NAIT soccer-player-turned cyclist headed to Tokyo Olympics

World-record holder to pedal for new heights in Japan

For most athletes, excelling in one sport is hard enough. For Kelsey Mitchell, however, winning a national silver medal in soccer with the NAIT Ooks in 2015 was just the beginning.

Since graduation, Mitchell (Instrumentation Engineering Technology ’16, Personal Fitness Trainer ’17) has reached even greater heights as a track cyclist, winning multiple gold medals at the Pan Am Games and Championships in 2019 and even setting a world record in the flying 200 m sprint.

Later this month, the 27-year-old will fulfil a lifelong dream and represent Canada at the Tokyo Olympics, where she’ll be competing in the keirin and sprint events.

Not bad, considering she’d never even tried the sport until four years ago.

With the opening ceremony set to kick off this Friday, July 23, Mitchell spoke with techlifetoday about making the switch from soccer to cycling, the surprising “learned skill” of rest, and her expectations for Tokyo. What does your day-to-day life look like right now?

Kelsey Mitchell: Right now we’re on the track five times a week, and in the gym three times a week. In between there’s a lot of downtime, just trying to rest and recover from each session. We’ve done most of our media and photos and all that stuff, so now we’re just focused on getting ready to go.

kelsey mitchell, nait grad and team canada cyclist, doing squats in the gym

What about mentally? What do you think about?

My mindset’s kind of stayed the same over the past year and a half. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to race at all. The last time we raced was in March 2020. We’ve just been training super hard. My mindset is that I’m more prepared than ever. I don’t think there’s anything else I could have done to be more ready for this moment.

My mindset is that I’m more prepared than ever.

kelsey mitchell, nait grad and team canada cyclistHow did you first make the switch from soccer to cycling?

I’ve always been quite athletic, and played all kinds of sports. I was never the most talented on the soccer field, but I worked hard and made up for it with my athleticism. I played three years at NAIT and went travelling for three months, then came back and had a mid-life crisis.

I wasn’t ready to be done with sports. I’d heard about the RBC Training Ground – essentially, an Olympic combine that compares you to national-team benchmarks across 11 different sports.

A Cycling Canada representative was there, and asked if I’d ever ridden the track before. I hadn’t, but I was open to anything. They did some more testing, and I showed potential. I signed with them in October 2017 and started training full-time.

Fast forward a year, I joined the national team. Fast forward another couple of years, I qualified for the Olympics. Now I’m on my way. [laughs]

What’s different about cycling compared to other sports you’ve done?

I always did team sports, and with track cycling, it took time to adjust. You’re out there by yourself. You have to perform, or else you’re going to lose. It took a bit to get used to, but I absolutely love the pressure now. In training, we measure everything from our speed to our time to our max power, so I can compete against myself from previous days.

kelsey mitchell, nait grad and team canada cyclistWhat was the first moment of real achievement for you on the bike?

My first nationals was in 2018 and I ended up winning the sprint. I beat the people who were already on the national team.

That was the point where I thought, “OK, I could be good at this.”

Is there anything in your training regimen that might surprise people?

I had to learn how to rest properly. I like doing things in the evenings and on the weekends, but in this sport if you’re on your feet you’re wasting energy.

So we do a lot of resting, a lot of Netflix. It’s definitely a learned skill.

What went through your mind when you first heard the Olympics weren’t happening in 2020?

I was devastated. I’d been laser-focused on that goal, and it wasn’t going to happen. Initially, Canada wasn’t going, so I thought I was going to be watching it from home. But when it was announced the entire Olympics were postponed, that was a relief.

I took a few days to feel sad, and then I actually saw it as a blessing in disguise. I had a year and a half to figure out how to ride the bike properly, and to save energy, and to develop the skills I had skipped, because I was so fast-tracked when I first joined. I was always playing catch-up.

You’ve represented Canada at other international competitions, but what does it mean to do it at the Olympics?

Representing Canada is always a phenomenal feeling. I’m always so proud to have the maple leaf on. I know there’s a lot of stuff going on [here] right now, and we definitely need to be better, but I’m proud to represent Canada on the international stage. And there’s no bigger stage than the Olympics. I can’t wait.

kelsey mitchell, nait grad and team canada cyclist

What are your expectations for Tokyo?

My expectation is to go and have the performance of my life. I’ll leave everything out there, and whether it ends up being fourth place or first place, my main goal is to give it my all and see all the hard work pay off.

Banner image: Jeland Sydney

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