After confessing my thoughts to my coach, I had to tell team manager Mark Ernsting what was going on.
That Thursday evening we had a sponsorship announcement/meet and greet. I didn’t want to tell him before that, so I went to the event and acted as if nothing was the matter as I introduced myself to each guest.
‘Such an opportunity for someone so young!’
‘Wow, the sacrifices you’ve made as a kid! So much discipline!’
‘So much hard work and discipline! You’ve got a future in this sport.’
These were comments that would have made me beam less than a year ago. I would soak them up and feed my ego and train with them as fuel as I played them over again in my head. But now each one was like a slap. Sponsors, other racers and important guests would say these things when I introduced myself, but I knew that I was only going to disappoint them.
The following day I waited anxiously for the opportunity to call Mark. I didn’t know him well at this point. To me, he was simply a tall and intimidating man who had given me an amazing opportunity and I was about to break a promise to him. I had no idea how he would take it. I thought I should do it in person, to show some character. I wanted to shake his hand and thank him for the opportunity before I left. I wanted him to know how sorry I was. But Mark had a lot to do that day and wasn’t home, so I had to call. My hands shook as I dialed to make the scariest phone call of my life.
Shakily: “Hey Mark.”
“Hey Oli. What’s going on?”
Between sobs I managed to tell him that, “due to unforeseen circumstances, I would be unable to commit to the team at a level that would meet expectations. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I need to take care of my health before riding my bike.”
“Buddy. Hey. It’s okay. Is this mental? Is it physical?”
“That’s okay. You need to take care of yourself. You need to get this taken care of. If you need to take a break, take a week, take a month, take six months or a year. Whatever you need. If you realize cycling isn’t for you, that’s okay too. Of course, I hope that’s not the case. No matter what though, H&R will be here for you. If you need to take this season totally off, we will be here next year. The one thing I ask is that you stay in touch, and ask me for whatever help I can offer.”
He told me a little bit about someone else he’d had on the team that went through a similar time of difficulty. He offered his place if I ever needed one, and told me that I can call whenever I need. “If it’s two am my ringer will be off, so just call twice within ten seconds and it will ring and I’ll answer.”
By the end of the call I had told Mark “I had no idea how this call would go. I didn’t know you well enough. But now, I feel that I know you much better. You’re a really good guy. Thank you.”
Half an hour after the call, I had an email from Mark that included a number of other people I had never heard of. He had reached out to some doctors he knew and had found me a professional to talk to.
Up until that phone call, as far as I knew, there was only cycling or not cycling. No middle ground. If I told Mark what was going on, that would be it. I’d be off the team and I’d be quitting the sport. I didn’t want to quit, but I couldn’t continue in the state that I was in. I had no choice really. If I continued riding in the state that I was in, eventually the hole I was digging would become too deep. I would never be able to resurface.
During the phone call though, I learned that it isn’t that simple. It isn’t black and white. There’s a lot of grey, and you can spend some time in that grey area. So that’s where I am now. Mark invited me to move from the black to the grey- to take some time.
It was both the scariest and the most valuable call I’d ever made. Mark had just snapped the shovel in half. He had helped me stop my horrible digging. The hole was still there but getting no deeper. I could now catch my breath.