From riding high to depths of depression, BMX world champion Jessie Smith breaks her silence

World BMXer champion Jessie Smith was at the brink 12 months ago, seriously considering suicide, in part she says because of a high performance system that let her down.

Smith retired from the sport at just 20 years old, while holding on by “an absolute thread”.

Five months later someone she shared the high performance space with – Olivia Podmore, would be dead of a suspected suicide.

Jessie Smith stepped away from high performance sports in 2021, aged just 20.

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Jessie Smith stepped away from high performance sports in 2021, aged just 20.

Days out from the release of an independent review into Cycling NZ and athlete welfare, Smith is ready to share her story. She knows it’s confronting, but that’s her reality. It’s also the reality of others too, she says.

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“The reason I did step away and quit was because I was heading in the direction of taking my own life,” she says, fighting back tears.

“With everything coming out with Liv (Podmore) and the inquiry, it’s just brought up that appreciation and gratitude of where I’ve come from and where I am now.

“Unfortunately the system failed me. It failed many others. ”

When Smith was first selected to go into the high performance environment, she felt privileged. But life was quickly consumed by her sport. To cope, she “dabbled” with alcohol, drugs, and self harm. She knew if she continued in the sport she “wouldn’t be here today”.

“You just want a break. Every single second, of every single minute, of every single day is your brain being… ‘what have I done wrong? What can I do better? ‘ It is a continuous cycle of never ending negative shit. You’re consumed by it. ”

In 2019 Jessie Smith was a world champion.  She was also descending into depression.

Nico van Dartel

In 2019 Jessie Smith was a world champion. She was also descending into depression.

The descent into depression began before the 2019 junior world 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 for the nationals – a mandatory qualifying event – in time.

At first there was no budging by CNZ, with an official stating it would “open a can of worms” if dispensation was given. She appealed. Ultimately it went her way.

Smith first raised mental health concerns with her coach in early 2020, a few months after the world champs win, and following a serious concussion. 2020 was plagued with Covid-19 lockdowns and no international travel.

Then, in January 2021 she received an email telling her that her development enhancement grant was not renewed based on “current training, performances and [CNZ’s] view of your future performance potential ”.

She says receiving news of loss of funding and selection via email was common practice.

“They don’t care. We know it’s not an easy job to make those decisions… but it’s the way you deliver it and the way we see it, ”she says.

“It simply came to our notice then. She saw her coach go scout other athletes. Liv saw herself not being selected, her going through the process and them not caring.

“And when…. a spot opens up [at the Tokyo Olympics] the coach goes ‘no I’m going to give it to someone else’. They wonder why Liv did what she did. ”

CNZ interim chief executive Monica Robbers said the letter was delivered after “significant consultation with Jessie” but acknowledges “this practice of emailing a letter was poor and this is no longer the practice”.

Jessie Smith reached great heights in her BMX career.

Dominico Zapata / Stuff

Jessie Smith reached great heights in her BMX career.

As a professional athlete, Smith says she was told in a meeting to stop working and commit to her sport. Because of that request, Smith says she was living in poverty.

Robbers says CNZ is not aware of the practice, and “it is one that would never be condoned.” She said high performance staff who dealt with Smith on career management “were only ever fully supportive and there is correspondence on file that represents this viewpoint”.

Smith missed rent payments, and at times wondered where her next meal would come from.

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

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

In January 2021 Cycling NZ high performance director Martin Barras emailed Jessie Smith to tell her that her funding was not being renewed.

Dominico Zapata / Stuff

In January 2021 Cycling NZ high performance director Martin Barras emailed Jessie Smith to tell her that her funding was not being renewed.

At that time, she emailed the then CNZ high performance director Martin Barras and other staff. She thanked the organization for their support. It was all a ruse.

“I had to put on a front. It was horrendous. I didn’t want to burn any bridges. ”

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

Her decision to seek help elsewhere was, in some ways, from a lack of trust in parts of the system.

“I felt I was never cared for. That I was just a commodity. Many athletes feel the same way. We feel replaceable. That is the reality.

“There were two or three people who genuinely cared for me as a person. That’s all we ever want… is to be considered a human and not just an athlete. ”

Robbers says Smith was given “significant support” by CNZ and also paid for private support.

“Jessie deserves a lot of credit for being open and willing to talk about things openly. She has been very courageous. ”

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

“She was the light of the room, the happy go-getter. That was exactly how I was. But because I wasn’t ok, I needed to just be there for me. I could see what she was going through. In her final months, she was chasing 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 certain things with staff within the space, because word would get back to coaches and selectors. Livelihoods and dreams would be on the line, she says.

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

Robbers says “there is no substance” to the claims of staff breaching confidentiality.

On Monday the independent review into Cycling NZ and athlete welfare is due to be publicly released.

Robbers says a review into the BMX program has also been conducted because “we recognized that there were issues in this program and things that CNZ could do better.”

Smith hopes the findings of both the reviews is a turning point.

“Let’s learn from it, and let’s change for her [Olivia’s] legacy. That’s what Liv wanted. ”

Jessie Smith says she's following in canoe racer Aimee Fisher's footsteps by choosing to go her own way.

Aaron Gillions / Photosport

Jessie Smith says she’s following in canoe racer Aimee Fisher’s footsteps 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 is doing an “Aimee Fisher”.

Smith is going her own way, much like world champion kayaker Fisher, who left the Canoe Racing NZ high performance program because of welfare issues.

“That takes so much courage and mana. What she’s done is showing us we can do it. We don’t have to fit their mold. ”

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

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

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

WHERE TO GET HELP

  • 1737, Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 to talk to a trained counselor.

  • Kidsline 0800 54 37 54 for people up to 18 years old. Open 24/7.

  • Lifeline 0800 543 354

  • Rural Support Trust 0800 787 254

  • Samaritans 0800 726 666

  • Suicide Crisis Helpline 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

  • Youthline 0800 376 633, free text 234, email talk@youthline.co.nz, or find online chat and other support options here.

  • If it is an emergency, click here to find the number for your local crisis assessment team.

  • In a life-threatening situation call 111.

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