Competing at a high level in any sport puts you in a position where many strangers get to have a close-up look into your life. And it is not only professional life, either, but sometimes into your private life as well. Because of that, I had to learn from a young age how to behave in front of an audience, fans, teams and cameras.
Accepting that it is part of the job, but knowing I never need to be anyone other than myself
When you are in this position, whether you want it or not, others have a right to discuss your choices, your results, preparations, ups and downs, failures, successes, practically anything. Personally, the way I cope with this is by looking up to people I admire. I watch their interviews, read their posts and blogs, and get inspired regarding how to behave. This helps me ensure that I am not allowing anyone from the outside to define me in any way that would cause some sort of harm. If I stay neutral and speak honestly about my feelings, I will remain true to myself and not cause any online drama.
Of course, that thicker skin does take time to build. In 2016, after the Rio Olympics, I became a lot more visible as a pro athlete, especially in Polish media. One result of this was that I received a lot of comments about my appearance and my lips, in particular. As a 22-year-old, I was devastated and disgusted with the fact that people would not see me as an athlete who went to fight for a medal at the Olympics. Instead, they were fixated on whether or not I had injected something into my face to make it bigger or for whatever purpose the internet could come up with. This was really hard for me to understand, and I spent several months feeling very insecure and avoiding posting close-up pictures of my face, hoping not to receive any comments regarding my appearance.
Prioritising what matters and making time for those who lift me up
This was also a moment when I realised I needed to invest time and energy in building my confidence and self-belief. Of course, a big part of this is ignoring random gossip and focusing on the opinions of those I care about and respect. And, for the most part, this has made a huge difference.
To be honest, there are days that my confidence is going through the roof. I feel like I am unstoppable; nothing can faze me, and I just rule my world. This generally happens when I feel rested, spend enough time with my family and friends, and all my training and races go according to plan.
Of course, there are also days were I’m losing it and becoming more vulnerable. These are moments when I need to step back and consciously concentrate on my strengths and assets. I remind myself that I exist on this planet for the people I love and those who love me. I repeat to myself that everything I do is just for me and my happiness. After all, I know in my heart that nothing matters until I decide it does.
So, to snap out of a negative mindset, I often go outside, listen to old dance music, and visualise myself in a place I want to be. I think of myself as a successful, hard-working woman and reject all the negative thoughts as soon as I start to feel them coming in.
The critical role of mentorship
Mentorship and guidance have also been vital in helping me navigate the pressures I face. I did and still have role models and mentors that helped me organise my life in a better way. For example, as a young athlete, I would look up to Polish cross-country skier Justyna Kowalczyk who taught me how to be confident in my own skin and how to stand up for my rights. Moving into professional cycling, I would try to emulate Marianne Vos and Anna van der Breggen, who would later become my teammates, mentors, and friends.
I believe it’s important to be openly seeking help and advice from other women. I learnt the importance of discipline, hardship, honesty and persistence from them. They showed me how respectfully and gracefully you can go through your career, achieving so much yet staying humble and true to yourself. I would not be here today without them and all the others I rely on for guidance and support.