the recovery.”

Courtney says that, in order for her to get behind a big, self-directed project a la Everesting, it has to serve a purpose other than ticking a box. In fact, she and her coach discussed giving the 29,029 foot climb a go, but ultimately decided that the overall strain wasn’t worth the effort.

“For someone like Katie Hall, who’s an amazing endurance climber, it’s one of her greatest strengths in racing, it probably served a really big training purpose,” Courtney said. “For me, my climbs are like three minutes long, so that kind of thing wasn’t quite beneficial. I didn’t see the long term purpose in my training plan, and that’s a prerequisite for me for doing fun random things.”

Courtney says she was struck by the support she received during the Climbing for COVID Relief challenge  — Hall and other professional cyclists joined her, she was able to ride with her father and boyfriend, and she raised over $57,000 for the WHO. All of this served to remind her of how unified the cycling community can be, and of her role in strengthening that connection — even when it means speaking out on uncomfortable topics at inconvenient times.

“As ambassadors of sport, we all have the responsibility and should be more overtly acknowledging, ‘you are included and you are valued in this community,'” she said. 

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