Q&A: What Georgia Simmerling means when she talks about Pride

Georgia Simmerling competes at the 2020 UCI Track Cycling World Championships in Berlin. (Maja Hitij/Getty Images)

Georgia Simmerling is a cyclist and a skier. She’s the first Canadian ever to compete in three different Olympic Games in three different sports. An Olympic bronze medallist in track cycling team pursuit in Rio, Simmerling has overcome career-threatening injuries and continued to etch her name in Canadian sports history.

But she’s not into labels.

For the 32-year-old, fulfilment lies in being true to who she is, and being proud of it.

Simmerling competed in alpine skiing at the 2010 Vancouver Games, ski cross in 2014 and team pursuit in 2016, but missed the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in 2018 with both legs broken and multiple torn ligaments. It was an injury that could’ve ended her career. Instead, for Simmerling, it reinforced the value of a determined and authentic mindset. She learned to walk again, then got back on her bike, and began preparations for Tokyo — just the latest stop on a perpetual journey of resilience and self-discovery.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Simmerling and her partner — Canadian soccer international Stephanie Labbé — settled into their home in Calgary once the postponement of the Olympics was made official. What was supposed to be a few days turned into months, and like the rest of the world the two learned to embrace the unexpected. With full control of her schedule for the first time in years, Simmerling threw herself into preparation for the 2021 edition of the 2020 Olympics.

Labbé is now back with her soccer club in Sweden and Simmerling is working out of Mattamy National Cycling Centre in Milton, Ont. With her ticket to this summer’s Games already booked, the Vancouver native spoke to Sportsnet about Pride Month, Tokyo and the power of staying true to oneself.

SPORTSNET: I don’t think we can start anywhere else but Tokyo. How have the preparations been and how is the anticipation for the Games?

GEORGIA SIMMERLING: I mean, it’s been very different than other preparations for Olympic Games, for sure. I don’t think anyone’s preparation has been what they were expecting it to be (in terms of) the skill, and the unique pieces — just adapting and growing, going with the flow and, you know, really seeing this as an opportunity.

My teammates and I have been kind of individual athletes for the last year and a half. We haven’t seen a lot of each other. Some of us haven’t seen each other in over a year and a half, actually, which is crazy to think about. But we’re slowly coming together now. And I think Canada and all Canadian athletes are finding it — or have found it — extra challenging, because our country is so large. Countries like New Zealand or Australia, those athletes are together merely because they’re closer together. So, it’s been a challenge for sure. Our coach is from the New Zealand, so we haven’t seen him much, but he’s here now and he is here for good until we leave (for Japan).

And we’re just really trying to do everything that’s in our control, that’s in our capabilities. And that’s ride our bikes fast.

This will be an edition of the Olympics like none other. How do you expect it’ll be different? When you picture competing in Tokyo, what is it that you think about?

I think of a different situation. I think of a different Olympic Games. We will not be in the main bubble, in the main athlete village. Most of the other cycling sports will be already over, if not already over, when we are competing. We’re multiple hours away from the large bubble.

And so, I think it’s going to feel like a typical cycling World Cup. I think that’s what we need to expect. And again, if it’s different, it’s different. But I think we need to just adapt to the change. It is not going to feel like a typical Olympic Games. And, you know, we don’t really care. We’re there to ride our bikes fast. And that’s doing that three times for four minutes and 10 seconds or whatever. So that’s our job. That’s a role. And that’s what we’re going to do.

Simmerling competes with her team at the track cycling world championships in 2016. (CP)

How important is it to rebuild rapport, trust and communication with your teammates after going so long without seeing each other or training together? How do you go about that now that you’re together again?

We have been in communication throughout the year. I think our coaches have been pretty good at keeping us kind of together as a team. Of course, that’s been through Zoom and other online channels. I think the good thing about our team … yes, maybe we haven’t ridden our bikes together as a unit for over a year, but we know each other very well and the five of us have been a team for many years. So, I think that is what we are relying on.

And already having one of her teammates back, it feels like she was with us, you know (a lot longer). So, I think we just need to get going and get rolling. And things are going to happen pretty quickly. We’re going to start seeing some fast times before we leave for Tokyo. I mean, that’s the plan anyway. And it seems the trajectory is looking like that. So, we’re getting pretty excited.

