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Olympic medalist riding high on mental health

Olympian Gillian Carleton will host Sunday's Ride Don't Hide event in Oak Bay.
Olympian Gillian Carleton will host the Ride Don’t Hide event in Oak Bay this Sunday to bring awareness to mental health issues and raise money for programs by the local branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

Olympian Gillian Carleton has trained hard over the last decade, but the strict routines and early bedtimes are now focused on mental health, not chasing a medal.

“Things are looking up and they have been looking up for several years now, which is really nice.”

Carleton will host the annual Ride Don’t Hide event Sunday in Oak Bay’s Windsor Park. The ride is the largest fundraiser for the Victoria branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association.

Carleton, who is completing a PhD in biochemistry at the University of Victoria, has seen dark days since first experiencing depression at age 13 — including an eating disorder, over-training, and frantic anxiety relieved by alcohol and drugs.

During the rockiest period, Carleton won a bronze in track cycling at the London Olympics, then had a year that got “really dark.” The fear of what “might happen” saw Carleton visit the Archie Courtnall Centre’s psychiatric emergency services unit at Royal Jubilee Hospital.

Now 32, Carleton no longer takes anti-depressants and has tested and refined a variety of techniques and strategies that give a sense of “calm and capability” in the face of challenges.

It’s hard to imagine the long-term benefits of a routine when in crisis, Carelton said, but — much like an athlete’s training — adherence to those daily tasks can lead to life-changing rewards.

“It’s that sort of daily putting one foot in front of the other [that works],” Carleton said.

“For years I did that and I thought ‘I’m never going to see results, it’s never going to change ever’ and then finally I realized that maybe I had gone some time without feeling as bad as I used to. It almost snuck up on me, in a way.”

Carleton tries to exercise every day — anything from a rigorous workout to lying on the floor for a few stretches — and adheres to a strict sleep schedule. “My friends make fun of me for going to bed at like 9:30, but it has changed my life.”

While Carleton advocates for more accessible and affordable or MSP-covered mental health services, there are “super accessible” local programs under the Canadian Mental Health Association such as BounceBack and instantly accessible online resources that can be significant and meaningful.

People have to find what works for them, Carleton said. “And in the past what has really saved me was being able to talk to other people or know that other people had managed to go through what I have and come out the other side.”

An estimated one in five Canadians will experience a mental health problem or illness in any given year, but “most keep it hidden,” said Vancouver teacher Michael Schratter, the founder of Ride Don’t Hide.

“The whole idea behind Ride Don’t Hide is to be visible and feel the camaraderie and the support and for the lay public to see a different portrayal of what mental health sounds and looks like,” said Schratter, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder following a suicide attempt at age 19 and had a manic episode at 25.

The annual event, now in 25 cities across Canada, grew out of a 40,000-kilometre international cycling trip that Schratter did in 2010, raising $100,000 for youth and families through the Canadian Mental Health Association.

“When I was in university it was the stigma that was far more debilitating than the mental health issue itself,” he said. “It was the notion that I had something to be ashamed about, that it was something I needed to hide — which is something I did very well.”

Schratter, who will be at the Victoria event Sunday, wants participants and supporters to see the taxi driver, school teacher, lawyer, doctor, barista and politicians who experience mental health issues or support those who do.

This weekend will be the first in-person Ride Don’t Hide event since 2019, when 454 people took part.

“The momentum was huge before COVID ,so it would be great for us to even get 200 for this weekend,” Carleton said. As of Friday, 188 participants, including 24 teams, had registered and just over $80,000 had been raised. “Whatever your skill level is, there will be something for the whole family to come and do,” Carleton said.

There will be a five-kilometre walk and several cycling distances — including a seven-kilometre family ride, a longer rides of 18, 28, 50 and 100 kilometres. Start times run from 6 a.m. to 9:10 a.m., with the wrap-up program and prizes at 11:30 a.m.

For more information or to register, go to