Guest author and professional mountain bike racer Samantha Welter shares how she's conquering Imposter Syndrome with every race and every ride...
The Imposters: I Dare You to Tell Me I Don’t Belong
Clipped in at the starting line, every nerve inside me is electrified. To my right is a stage that’s Taylor Swift-worthy, Cake is blasting from the speakers, “She’s going the distance, she’s going for speed,” spectators are flashing their iPhones like fireworks, the announcer just boomed my name! I feel like a freakin rock star.
The iPhone fans are roiling against the orange plastic fencing, ocean waves breaking, bubbling for a moment with their mountain bike racing heroes—world champions Annika Langvad and Kate Courtney; national champions Erin Huck and Chloe Woodruff. With a $15,000 prize purse on the line, the best of the best in XC racing are ready to put on a show.
It’s the Whiskey Off-Road, the Whiskey 50, my first ever Pro mountain bike race. I don’t belong here.
When I was 28 years old I started a new job; I thought it would be fun to ride my bike to work then ride dirt paths on the weekend. I bought a low-level bike with a triple crankset and did just that. I pedaled a local 3 mile trail as often as I could, swirling around in the trees, narrowly missing the pine trunks, speeding down the mild descent—it was exhilarating! Soon I started driving to other trail systems to explore. I learned this type of riding was called mountain biking, and I was addicted.
It didn’t take long for this dirt riding obsession to turn into mountain bike racing. I still remember my first beginner race. I finished with bloody knees and elbows, but not before stopping mid race to enjoy a packet of fruit snacks. I mean dead stopped to take a break. The race was 8 miles. I finished 2nd. 5 years later I won the Missouri State Championship. 2 years after that, USA Cycling bestowed upon me one of my most prized accomplishments—a Pro XC mountain bike license.
A rural Missouri girl who just wanted to ride dirt trails?
I really, really think there’s been a mistake.
I’m not fast enough. I haven’t worked hard enough. I’m a total fraud.
Imposter phenomenon was first defined in 1978 by Dr. Pauline Clance and Dr. Suzanne Imes as an individual experience of self-perceived intellectual phoniness. They studied high-achieving women who constantly undercut the worth of their academic success. In more current research imposter syndrome has been shown to affect women and men in any achievement construct—especially sport. A self-dubbed imposter may feel like a fraud, like they don’t belong, have difficulty owning their success, and fear being discovered as a fake. This can lead to anxiety, depression, and low self-worth.
As an expert or Cat 1 level racer, I wanted more. Landing on the podium in most races I entered wasn’t enough. It was too easy. I wanted to challenge myself—what’s the best that I could be? But the pro field seemed out of reach. Light years away. It was untouchable. Until I surrounded myself with other racers who also wanted to find their best. We pushed each other to bridge that gap—and dared to see what was possible.
I took off with the starting gun and rode so hard I swear my lungs were bleeding and my quadriceps disintegrating. I fought alongside the world’s elite for 50 miles—and I finished Dead F*ing Last. In my 2nd pro 50 miler—also DFL. My 3rd race, 24th out of 27 finishers—I wasn’t last.
2019 was my 2nd year racing mountain bikes as a pro, I still have a hard time saying that, and I kept a steady record of bottom 1/3 finishes. I still freak out every time I hit the “register” button after selecting the pro category. During MTB Nationals, I called USA Cycling twice to change my enduro registration from pro to amateur back to pro. I finished 11th in that race. My anxiety will rush to a near panic attack level as I consider each race. I check the amateur results to make sure my 24th place finish would still win in that category. I call my teammates to tell them I’m dropping back down, I’m not prepared to race this level, but they won’t let me.
Because I’ve worked hard.
I know how to ride, I know how to race, and I know how to do it at a monstrous level.
I’ve earned my place in this field.
I am enough.
And so are you. Daring to see what’s next is always scary, but you have to dive in to see what’s possible.