Dear 21-year-old Anna,
Hate to tell you this.
But shit is about to hit the fan.
You just dropped the baton in the 4 ✕ 4 and cost USC winning back-to-back national titles.
I know, it doesn’t seem real.
But before you face the team, we need to talk.
This year, 2018–19, has already been the hardest year of your life. You went through so much and trained so hard for this moment. Just a couple months ago you wanted to quit track, quit school, quit everything. It got really dark. To be honest, it got to the point where you didn’t even want to be alive anymore.
And just when you thought life was getting better, you dropped the freaking baton.
I know you’re thinking it, so I’ll just say it.
What was it all for?
Looking back, everything started spiraling when Papaw died. You had just started freshman year, 19th birthday days away, and just like that he was gone.
He always had this invincibility to him, and all of a sudden he wasn’t there to guide you anymore. And when you needed your family most, you were 3,000 miles away at school. You didn’t know your teammates like that yet. I mean, you just got to campus. You wanted to put on a brave face. You wanted them to see the Anna Cockrell they heard about. A phenomenal hurdler who won two medals at World U20s.
But you weren’t processing his death.
Instead, you hid your feelings and decided to work 10 times harder. You told life, “You think you can break me? No. I’ll show you.”
It’s like you were chasing something.
You were chasing that feeling, you know?
The same feeling that made you fall in love with hurdling in the first place.
The same thing that drew you into gymnastics when you were six.
You were chasing the thrill.
The feeling of constantly being on the edge of out of control when you’re racing. Feeling like this might be too fast. This might be too far. Your legs might give out before you reach the finish line. But, my God, if it goes right – when it goes right – there’s no feeling like it.
You ask yourself, “Am I flying too close to the sun? Am I going to crash?” You never truly know. But you’ve accepted the chance of falling because the payoff when you don’t is so rewarding.
It’s this thrill-seeking that’s made you a national champion and All-America.
But off the track? In real life? You’re playing with fire, Anna.
It’s not sustainable.
You’ll realize that you can’t perform and grind and hustle your way out of a problem instead of dealing with it. That kind of recklessness has its own consequences.
You were working so hard you didn’t even notice that you had completely closed yourself off to the people who cared about you.
Once the initial grief of Papaw’s death started wearing off, you realized you spent half the semester declining every invitation to movies, parties and even just hanging out.
No wonder you felt isolated from the team.
So, you tried to turn things around. When you started traveling that season you realized your teammates didn’t actually hate you. That was just in your head. And so, you took baby steps and started developing relationships. You even got really close with your training partner, Dior Hall.
But fast forward a year and a half later, to your third year, and there were still things you hadn’t worked through and were holding on to. You’re still living on the edge. You’ve pushed yourself to finish undergrad in three years, graduation is closing in, you’re completely overwhelmed and your schedule is overloaded:
You go to weights.
Drive across L.A. to Westwood.
Volunteer with the Feinstein campaign.
Change in the car.
Head to afternoon practice.
Go to a couple classes.
It was exhausting.
It was like each day was a performance.
You’d go to practice trying to be the ultimate team captain, trying to lead, trying to be positive, trying to motivate. You were always on.
But, on the inside you were miserable and just trying to get through practice so you could go home and sleep.
Sadly, sleep became your motivation for everything.
Life was so draining that you didn’t have energy to do anything other than perform and sleep, perform and sleep, perform and sleep.
It became this never-ending chase of….
Once I finish this assignment, I’ll be O.K.
Once I get this grade, I’ll be O.K.
Once I PR, I’ll be O.K.
Once I, once I, once I, once I….
Then something will change. Then I’ll be O.K.
You were desperately chasing happiness thinking that it was something on the outside.
You never looked within.
Because, in your mind, what the hell do you have to be unhappy about anyway? Mom came from a dirt road in Louisiana. She was the first in her family to go to college and she made it all work. Dad made it work. Why can’t you function? Why can’t you get it together? You don’t get to call yourself depressed, you don’t deserve to.
You desperately wanted to be that person who always had their act together. That’s who everyone wanted you to be. A person who knew who she was. Who never cracked. Never folded. Never showed weakness.
And in return, everything started to give.
Remember that day when Dior called you out for neglecting your friendship? That was really hard. But it was important.
You were constantly working and sleeping and trying to block out the world around you. Indifferent to your absence, you asked Dior to do your hair before the next meet, a three-year tradition between y’all at this point.
