Annika Langvad doesn't need to worry about gritting her teeth as she crosses another finish line to victory. The Specialized Racing mountain biking pro and dentist-in-training knows how to keep a healthy smile and smart balance between two completely different and equally-demanding careers. Here's how the World Champ grins and bears it all.
Almost like art pieces on display, two bikes hang on the walls of pro cross-country mountain biker Annika Langvad’s humble apartment in Copenhagen. Another bike sits patiently in a stationary indoor trainer propped in front of a small dormant TV in the living room. What rivals all her cycling gear and trophies, however, is her over-flowing bookshelfstacked with academic literature for a soon-to-be dentist. No, they don't belong to a roommate or partner. It's all part of Langvad's big life plan. When this 30-year-old Dane isn't spinning her wheels, she's drilling teeth.
Between winning her third World Championship in June and preparing for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio (this would mark her first Olympics since she missed London 2012 due to injury), Langvad somehow finds time to hit the books. Studying for tough exams is only half of it. Occasionally, she has to trade in her muddy kit for stark white scrubs to work in a sterile medical environment—the complete opposite of the lush green mountain trails where she trains.
Focus, discipline and the ability to prioritize has helped Annika succeed so far in both totally unrelated fields. While chasing these dreams the last eight years, she has also managed to live an otherwise normal life, including making time for her boyfriend, Thomas. It hasn't been easy, but as Annika explains below, it is totally worth it.
“I HAD TO LEARN TO KEEP BELIEVING THAT WHAT I'M DOING IS RIGHT. THAT WAS DEFINITELY THE HARDEST LESSON.”
Your Ride. Your Rules. (YRYR): When did you first pick up mountain biking?
Annika Langvad (AL): In 2006, I moved to Copenhagen to study dentistry and joined a local triathlon club to stay active. That winter, we mountain biked to stay in shape. I thought it was great fun and discovered I was pretty good at it, too. The next year, I joined a mountain bike club and started participating in amateur races around Copenhagen and eventually signed up for some international competitions. That's when I got even more hooked and began following a more structured training regimen to build my skill and strength. Since then, everything’s happened really fast.
YRYR: How do you balance your studies and training?
AL: It's lot of trial and error. At the beginning, I was way too optimistic. I thought it was possible to study and train full-time. And for the first half of 2011, I managed to do both. But by the middle of the summer, all the studying, traveling and competing began to wear on me. I was so exhausted. It was too much. It took time to find the right balance, and it still takes time. I have to listen to my body and react to how I feel. But right now, I’ve made a pretty good plan until 2017.
YRYR: What is the time-split between your riding and dentistry studies?
AL: It changes a lot depending on the time of year. I'm mainly focused on the sport full-time right now because I know I can’t ride my bike at this Olympic level forever. So my studies are secondary at the moment. Throughout the season, when I’m living out of a suitcase and racing a lot, I live and breathe cycling 100 percent of the time. During the winter, when I have a bit more downtime in Copenhagen, I can work on my studies.
YRYR: When will you become an official dentist?
AL: I have about a year left and then I’m done. But for now, I am fully committed to the 2016 Olympics. After Rio, I will catch up on my studies, which is important for my future. When you're a female athlete, you have to plan carefully for your family life. This is something my boyfriend, Thomas, and I talk about. For example, children haven't come into the picture for us yet, but when they do, we want to be ready for them. It would be really cool to see more female athletes having kids and continuing to compete at a high level. That's inspiring. But unfortunately, it's easier for male athletes to have a family and keep riding.
YRYR: What do your fellow classmates and teachers think about your riding and racing?
AL: Dentistry is such a tough subject. It requires you to commit yourself 100 percent. Some of my peers and teachers understand what I'm doing, but others don't. The teachers who are interested in cycling and think I'm doing something unique are easier to work with and more supportive. Dentistry is tough and time-consuming, and so is living as a pro athlete.
YRYR: Have you ever taken what you’ve learned in school and applied it to racing somehow?
AL: Yes! There's a lot pressure at school to do well in exams. Because there are so many tests, you learn to perform under pressure often. It has helped me learn how to handle pressure when racing, too.
YRYR: How do you deal with pressure when it gets to be too much?
AL: I talk about it with people and that helps a lot. That way, I can relate to it more rationally. Feeling pressure is a part of being an athlete—and being human. Whether you have a 9-to-5 job or are stay-at-home mom, there is a lot of pressure to be very good at what you do. It’s not only in sport.
“NO MATTER WHAT YOU DO, YOU HAVE TO LEARN TO DEAL WITH PRESSURE... IT'S NOT ONLY IN SPORT.”
YRYR: How do you get yourself mentally ready on race day?
AL: I like to create an atmosphere where I can empty my head and not think too much about anything in particular. I like to relax and listen to music that brings out feel-good emotions.
YRYR: How do you feel about what you’ve achieved so far?
AL: I haven’t been racing for that long, which has its advantages and disadvantages. In the beginning, when you have a talent, winning everything is easy. Of course, you have to train hard, but your mind and body are still fresh and you haven’t experienced the hard times. You don’t know what it’s like to make sacrifices, work hard, get injured and have a comeback. I found it quite easy to go out and race without any pressure, and I think I took that for granted a bit. When you keep doing well for a while, it gets harder to reach the next level and stay there. That’s the real challenge. I have since struggled with injuries and hard times. Now, even though I haven’t been racing for long, I feel like I’m starting to gain experience. I can now say, ‘OK, what do I need to do to be at the right level? What do I need to do to perform to my best?’ It’s a very different mindset compared to when I started.
YRYR: Looking back, what has been the most important lesson of your careers?
AL: Having patience. Also, I had to learn to keep believing that what I'm doing is right. That was definitely the hardest lesson. I've also learned a lot from getting injured. The first time I got hurt, I didn’t listen to my body. Even though I was so tired and needed to rest, I kept pushing, racing and training because I didn’t want to let people down. But my body wasn’t able to do it. So I’ve learned that you need to listen to what your body tells you and respect it.
YRYR: What does the phrase “Your Ride. Your Rules.” mean to you?
AL: For me, it means that female cyclists no longer have to go into a male-dominated world and do the cycling activities the male way. They can be feminine on the bike and get good advice and proper equipment especially for females. It also means female cyclists are being taken way more seriously now than ever before.