What was last year like for you — in terms of training, staying in shape, but also keeping mentally and psychologically fit?

The (Olympic) postponement was a hit emotionally for sure, for my partner, Steph, and I. But we quickly came to a place of peace and a place of happiness, actually.

We kind of switched our schedule around. We worked out a lot together in our basement. We got outside when we could and we started hiking more. Cyclists don’t really spend too much time on our feet, but I didn’t have anything coming up in the immediate future. So, I kind of switched up my training and brought in other forms of activity: cross-country skiing, running, hiking. And it felt great.

I think a lot of athletes get really focused and get narrow-minded on their goals and the way that they need to achieve those goals. And there’s other avenues. And I think the postponement for a lot of athletes gave them a chance to kind of reset, refocus and look at a more of a global picture and what their path is. And (ways they could) branch out.

You know, I can’t imagine riding my bike in my basement every day for the last year and only doing that. And I think that it was really helpful to see other avenues and forms of activity. Yoga and meditation were a part of our daily rituals, as well, as we’re living in Calgary together. And yeah, kind of gave us a chance to just reset and enjoy time together.

Meditation has been big in my household as well. Obviously, it was a big change for you and Steph to spend so much time together because of the shutdown. Speaking from experience, it’s very easy to drive your partner off a wall and vice versa during these times of confinement. How was that change in dynamic for you and Steph?

Honestly, it wasn’t that challenging at all for us, being in our home together and just kind of finding a new norm and a new schedule together. What can be challenging is when we are apart and we see each other somewhere else.

I was just training and visiting Steph in Sweden, and I’m, like, a pretty big personality, and I like to kind of take over the kitchen. And she knows this. I mean, I think she’s really appreciative of when I cook for her and stuff. But, you know, I was coming in to her world, her situation, her apartment. And it’s happened in other places, too — also when she comes to visit me. The first couple of days can be a little rocky, like figuring out where the common ground is like mentally, emotionally and physically. But then we kind of laugh about it and get over it pretty quickly. And she’s like, “OK, you’re here.”

But being at home, honestly, during the pandemic together was amazing. It was awesome. It was great to not have a countdown of, you know, when we were going to be apart and for how long and stuff like that.

And together you two have Project Athlete, which is something that I found so incredibly cool and really inspiring. What’s the mission behind this project and what inspired you to start it?

We kind of came together with the idea. We were just having some chats, and Steph’s brother actually was really on board with helping us out from the digital-marketing side of things and then behind the scenes.

I mean, yeah, we’re mature athletes now, if you will. And we’ve kind of just laughed over the years about how athletes take themselves so seriously. You’re so lucky to do this job and call it a job and represent your country. When you get megged on the soccer field or something — when the ball goes between your legs — it’s OK to laugh at it and laugh at yourself.

That’s kind of the premise of it: to not take yourself too seriously and to see the imperfections and the vulnerability that we all have. To know that you’re not the only one and see the strength in that, become stronger, because of those vulnerabilities. And the obstacles that you may have to overcome in your life, because they’re inevitable, they’re going to come up. So, with that, we just kind of created some slogans on shirts and people started to kind of get behind it.

We haven’t put too much focus on it the last couple of months just because we’re focusing on Tokyo. But we still seem to have a little following and people like them. And, yeah, we’re pumped that we can kind of bring some laughter and joy to other people all over North America, really.

That whole project reflects a lot of who you are — a very authentic human being. And when we talk about Pride, that’s super relevant. Can you speak a little about your own identity, your sexuality and the idea of labels and just being your most authentic self?

You know, as an older teenager, young 20s, there was some discovery there, of who I am and my beliefs and my sexuality. And I was lucky to have the support of my family and the support of my teammates — from various sports — to accept me for who I am.

I know a lot of athletes love — or they feel comfort in — identifying with a certain group of people or, you know, a certain label and that gives them strength. That’s just not who I am. I’m not going to be shouting from the rooftops and putting a flag over my head. Do I have a lot of fun at Pride parades? Yes. But I think back to just being your authentic self. That’s what I’ve grown up to be. And I’ve been taught that from my parents. And that’s just what I strive to be every day.

