Ariane Lüthi: phoenix from the flames

Ariane Lüthi is as hard as fucking nails. The two-time Swiss mountain bike marathon champion and five-time winner of Cape Epic is a mountain biking legend. And in my mind, one tough cookie in every way, from her head to her toes. So why is she so insistent on telling me she’s “mentally terribly weak”?

Photo by Kelvin Trautman

     Well, she’s suffered from severe depression all her life, and therefore in Ariane’s mind, she has a serious flaw. To me that couldn’t be further from the truth and I perceive her ‘weakness’ as nothing but strength. But I’ll let you make up your own mind about that one.

Pressure, panic and paralysis

     Ariane had difficulties with her mental health from a young age, struggling to deal with stress and pressure, so much so she frequently experienced severe physical symptoms such as temporarily losing her sight, and worse. She tells me of a time when she was approaching her first exams as a twelve year old: there was a lot of pressure on her shoulders, as the results would determine which level of school she could attend, and in her view, how proud her family would be of her:

“Stress is so subjective. Pressure is so subjective. It can energise you. But it can absolutely paralyse you. It used to paralyse me. One day randomly, I had this weird thing in my leg, and it slowly, slowly moved up and went to my arm just on the right side and I couldn’t really move it properly. Then suddenly I couldn’t talk anymore. My tongue was paralysed. And in my thoughts I could read what I was seeing, but I couldn’t express it and speak it out loud. I had a little candy in my mouth and it just slipped out.”

     Ariane’s terrifying paralysis lasted for over four hours, showing the incredible connection between mind and body. Such a severe physical reaction was due to the immense pressure Ariane was putting herself under. She tells me:

“I was someone who was extremely ambitious, nothing I did was ever good enough. I always beat myself up if it wasn’t perfect. I only felt good about myself coming back with the highest grade at school or a new personal best in swimming or whatever. It was always a massive amount of pressure. I do think that has to do with all my brain. There’s just a lot of issues that I definitely had and have.”

Burnt to the ground…

     Ariane’s issues continued throughout her life, experiencing bouts of serious anxiety and depression. Despite always being exposed to trauma: losing her sister at ten years old and her dad at twenty four, it was actually her divorce which plunged her into the deepest, darkest hole.

     Originally from Switzerland, Ariane followed her love all the way to South Africa (hence why she has one of the best accents in the peloton: slightly European with a tinge of South African). She changed everything and moved halfway across the world to establish a life far away from the one she knew. Convinced it was all going to work out and then being on the receiving end of a partner wanting a divorce was an exceptionally painful experience. The separation “crushed [Ariane] to pieces” and left her mourning for the life she thought she had all wrapped up with a bow:

“You feel like someone died. You have to grieve over it, but you don’t get the same support as if someone actually died. And sometimes you get less because people take sides. And if they take the other side, then you lose that person. You see friends just disappearing, actually pulling away from you. So you lose not just one person, you lose half of your friends.”

     Feeling like everything she had was “destroyed to the ground” led Ariane to work with a sports psychologist. He told her she was suffering from depression, a concept she wasn’t ready to accept, struggling with the difference between sad and depressed. She thought she was just going through a phase, flat out refusing medication, exclaiming:

“It’s easy to not see it because you don’t want to see it, right? Because it’s almost too much to deal with. I can’t go to the doctor and just go, this is broken, fix it because, you know, you have to put in a lot of effort yourself if it’s anything mental. You can’t just look at it as a broken leg. The brain is so hard.”

     It wasn’t until the psychologist gave her some quotes from autobiographies from different athletes that she began to accept what was going on in her mind:

“One of the sentences that stuck with me was Andre Agasi saying he couldn’t live without the sport because it was a therapy for him, but he also couldn’t live with it because the pressure was just killing him. And that was exactly where I was at. I wanted to stop cycling, but I needed it. I always wanted to win, and I wanted to win because that was in a way, the one moment I felt happy about myself. I really had to win, to still want to live. At one point, it was that extreme, it was that one thing that kept me alive. I needed to win. There was no other purpose. It was really just this drug of the happy feelings that I needed to get.

Also, I need to move. That’s my therapy. That’s why originally I started cycling. I just needed an excuse to be able to train every day. It’s my drug and the best excuse for being able to put aside so much time and being so obsessed. But on the other hand, the whole competition and having to win a race just kills the passion and actually kills me on the inside because I put so much pressure on myself.”

