I remember riding to prom in the back of a limo by myself. My godfather was the chauffeur. He owned a limousine service, so my friends got to ride in a limo, too, but they had to cram in the back with their dates.
My ride, on the other hand, had lots of room. Plenty of space to stretch my legs and make sure my strapless, bright yellow dress would keep it’s shine. It was nice and quiet, too. I could hear the music perfectly, all the way from my mom’s house in Queens to Chelsea Piers on the west side of Manhattan.
My friends all went to after-parties once prom was over, but not me. I went straight home. I was racing in the city championships the next day, bright and early.
I could tell you that that’s why I didn’t have a date — because everyone at my school knew I was on the track team, and that I’d be too focused on racing the next day to be able to have a good time.
But that would be a lie.
The truth is that guys weren’t really falling at my feet in high school. In fact, not everyone actually knew who I was — and those who did would probably have described me as, first and foremost, an athlete.
So people maybe knew that I was fast, but not really anything else. Add in the fact that I was very socially awkward and it’s not really surprising that I didn’t have a particularly large circle of friends.
Cute guy: “Hey Natasha, I heard you’re pretty fast.”
Me: “Yeah. Check this out.” [Sprints away.]
So I went to prom alone.
And I rode to prom alone.
But once I got to Chelsea Piers and met up with my friends, I really did have a lot of fun. My godfather even drove me home in the limo, too, which felt so good after having spent the last six hours dancing and walking around the boardwalk in uncomfortable shoes.
I missed all the after-parties. But hey, I qualified for state championships the next day.
I started out as one of the boys.
I wouldn’t say I was a tomboy, but growing up I was always playing outside with the boys, riding bikes, rollerblading, or whatever — it was just a natural thing for me to be out running around rather than playing in the house.
Both of my parents were athletes — they ran track in college — and my dad coached track, so I had been watching people run since I was five years old. Neither of my parents pressured me into running, or any other sport for that matter, but I was just naturally drawn to it. I started competing when I was nine.
When you’re an athletic girl, I think there’s this notion that you’re not as feminine as a girl who plays with dolls. And for some reason the two things are exclusive — like if you are good at sports, some people think you can’t enjoy dressing up and wearing makeup, too. It’s one or the other. And it never felt right to me.
I understood the maxim “winning isn’t everything” pretty early. I would win races, but then still feel insecure standing on the podium. I’d be standing at the top thinking: I’ll never have hips like the girl who finished in third place.
I became very self-conscious anytime curves were involved — hips, boobs, butts, lips … lips are kind of supposed to be curve-shaped, I guess — body image became such a real thing I had to consider.
At every track meet I’d notice other people who I thought had it better than me. I’d get upset anytime I looked in the mirror and wasn’t filling out an outfit the way I wanted to. But every time I beat an old time or won a race, I was always able to convince myself to push forward. I told myself that I was an athlete before anything else — that what my body was doing was more important than what it looked like in a new bathing suit.
I thought that, if I wanted to be an elite runner, I was going to have to compromise on some social aspects of my life. I didn’t want anything to get in the way of my performance on the track. I wanted to be known as an athlete, period.
It wasn’t until I got to South Carolina that my eyes were finally opened to the fact that I didn’t really care how people thought of me. I was going to be whoever I felt like being.
It was my freshman year, practice had just finished, and we were preparing to leave the next day for the Penn Relays in Philadelphia. My coach asked me to do an interview with a newspaper reporter, so I got on the phone and answered questions for a few minutes.
They were basically just normal interview questions — talking about girls on the team, my past in track and our expectations for the relays. Finally, the reporter asked her last question:
“What made you want to go to South Carolina?”
I didn’t think too hard about my answer. The truth was that I had wanted to go to South Carolina since I was a freshman in high school. I knew it was a school that produced great quarter-milers. I had played hard to get with coach Curtis Frye for months when he was recruiting me, but it was always the place I wanted to end up.
For whatever reason, I was feeling more feisty than usual that day, so I said:
“All the girls here are so pretty. They’re all just like — divas.”
