Humans love to pursue their potential. Aristotle spoke of a eudaimonic life with meaning toward virtuous actions like wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. Jonathan Haidt translates a eudaimonic life to one where one develops one’s strengths, realizes one's potential, and becomes what is authentic to one's own nature. As a female in elite sport who has had the opportunity to be a leader, I have found my role challenging and deeply meaningful. Initially, I started running and cycling because I enjoyed pushing myself and, dare I even say, proving myself. Over time, it became about so much more: helping others find their passion and curiosity and encouraging them to pursue it. The problem is that women are socialized to put everyone else first and diminish our accomplishments, so when it comes to athletic goals, some of us worry that we are letting someone else down if we pursue our goals. Yet, when you pursue your goals, you experience personal growth and perspective shifts, how you show up, and the example you set for others. Pursuing sport isn’t only a portal to performance, it’s a gateway to self-actualization and creating meaning in your life.
Meaningful living is defined by psychologist Michael Steger in terms of purpose, a desire to understand our experiences, and clarity about who we are. Endurance sports are often done alone with a lot of time to ponder our life to derive deep meaning and also resilience and confidence. I started participating in sport because pushing myself and being among like-minded people who enjoyed the process, discipline, and identity of working towards athletic goals was fun. Being a female has offered an avenue to derive even more meaning, albeit there are challenges as a woman in male-dominated sports. We continue to work for equality and have seen improvements. In many mountain bike disciplines, we now race the same distance as men and have equal prize money. The “ultra” distances traditionally have had fewer females. Those of us engaging in long distances are working to increase participation by sharing the mental skills and stories of others. I believe we can experience self-transcendence in these longer events. I’m passionate about helping others, especially women, find their agency and believe they can do something by role modeling. If you can see yourself in someone, and they do something you wish you could do, it can change what you believe in your own capabilities. I’ve pursued bigger sports goals because I’ve seen other women do it before me. That’s why it’s so important to go after your goals because it becomes more than fulfilling your own challenges; you bring others with you (knowingly or unknowingly) in the process.
Becoming a mother in 2020 posed one of the greatest challenges to the pre-conceived notions of being a professional mountain biker. I didn’t know any other pro mountain bikers still racing with babies. The trend was that people got pregnant and would retire. But what if I didn’t want to retire? What would people think of me, and would I still be taken seriously? I thought about myself far into the future and realized I’d regret it if I didn’t have children, even if it meant my career would be harder going forward with children in tow. I never took the chartered paths, and this would be no different. When I announced my pregnancy, I was worried that people’s perception of what I was capable of would change overnight. I showed that you can exercise (with a doctor’s approval) throughout your pregnancy. A cultural norm many women are overcoming is that you don’t have to give up who you are because you become a mom. I was proud to set an example that created positive change for other women who were considering the same paths.
And yet, this path has not been easy. I now have 2 toddlers (almost 2 and 4). I am still racing at the top level. I am working to change perspective and create a new norm for athlete mothers. One is that you can do it, although it may look drastically different than before. Two, it won’t be a perfect journey and it’ll look different for everyone. Three, it’s worth it because you can still derive meaning from sport, and dare I say, derive even more meaning after you become a mom- your purpose, significance, and coherence of what you’re doing becomes clear.
In 2020 after my first child was born, we set out to create a documentary film that has since toured the world and won many awards about challenging cultural norms and identity to be an athlete mother.
There can often be a paradox between a “happy” life and a “meaningful” one. There is overlap, but choosing comfort and pleasure over meaning is not my choice. Doing hard things doesn’t always feel good (think of the last athletic feat you are most proud of), but it was probably worth it and created a sense of accomplishment. Personally, being a woman in sport means stepping into challenges, being a leader, blazing the trail, honoring those who have done so before me to make my path easier, and helping others believe that they can do hard and amazing things too.
Want to learn more: visit sonyalooney.com, follow Sonya on Instagram, and check out womenscyclingsummit.com, returning to Breckenridge in August!
Short bio: Sonya Looney is a professional ultra-endurance mountain biker, former World Champion, and 4x USA National Champion. She has tackled and won the hardest mountain bike races in 25+ countries. She is a mental performance coach, National Board Certified health and wellness coach, and host of The Sonya Looney Show, where she helps people find their best by exploring high performance and well-being. Sonya is a prolific keynote speaker and has also done a TEDx Talk on redefining success. Sonya is working on her Master’s in Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania and resides in Squamish, BC.
cover photo by Leslie Kehmeir