Isla Short racing on her bike

Navigating the climbs: Isla Short's story

Crashes, setbacks and mental resilience. The journey of Isla Short.

The demands on elite athletes can be very challenging. The highs can be very high, but the lows can be very low.

Isla Short is a Scottish cross country mountain biker from Peebles in the Scottish Borders, an area renowned for its mountain biking. She has represented Scotland at two Commonwealth Games and travelled the world racing on her bike.

Her job requires her to cycle up and down hills as fast as she can. Climbing hills in races is the easy part for Isla, but for her, the personal climbs are the ones that are more difficult to navigate.

We spoke with Isla to chat through her career so far.

Growing up

Cycling has always been central when Isla was growing up. Her first experience of cycling was going on family cycling holidays.

“Cycling was a thing we would do as a family. We were very outdoorsy. Instead of your traditional holidays, mine were spent on the back of a tandem travelling the UK and Europe with my parents and sisters.

“I think racing stemmed from those adventures with my parents.”

“My Dad also raced cross-country and competed at a national level across Scotland, so I spent many weekends cheering him on.”

At the age of 10, Isla moved to a specialist music school where she focused on playing the clarsach (Scottish harp) and the piano.  Isla struggled with the school environment and a lack of fulfilment. She persevered for four years but it was to be the first of many struggles Isla endured.

“I went to the school for four years. It was a really intense environment. Through that time, I realised that being in the outdoors was much more fulfilling, and music couldn’t offer that.”

Despite a lack of cycling training, Isla started competing near the end of her time at the music school. She didn’t race for results, more as a weekend escape from school. She was successful at a national level and began getting a thirst for success.

Isla left the music school and attended Peebles High School, but it took a while for her to adjust to mainstream education.

“It was hard for me to adjust to mainstream school. I do think that increased my passion for racing, because I knew this was where I felt socially comfortable and somewhere I could express myself.”

In 2012 and at the age of 15, she was selected for the European Youth Championships. Despite a poor result, this was her first taste of an international race which gave her an insight into where she could get to if she focused more.

A crashing halt

In 2013, her life came to a crashing stop.

Outside Glentress Forest, a local destination near Peebles known for its mountain biking, Isla was hit by a car when trying to cross the A72 entering the forest. She left the accident lucky to still be alive, with a broken spine and collarbone.

Being young, she luckily recovered from the injuries relatively quickly, however the accident accelerated some mental health problems and Isla began struggling to come to terms with what had happened.

“I really struggled to fully process the trauma and it left me really low on confidence and struggling to feel ‘normal’. I do think it held me back and I was beginning to get really frustrated with myself.

“The accident did however give me a different perspective on life, and actually helped me to understand what I wanted to do with my life.

"I loved how I felt on a bike and it made me want to be a bike rider!”

After physically recovering, Isla got back to competing at the top level and was beginning to win lots of junior events, even podiuming at the Junior World Cup.

After the highs of junior level, Isla moved into Under 23s where the results weren’t as positive, and she started to put more and more pressure on herself.  

“When I moved into Under 23. I became obsessed with my training and wanted to be in control of everything. As a result of this I then became obsessed with what I was eating. I started to think that if the bike needs to be light, then I need to be light as well. I was strong going uphills, so I thought that if I was lighter, I could be even faster and get an advantage.

“It was never an aesthetic thing. It was more performance related.

"I was weighing myself multiple times a day and ate less in the build up to a weekend, and I don’t think I truly understood that that was why I wasn’t performing at my best.

“I started to get support from the Scottish Cycling practitioners, and they were really helpful in making progress and helping me to start enjoying certain foods again.”

Competing at the top

In 2018 Isla got her first taste of elite cycling when she was lucky enough to be selected for Team Scotland at the Commonwealth Games at the Gold Coast in Australia. A target of top 5 was reached when she came 5th - a great feat despite her struggles.

“My first Commonwealth Games was amazing. I loved representing Scotland and everything that goes with it. It was my first experience of elite racing. I loved being part of the team and meeting so many other amazing athletes from other sports.”

The coronavirus pandemic then caused the world to stand still, but this helped Isla to reset.

“I think I really thrived in that setting where I had no social commitments, no one was doing anything and I could just train.

“In 2020 we were fortunate to have a very short season where all the major events were crammed into like one month. This proved to be my best ever month of racing, with a career best 11th in the World Cup and an amazing 5th at the World Championships.

“I would say that 5th place at the World Championships in Australia is definitely one of my career highlights.”

However, there were more setbacks for Isla as her mental health began to deteriorate again. In denial that she was struggling badly, she continued to compete. Only barely. If that wasn’t enough, she was then diagnosed with diaphragmatic endometriosis causing chest and abdominal pain, difficulty breathing and severe coughing.

“Endometriosis is an under researched condition despite 10% of women suffering from it. I started getting bad pain in my diaphragm during my period. Over the next three, four months, each month it got exponentially worse each time. By April I'd had five episodes over 36 hours of excruciating pain, lying on the floor in a ball just sobbing, not knowing what it was.

“I don’t think it is spoken about enough and I really want to help get the word out to young female cyclists that there is support out there and to help spread awareness.”

Closing of a loop

A disappointing 4th at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022 was then followed by one of Isla’s most special weeks of her career.

The UCI Cycling World Championships came to Scotland, with the mountain biking events taking place at Glentress Forest – the location of her accident.

In her hometown, Isla raced three events: Marathon, cross country and short track. A career best 13th in the short track was the pick of the performances, however this week meant more than results.

“The whole thing was surreal. I grew up riding those trails and I call them my happy place. To share that with the other riders was special.

“It was obviously really emotional for me given what happened 10 years ago. I had a lot of emotions to process, so I didn’t want to focus on a race result, to then potentially feel negative about the whole thing. Looking back at how far I had come, I was grateful I was still here and alive to compete.

“The energy from the crowd, my family and friends were what got me through it and it felt like a closing of a loop. If I was to retire after that week, I would have ended on a high!”

To the future

There is light at the end of the tunnel for Isla as she navigates her way through her career. So what’s  next?  

“The goal this year is to get back to the level I know I have got. I am happier and healthier, so I will see where that takes me.

“I am still learning, but one thing I have learnt is to stop being bothered by little things and the all-or-nothing mindset. The only thing between me being one of the best bike riders is my headspace, but I am trying to make that more fun and enjoy the ride.”

With the Olympics not far ahead, who knows what is in store for Isla. What we do know is, Isla won’t stop climbing.

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