Whether I can inspire others from different genders or backgrounds or sexuality, then that’s amazing. But I think at the root of it, and at the end of the day, that’s where you’re going to find the most peace and the most happiness, the most self-care and self-love — just being happy with who you are. And again, I’ve had such amazing support from athletes and coaches and family in my athletic journey to feel this way and definitely to support me. If I can be that for other people that have reached out to me, then most definitely I feel like my day’s been accomplished.

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Living that way, it’s not necessarily easy because there is a lot of vulnerability involved. But I believe that it’s the maybe the easiest path to empathy, which is probably a big word, especially in this day and age. And I read your essay on CBC last year for Pride Month in which you spoke very adamantly about marginalized communities and for those communities. How do you believe the world has changed and evolved, and how have you changed and evolved with the world?

That’s a big question. I mean, I think a lot of different minorities and cultures have really stood up for themselves and people are backing them. It’s become a large movement of being true, true to you and not getting marginalized by the haters, and standing up for who you are. A lot of different communities are speaking truly and passionately about that and about their history and their experiences. I think that’s amazing. I’m so behind it. There’s so much work to be done, though, and I think the more people can kind of just empathize and just be open-minded to other people’s experiences and backgrounds and their journeys, I think the better.

I mean, I am the definition of, like, white-girl privilege, and I know that. But I think the more myself and other, you know, fellow athletes and Canadians can see that and recognize that, and start to just be open and listen and help, be a voice, do your part, the quicker we’re all going to come together and be cool with being different.

My mind circles back to the Olympics and to the purpose of the Olympics, which is to unite, to bring people together. How important are the Olympic Games in this moment in time? How do we make it a vessel for those ideas?

Of course, the Olympics are about that, and I think it’s unbelievable that athletes get to showcase their skills and their talents on the world stage and on television. And I think the more that high-profile athletes can use their voice, can use their platform, to stand up for what they believe in and who they are, the more people will listen and the more people will understand and the more they will connect with other people.

And I think those athletes that have that platform — and that’s every Olympic athlete — need to stand tall and be proud of what they believe in and who they are. And again, it’s an amazing platform for that. It’s a sense of realization for people maybe to keep their ears up and listen to what these people have to say.

A huge part of that sense of community are the fans, which of course will be mostly absent in Tokyo. How do you imagine it will be — an Olympic Games without fans?

I think as a mature athlete and someone that’s kind of been around the block and been to different Games, it’s going to be different for sure. It’s going to be challenging. But I think also, we’ve had time to prepare for this. We’ve had time to mentally prepare for what it’s going to be like. And I just keep telling people to cheer really hard from Canada because you’re not going to be able to be there and just cheer super loud.

Yeah, if we cheer loud enough, I think we can reach Tokyo.

I think so! We’ll hear the echo of it. But again, we’re there to race. At the end of the day, this is our job. We’re there to compete. We’re there to race. We’re there to experience it together. And we know that the country is behind us. We know that the people of Canada are going to be cheering loud and cheering hard. And we have to focus on our jobs.

Being from Brazil, I have to ask you about your experience in Rio at the 2016 Olympics.

Oh, my gosh. It was amazing. It was my first Summer Games. It was the first Olympics that I could actually experience the culture and experience the actual Olympic Games, watch other events and get outside the bubble.

The two previous games that I had been to, we competed at the very, very, very last event of the games. We’re like right before the men’s hockey final or something. So, we have one night to party our face off. It’s just so different competing in the middle of the Games versus the beginning versus the end. So, I was so thankful and I had so much fun to go to Copacabana, go watch volleyball at like two in the morning.

I actually had friends, Canadians that had been living in Rio. They were our tour guides. We went surfing at some beaches and had some street food and went to some restaurants. It was really cool to just really take in the culture. It was a really amazing experience.

Simmerling, Kristi Lay, Jasmin Glaesser and Allison Beveridge celebrate after winning bronze in team pursuit in Rio. (Frank Gunn/CP)

And that was a point where you made history, competing in yet another sport in the Olympic Games and winning bronze with Team Canada. What’s the difference in training and how do you go about making that transition, multiple times, from skiing to cycling?

I mean, it’s not easy, that’s for sure. My path to cycling, from being like a nobody and a skier, was very quick. It was overwhelming. It was super exciting. Things were happening so quickly. Every month there was something new — and that’s a whole story in itself.

