Three years after becoming Olympic Champion at the age of 22, nearly two years after taking the painful, but clearly necessary decision to take time out of the sport she loves, and a little over one year since a tentative return to competitive racing, Jenny Rissveds found herself back on top of the world – at least in terms of her result at the Olympic Distance UCI World Cup race.
At the Lenzerheide XCO race in Switzerland, the Swedish rider powered away on the last lap, to take a winning margin of 25 seconds from Anne Terpstra – and well over two minutes from overall UCI World Cup leading duo of Jolanda Neff and Kate Courtney.
In an emotional interview directly after the victory, the Swedish racer described this step in her personal journey as coming “full circle” and implored viewers to “never give up”. Powerful words from the heart of someone who has been to some dark depths and, seemingly, has just announced her return to the very top.
Back in 2017, while her sporting career looked brilliant, things quickly went wrong for Jenny Rissveds. A significant family bereavement triggered a depression, that became exacerbated by the pressure of competition and in turn led to a severe eating disorder. Jenny had no option but to leave the sport, break from her successful team and focus on recovery.
No matter what we do as a career, what country we are from or at what level we perform, none of us are immune from mental health issues. Many sports worldwide, including across different disciplines of professional cycling, have witnessed examples of their brightest talents facing “the black dog”. When it bites, we all need help.
We are not inside Jenny’s head, we cannot truly know what she has been through or how she is, but she wants her experience to help others, and has shared her thoughts at various steps on her journey. Here are some of the steps in her comeback.
In July 2018, after more than a year away from competition and outside of structured training, Jenny entered and won the Swedish National Championships. This appears to have been an important hook for her building her recovery, and set a trail for her return to regular racing in 2019.
Early this year Jenny set up her own team – Team31. The name is significant: it refers to the 31st article of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and you can read more about Jenny’s determination to promote this with the Project 31 initiative here. The first line is a good place to start: “Program 31 shall inspire children to activate themselves and to engage in spontaneous play”. The new team debuted in late April at Klippingracet in the Swedish XCO Cup, and with it came a victory for Jenny. A big step. And a bigger one was to follow.
Jenny was entered for the first round of the 2019 Mercedes-Benz UCI World Cup in Albstadt, Germany, but did not start. It was the following week, in late May at Nove Mesto na Morave (Czech Republic) that Jenny raced her first UCI World Cup in almost two years. On paper, she finished 33rd but the real result is that Jenny proved she could deal with a return to her workplace.
Another step: Vallnord Pal Arinsal, Andorra, 7th July, and Jenny rode to a podium finish: 5th. This is what she said the next morning:
“Since I decided to come back to cycling, a little more than a year ago, I’ve been struggling with my self-confidence. During the last six months I’ve had serious doubts about coming back to the same psychological and physical level as I have experienced in the past… I fought down my own demons and I can’t even describe the feeling of winning that fight. I’m pretty sure though, it wasn’t the last fight as the inner demons seem to visit all of us now and then.... Never let them win. From now on I know it is worth it. All of it.”
And a week later, racing at Les Gets, France, she was right in the battle, with a 9th place finish. Again, Jenny shared on social media:
“We just pulled off two World Cup weekends in a row. And you know what? I’m already looking forward to the next trip and the next competition. I never thought I would say that as I’m normally a very homesick person... For me to actually enjoy racing is a very big step.”
On 20 July, Jenny returned to the Swedish Nationals, beating the field by 4 minutes at Östersund. And on to the Val di Sole (Italy) UCI World Cup on 2nd August where Jenny took third, sharing the podium with Pauline Ferrand-Prévot and Jolanda Neff, after fighting from the back of the pack.
Then the return to Lenzeheide last weekend, and victory. In an emotionally charged interview on Red Bull TV Jenny said:
“Two years ago, I didn’t want to be alive. I just want to say that it is possible. Never give up. Like Pauline [Ferrand-Prévot] said last week when she won her first World Cup in a very long time, ‘never give up’, and I just want to say ‘never give up’. Never.
“In Swedish we say the circle is complete. Two years ago, I won this World Cup and I won today. It’s such a journey. I can’t believe what journey I’ve been through. The circle is complete again.”
Jenny has shared what she can of her dark experiences and is helping others. Her many fans around the world hope this circle is now truly complete.