     What intrigues me so much about Ariane and her experiences is, if she’s so bad at dealing with pressure, why would she enter into a career that is fraught with it?! There are few careers as high stress as elite sport, so why put yourself through all that? Why go and compete? I understand the need for physical activity, I see myself very much in the same boat on that one. But building on that and choosing to pursue physical activity at the highest level, pitting yourself against others, is a completely different ball game. Ariane explains:

“Sport gives you almost a level playing field in a clinical environment. It’s very measurable. I’m seeking the challenge of being pushed to my limits. It’s weird. But you train to push yourself through pain. Pain is really an interesting thing. For one I felt I needed to be punished. For some reason, I have some unresolved issues somewhere in me. I felt I needed the punishment. So I was seeking the pain.

But actually, you can go somewhere else when you are depressed. It is a little bit of craziness in your brain. When something is not going right. You can push beyond. It makes you a weapon. You can go so deep into the pain and therefore export yourself to such another level. I can kill myself on the bike when I’m like that. But when you then take meds and regulate it feels like you don’t go as far. You are actually staying in a safe space. And when you are mentally ill, you can break that barrier. You go beyond the safe space, which can become dangerous, actually.

I think that’s why a lot of professional athletes are depressed. My mental coach explains that it’s a muscle. You can train the pain threshold. Depressed people have a much higher pain threshold because they are suffering every day.

It’s also something to do with the dopamine, it helps you get into a way of meditating in endurance sports, kind of being able to file all the things that are happening in your brain and bring order to the mess that’s going up there on up there.”

Photo by Dimitri Vaindirlis

…rising from the ashes

     Once Ariane realised that she wasn’t alone, that other athletes felt the way she did, she could truly open the door to getting better. Talking to a psychologist, having him reflect things back objectively and ask ‘is that really what’s going on?’ or ‘is that really a problem?’ was revelatory. That combined with medication pulled Ariane into a much better place.

“I really went through a hell of a journey to work on this. The medication helped me to get to a level where I was able to look at it realistically, because as long as I was really deep in the hole, the emotions were basically controlling my views. I could never step outside of things and analyse them in a neutral, objective way. The negative feelings were defining everything.

I was so mean to myself. I thought, my whole life is just a mess, and I will never meet someone else, he was my soul mate. All that kind of stuff. But actually, when I was able to look at it from a distance, I realised that the match didn’t work because we were too different and had different values. And for me, it’s so clear now I’m not sad about it anymore. I’m actually glad we broke up. But when you’re in it, it’s such a whiny mess. That’s why depression really is an illness, it’s not something that you make up. When you’re in it you see something very small as very big. And then when you’re out of it it’s like, ‘oh, maybe it doesn’t really matter that much if I fucked up on this’!”

     As Ariane moves on to tell me how she now sees the positivity in her depression I start to see all the light in Ariane’s story:

“It’s basically destroying your whole house to the ground. And as hard as it is to build it up back again, you really get to rebuild a whole new house. Throughout my darkest time I was learning a lot about values and relationships, and about life.

Which is actually an incredible experience. Incredible to have that time to be able to do that. I was really studying life. And I was kind of putting one little stone on top of the next to build my new foundation.

I think it’s a really important message to share that the good does come from the bad.

I think the harder the hit is, the more potential for growth. It’s the same with training. The harder you train, the more potential for growth you get out of it. And it’s the same with traumatic experiences.”

     Ariane laughs a little as she explains she knows that her journey with depression is not over, just like ‘once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic’, there’s always that possibility that she will go back into a dark place. That’s always there, milling around in the back of her mind. That’s why she says:

“The more you can remind yourself of where you were and where you are now, helps to kind of reinforce that you can be in a good way. Because it’s a constant battle. I think about it all the time. But now I’m proud. So when journalists ask me at the end of a race, ‘what does this result mean for you?’ The results mean something, but I’m actually so proud of the journey. The result is such a side note, who I am and how I am here, it’s really that I’m the most proud of.”

Persistent, powerful and prosperous

     Ariane’s story is powerful in showing not only how you can triumph over adversity, but also about how there can be huge differences between our perception of others, and our perception of ourselves. On the outside Ariane appears to be such a happy person. She always looks so smiley and seems so relaxed. So when she says ‘oh, but actually, I suffer from really bad depression’ it’s almost unbelievable. I have a completely false perception of what her reality is. But then I also feel like so does she. Ariane tells me she’s weak, and yet I still think she’s nothing but strong:

“If a person from the outside looks at me and thinks, ‘oh, wow, she’s strong’. Actually, I’m mentally terribly weak. You cannot imagine how weak I am, actually.”

     For me, this still just doesn’t sit right. I’ve heard the story, I’ve listened and reflected. But not once have I ever thought she was weak. All I see is strength. Strength to talk about the darkest of times, to be honest and vulnerable and exposed. But most importantly, the strength to live through extreme pain and suffering and come out the other side again and again. She is the phoenix from the flames. Strong, beautiful and always ready to rebuild from the ashes. And there is nothing weak about that.

Photo by Dimitri Vaindirlis

Cover photo by Sam Clark

Leave a Reply