But what was really challenging also was switching back to skiing after Rio. We were heading into an Olympic-qualifying winter months after the game. So that was really tricky. And it was challenging because I hadn’t done the work as a winter athlete that I know I needed to do in order to perform at the highest level — at my highest self and highest level.

I’m very black and white — “This is what you have to do in order to achieve X, Y and Z.” And I hadn’t done it. Yes, I had done something else, and that was pretty cool, of course, like winning a medal for Canada. But when I got back on my skis, I was really frustrated and it just took a lot of mental strength and focus and a lot of conversations with my sports psych to really focus on — it sounds very cliché, but — the process goals versus the outcome. Because I started to chip away and I ended up having a really good season by the end of the season. But the first part of the season was really challenging. And I had a couple of injuries along the way, which are, you know, never awesome and never easy to go through.

I mean, it’s crazy to kind of turn your body into a different machine, really. Cycling’s very linear and everything is forward, and forward motion. And then skiing is like, you’re going down the mountain, but there’s your core, your impact to your joints, your upper body. There’s so much more lateral strength needed and reaction time and all these other things that, you know, you need a lot of skill to do it in a sport like ski cross. So, it was a big challenge. But, I mean, I absolutely loved it.

Are weather and temperature a challenge as well? Transitioning from warm Rio to the snow?

I remember my first camp back with the team. I was frigid. And I think it was because I was still, like, gaining some muscle and some fat, in a good way. And I was just super cold. I was in Switzerland. And it wasn’t even that cold, actually, but I remember it took a lot of effort to stay warm. And I was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m exhausted.” And I just kept doing leg swings if there was a delay on the start in order to stay warm before my training run.

It was a lot of effort to stay warm as a skier. And then I put on some fat probably and then a bit of muscle in my body, and it was a bit better.

Speaking of transitioning and overcoming adversity, you’ve had several injuries that needed multiple surgeries on your knees since the accident before the 2018 Olympics. What were the challenges of going back into competition after all of that?

That was one of the hardest years of my life. I broke both my legs and tore every ligament in my knee, had four surgeries in my lower limbs.

I had to learn how to walk again and learn how to bike again. I was doing five, six hours of physio a day and it was really hard, for sure. It was really tough. I had a lot of dark moments and a lot of FaceTimes to Steph just bawling my eyes out. But at the end of the day, cycling was always the light at the end of the tunnel for me and getting back to my bike. If I hadn’t had that, if I hadn’t planned on switching back to cycling for Tokyo, I think it would have looked like a really different rehab.

I’m so grateful that I know how to use the power of my mind and my mental muscles to heal my body. It’s really incredible how strong your mind is and what you tell yourself. And, you know, if you’re telling yourself negative thoughts every day, things aren’t going to look good for you. And even in dark situations and dark times, I think giving positive love and positive feedback to yourself — and especially to the parts of your body that are healing — you’re only going to heal quicker and you’re going to listen. And that’s what happened.

I was back racing my bike within a year on the track with the team, which is amazing. I healed very, very quickly. Again, I go back to the support system and the people that I was surrounded by. And B2ten is a business that represents me as an athlete. They support me and numerous Canadian winter and summer athletes across the country. They were very, very pivotal in my rehab and supporting me with all the necessary resources that I need from massage, physio, nutrition doctors, psychologists — they covered everything. And I’m so grateful for them.

My body is doing really well now. And I once again persevered through a “career-ending injury.” Yeah, I’m feeling good and right and strong, and we’re super excited for Tokyo.

Simmerling waves to the crowd following a Super-G run at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. (Mathew McCarthy/CP)

You’ve spoken about your idea of retiring after Tokyo in the past. Of course, that got delayed with the postponement of the Games. Where are you with that idea right now?

Nothing set in stone for sure, but I’m definitely looking at my options and I’m looking at what’s out there and what’s next. Definitely connecting with businesses and people that I’ve met along the way, extremely successful and influential people and individuals that I’ve been so grateful to have met during the course of my career.

People don’t really get to meet the people that we’ve met in the athletic world. Just taking advantage of the opportunity and just connecting with different individuals. And I’m thrilled and grateful that they’re responding to my emails, taking my Zoom chats, and I’m kind of putting some feelers out there.

We’ll see after the Games about my next plans. But, yeah, I’m trying to enjoy these moments now.

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