To the Olympians

Frakes/Sports Illustrated via Getty Imag

It was the worst I’ve ever felt on a track.

Beijing, 2008. I was the favorite to win the 400 meters. I came out of the blocks strong. Maybe ​too​ strong. I had a comfortable lead for most of the race. But down the stretch, I just didn’t have anything left. Two other runners passed me in the final few meters and I finished third. I took bronze. I was absolutely ​devastated​. I was able to keep my emotions in check long enough to make my way to the podium, still replaying the race in my mind — all the things I could have done differently — when one of the Chinese delegates stopped me.

“What happened?” he said, in English. “We already had your name on the gold medal!”

I know he didn’t mean it exactly how he said it. It was like the empathy had gotten lost in translation.

He hadn’t meant to break my heart.

But I couldn’t help but take it that way. Those words … they just cut right through me, and I completely broke down.

So there I was, moments away from taking the podium in a crowded stadium, millions all over the world watching on TV, and I was just ​sobbing.​ A complete mess.

I was born in Jamaica, where running is everything. It’s like football in Texas. If you’re inclined to run, the communities and the schools foster and enable that. I started running when I was seven, and I ​loved​ it. When I was nine, one of my teachers at Vaz Preparatory School in Kingston asked the class what each of us wanted to be when we grew up. I wrote down only two words.

Olympic champion.

Because if I was going to be a runner, I wanted to be the best in the world.

In my first Olympics — 2004 in Athens — I was a part of the team that won gold in the 4×400 relay. An unbelievable accomplishment and a true honor. But if you’re an athlete in a traditionally individual sport like running, you know there’s nothing like standing alone amongst your peers and being recognized as the best.

That was my goal in Beijing.

To win the 400 meters.

To be an Olympic champion.

And I had failed.

It’s by far the worst I’ve ever felt — and the most disappointed I’ve ever been — on the track.

Olivier Morin/AFP via Getty Images

That’s why I feel for every Olympian who had prepared to compete in Tokyo this summer. Because even though I suffered the most disappointing loss of my life in Beijing … at least I’d had the chance to compete.

Now, because of COVID-19, they won’t even get that chance. At least not for another year.

I know that to a lot of people, one year doesn’t seem like a long time. But for so many Olympic athletes — especially those in more niche or individual sports — this delay hurts, and it will for a while.

A lot of you are already feeling the financial impact. Maybe you’re a track athlete like I was and you make most of your money from competing. Now there are no races to run. Or maybe you’ve lost sponsors because companies aren’t renewing contracts in this uncertain economic climate. So maybe you’re feeling it financially.

But you’re also probably feeling it physically and emotionally, too. That’s why I feel for you.

I feel for the first-time Olympians whose dreams will suddenly have to wait. I also feel for veterans like Allyson Felix, who’s trying to make her fifth Olympic team for what will likely be her last Olympics. Time is not on her side.

And there are a number of other returning Olympians who have unfinished business — goals left to achieve and maybe even disappointments to redeem themselves for. I feel for them, too, because I remember the anxiety I had coming out of Beijing. I had won every race that season except for the one I wanted most. For the first time in my entire life, I doubted myself. I was the favorite, and I had lost. Were people wrong about me? Was I wrong about ​myself​? Did I really belong?

I beat myself up pretty good. For the next four years, those thoughts echoed in my mind every time I got into the blocks. They were so vivid and loud.

Then I started working with a sports psychologist, and everything changed. I slowly learned how to overcome my anxiety, and by the time I got into the blocks for the 400 at the 2012 London Olympics, I had my mind right. The only thing I thought before the gun went off was, ​It’s my time.

And I ran the race of my life.

I got my gold.

I got my fairy-tale ending.

And I can’t imagine what it would have been like if I’d had to suffer through a fifth year of pain and anxiety, just to have a ​chance​ at redemption.

When I was competing, I was singularly focused on winning. It was all or nothing. If you’re not first, you’re last. That’s why only getting the bronze in Beijing hit me so hard. I didn’t train to win bronze. I trained to win ​gold​, and I had failed. I don’t expect most people to understand that mentality.

But I know you Olympians do.

And it’s interesting how now, four years removed from competing, it’s not the medals that I remember most. It’s not the races or the competition.

It’s the little things.

I miss the work. I miss everything leading up to the Olympics. I miss walking into the cafeteria in the Olympic Village and sitting across from people who don’t look like me and don’t speak my language, and still smiling and laughing. Because even though we didn’t know each other, for our whole lives we’d shared the same dream. And now here we were, together, thinking, ​Wow, we made it. We’re here. This is it.

That’s a bond that goes beyond words.

My heart aches to know that all the Olympic hopefuls out there will have to wait another year to experience that — the same way it aches for people all over the world who have been impacted by this pandemic. I don’t want to diminish the true impact of COVID by talking about sports. So many things are more important and so many people need our support right now. And I’m praying for each one of them.

But we’ll be back.

The ​world​ will be back.

And the Olympics will be back, too.

So for you Olympians … the best advice I can give you is to enjoy this next year as much as possible. I know it’s going to be hard, mentally. It’s another year of training you hadn’t planned for. There are financial stresses. Economic uncertainty. And God forbid one of you is battling this virus yourself or has a family member who is. If that’s the case, I’m praying for you and your family, too. Whatever challenges you’re facing, you can overcome them.

You’ve already come this far.

And just because you don’t have a crowded arena in Tokyo and millions watching at home this summer doesn’t mean you don’t have people out there rooting for you.

I’m rooting for you.

And as an Olympic community, we will get through this. Together.

Best of luck, and I’ll see you in 2021.