We hung up and I didn’t think about the interview again until we got to Philly. That’s when somebody showed us a newspaper as soon as we got off the bus. The headline on the front of the sports section read:
GAMECOCK DIVAS RETURN TO PENN RELAYS
Our team became known as the Gamecock Divas from that point forward. We were in all of the South Carolina papers and a few national ones, and had custom jackets made and everything. I think they still call themselves the Divas at South Carolina.
That nickname was somehow exactly what I needed. It provided me with a boost of confidence when we were competing.
I decided to start running in full makeup. Putting it on became my pre-run ritual before every meet — like it was almost meditative. I would just stand in front of the mirror and forget about everything else. I used to tell myself that the brighter my shade of lipstick, the faster I’d run.
Somewhere along the way, I stopped looking at everyone else and became truly grateful for everything that I had been blessed with. I felt confident, I felt beautiful and I felt like a winner.
I was 22 when I went to Beijing for my first Olympics. There’s no greater honor as an athlete than to be a part of your country’s Olympic team. But I had this weird feeling when the Games ended — it was almost like I was a new person.
For so many years my goal had been to make the Olympics, and then after it was over, life just kept going on. And even though I had won a gold medal in the 4X400-meter relay, I had also just missed the cut for the individual 400 meters. I felt like I had let myself down.
I wanted to keep competing and working toward another Olympics. I trained for four more years, but in 2012 I didn’t qualify for the team at all, so I was just … lost.
I’m 26 years old and supposed to be in my prime, but I don’t even get to go?
I felt like maybe I was just done running. Like I was supposed to be doing something else entirely. I thought about just starting over and going back to school to become a chiropractor.
I called my mom to start discussing the next chapter in my life, but she wasn’t having it.
“You don’t look like you want to win out there.” she told me.
“What?” My mom never said things like that to me.
“That’s what the psychologist sitting next to me said.”
And that’s how I started seeing a sports psychologist.
Apparently, he had been sort of following my career, and when he sat next to my mom at a meet he gave her his business card.
I still remember our first session. He asked me what I thought about before every race, and I just started listing problems:
I’d better get off to a quick start, or, I’m going to die in the last 100.
He couldn’t believe what I was even saying. He just shook his head and was like, “It’s no wonder you lose with that attitude.”
I think it’s kind of funny how over the years I went from being uncomfortable in my body and comfortable in my head to the exact opposite, without ever realizing it.
Positivity takes some work, for sure, and just like with any training, you see the results over time. I kept training and started improving my personal-best times. And I made it back to the Rio Olympics in 2016. I won another gold medal in the relay, and for the first time I got to compete in the 400 meters.
I finished fourth.
And when I got home, it was different than in 2008. Not bittersweet. And I didn’t let myself get down. I woke up the next morning and got back to work, training for Tokyo, and hopefully a medal, in 2020.
I know that tough times are going to keep coming. Whether it’s body image or mental toughness or a fourth-place finish, I know there will be something in the future that will get me down. That’s life.
I’m very grateful for my coaches and my psychologist, and for the support from family and friends. But I know, at the end of the day, that Mom can’t go out and run a race for me. And my godfather can’t be my chauffeur forever.
My whole life, I have used sports to help me work through difficult issues. I think it’s important to engage young people, especially young women, with the idea that athletics can be a great tool for motivation and positivity, but they’re not a fix for everything. It can help to discuss your issues out loud, with your family or with a professional therapist.
Recently, I started a YouTube channel to try and communicate what life is like outside of sports. I want to show the obstacles — especially those faced by young people — go far beyond winning or losing. And that there’s also more to social media than just constant selfies and guys trying to slide into the DMs. (Seriously, guys. That’s not a good move. I’m not EVER going to acknowledge you.)
There are always going to be highs and lows. It’s up to me as an individual to prepare for the next opportunity, and then make the most of it. I’ve been lucky enough to have traveled all over the world, and have met so many great people in my career. I can honestly say, right here and now, that I wouldn’t change one thing about the way my life has played out.
So for now I’ll just keep running.
In her spare time, Natasha hosts Tea Time on her YouTube channel, a program aimed at helping adolescent girls deal with issues through sports. Tickets are available for the Tea Time National tour, beginning in New York City, October 28th.