The inspirational journey of MTB Olympic champion Jenny Rissveds

The Rio 2016 gold medallist has discovered her inner strength after recovering from eating disorders and depression. Now she is inspiring children to stay active, and people to never give up.

By Alessandro Poggi

Jenny Rissveds shook her head in disbelief.

"It's been such a journey, I can't believe what journey I've been through," the MTB cyclist said in tears, following her win in Lenzerheide in August 2019.

It was her first World Cup victory in three years, a comeback even more remarkable if we look closer at her story.

The Swedish mountain bike rider was not even 22 when she became the youngest cross-country Olympic champion at Rio 2016.

At that time she was one of the fastest rising prospects in the sport: the girl from Fulon was U-23 world champion and already an established rider on the elite circuit.

But soon things started to go wrong, and she later revealed struggling with personal issues, an eating disorder, and depression.

In 2017 Rissveds took a break from the sport, racing only sporadically. Later she ended her contract with Scott-SRAM.

What could have looked like the premature end of a promising career, was instead the start of a new and inspirational journey.

"Two years ago, I didn't want to be alive. I just want to say that it is possible," the Swede said in the post-race interview with the UCI after her emotional win in Switzerland.

"I just want to say, 'never give up, never'." - Jenny Rissveds

A new motivation: inspiring kids

"I don't know what came first, the depression or the eating disorder," Rissveds told Redbull TV after deciding to make her competitive comeback in the spring of 2019.

For the first time, the 25-year-old spoke openly about what she went through in the previous months.

"If you stop eating your brain won't work normally. All the pressure that came out of winning the mountain bike races and winning the Olympics, and all that mixed together - it was just too much."

The Olympic champion realised that she needed to find a new purpose and make a fresh start.

As part of her journey to recovery, Jenny took a break from social media, TV, and public events.

When she decided to return to competition, she had a new mission: inspiring children to stay active.

Her new team is called 'Team 31' and is inspired by the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of a Child.

Article 31 recognises the right to play and engage in recreational activities such as sports, culture, and arts.

"Our main focus on the team is to inspire and preserve the children's right to play, to be active and to recover," said Rissveds, who started to organise days of play and sports along with the Falun municipality.

"I couldn't motivate myself to come back to the racing scene again, to do it all over again. I was so tired of it," she said.

"So, coming back with new energy, a new and bigger proposal - I want to come back and do something that matters."

"My main goal this time is not to win all these races. It's to inspire children to stay active, to always come back to what you love to do, to be yourself" - Rissveds speaking with Redbull TV

The long journey back

Rissveds' return to racing wasn't easy.

In her first event in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic, despite starting from way behind, she quickly advanced to the front positions, before falling back in the field and finishing 33rd.

She later admitted that she felt uncomfortable racing amongst the top riders again.

"I felt that I had changed so much, but nothing else had changed," the Swede said in an extensive interview with the Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter.

Then, thanks to the help of a mental coach, Jenny started to visualise herself in the front of the group again and discover her inner strength:

"Now I know that I can be there if I race at my full capacity. When I realise that, I can feel very strong."

A stronger mentality translated into better results: 5th in her second race in Vallnord, Andorra, then 3rd in Val di Sole, Italy, just a few days after securing her umpteenth national title.

Her comeback win in Lenzerheide was the result of a completely new approach, from training to mental preparation:

"I have removed the media, I feel no pressure on social media, I eat properly, I have a very well-functioning team of people around me who look after me. And so my life has not been as before," she revealed to Dagebs Nyheter.

The pressure of meeting external expectations resurfaced ahead of the 2019 World Championships in Mont Saint Anne, Canada.

That event made her reflect that she shouldn't fall back into her old habits:

"I ended up thinking about results, and I have realised that like this it is not fun to cycle," Rissveds admitted

All the negative feelings were then blown away the following week in SnowShoe, USA, when she found her mojo back, finishing 7th.

The Swede understood that things can be turned around by having a strong mind.

"You are torn between different thoughts, but you can decide which idea to stick to. The pressure from World Championships became too strong and I should have been be able to control it just as strongly," said Rissveds.

"I've learned how to ride my bike for fun again, and that is a good feeling because that was the reason why I started racing; because I love riding." - Jenny Risveds to RedBull TV.

A new Jenny

The Olympic champ explained how she managed to find a new balance in her life.

The depression - she admitted - had changed her personality, and the secret was to stop looking back at how she was before.

"The day I stopped trying to go back in time and be the person I was before, little things started to happen. Small changes towards brighter days as soon as I started to let go of who I thought I was," Rissveds explained.

Coming to terms with her illness was also important.

The Swede started to keep notes of her emotions in a diary, learnt how to avoid comparison with others and how to zoom out to see her progress, however small.

"You can come back, but you have to take another route there, I think. I have done that." - Rissveds to Dagebs Nyheter.

Olympic expectations

Next year in Tokyo, Rissveds will be under the spotlight again as she will try to become the second woman after Italy's Paola Pezzo to defend her Olympic title in MTB.

The reigning champ couldn't race the test event last October after suffering a concussion in training, but she described the Olympic course of Izu as 'a work of art'.

The 25-year-old is expected to battle it out with some of best riders of her generation, like Kate Courtney, Jolanda Neff, and Pauline Ferrand-Prevot.

But now Rissveds has learned how to cope with the burden of expectations and is already preparing her mind for the big appointment:

"When I think of the Olympics now, I obviously make it something I have to defend," she told Dagebs Nyheter..

"But there is also something that I have to work on during the winter and really all season, that I have nothing to defend.

"I'll just go there and ride a bike." - Jenny Rissveds

The emotional reaction of Jenny Rissveds after her comeback win last August in Lenzerheide, Switzerland.