She responded and said, “Girl, you haven’t talked to me in two weeks. Now you want me to do your hair?” And you cried. Hard.
You felt so bad. You knew you hadn’t talked to her, but you didn’t know what to say.
You were desperately chasing happiness thinking that it was something on the outside.- Anna Cockrell
Sure, you were shocked. But she wasn’t wrong. You disappeared and then popped back up when you needed something?
And when you told Dior why you went M.I.A., she didn’t blame you. Instead, y’all opened up to each other about how tough the year had been and she became a rock for you.
All those nights you couldn’t stand being in your apartment, Dior was there for you. She’d let you stay at her place until you were recharged enough to go back.
It was the little things: Did you eat today? Do you want me to get you dinner? Do you want to come to my house? How’s your thesis coming?
She really stepped up for you.
Then, Coach Caryl pulled you into her office because she could physically see you weren’t O.K. Thankfully, you just let it all loose. You finally opened up and told her you’ve been miserable for months, and how hopeless and lost you felt. And after a long conversation about what you’ve been through, she set you up with professional help. Professional help that I don’t think you were taking seriously.
You’d think finally allowing your head coach to truly see you, and coming clean about your emotions, would take away all those dark thoughts of not wanting to be here anymore.
Instead, your anxiety and the pressure to succeed were still eating at you. The mere thought of working on your honors thesis immediately conjured feelings of frustration and failure because weren’t you supposed to be an academic? Even though you were miserable, how could you allow yourself to fall so far behind on the project? You went back to the spiral. Thankfully, someone in the cohort told your thesis advisor that something was wrong with you. So she also pulled you into her office and you let her into your world.
You told her, “Honestly, I don’t even know what to do. I’m just so depressed. I’m also super behind on my thesis, so I don’t know how I’m going to finish. I failed you. Sorry.”
And for the third time this year you weren’t met with disappointment, you weren’t dismissed. In fact, she extended her hand and listened. Y’all scheduled personal check-ins, she encouraged you to continue seeing your sports psych and offered you other mental health resources outside of athletics.
Anna, are you hearing me now?
People CARE about you. Outside of what you’re able to achieve.
You’ve spent the last three years being so mean to yourself. I know you think you’re burdening everyone around you with these problems, but the people who love you want to step in and take some of this stress off you.
It’s time for you to realize that you deserve grace. It’s O.K. to ask for help.
And it seemed like you were starting to get that.
You worked through things in therapy, got back on the track from a Grade II hamstring strain, finished your thesis and gave an inspiring graduation speech about your mental health to your fellow Trojans. A speech that went viral and inspired college athletes across the country.
It’s time for you to realize that you deserve grace. It’s O.K. to ask for help.- Anna Cockrell
Now, we’re here.
You went to therapy, pulled yourself together to graduate and worked your ass off to come back from an injury, just for the season to end like this?
No really ... what was it all for?
Can I be honest? Even after all that progress, you ran like that because you still didn’t freaking believe in yourself. You were running around the track filled with doubt, insecurity and emotional baggage tied to the importance of that relay.
Dropping that baton today was a symptom of everything you’ve been battling since you came to USC. It was years of dealing with problems in a way that was unhealthy, unproductive and ultimately destructive.
You allowed the sun to destroy your wings.
But I’ll let you in on a couple secrets.
- When you face the team later, they won’t be mad at you. Surprising, I know. The pain you feel right now will be soothed by their reassurance and praise.
- A global pandemic, as terrible as it sounds, will turn your life around. You’ll spend months with your family just hanging on the couch, swimming, riding your bike and honestly, just getting to know yourself again.
Track is the furthest thing from your mind and that’s O.K. You have a lot of baggage attached to running right now, and this break will help you to not tie your self-worth to your performances. But, when you do step back on the line, it will be because you want to and you’ve chosen to. You’ll let go of the constant pressure of trying to make a team, trying to get a contract, trying to go pro, trying to be who you think people want you to be.
You’ll rediscover your love for the sport.
You’ll just be Anna again.
- In 2021, you’ll feel like you’re walking into your destiny. You’ll be the first athlete to win the 100-meter and 400-meter hurdles at nationals since Queen Harrison-Claye.
This is something you’ve set out to do since your senior year of high school. Remember how many coaches told you that you couldn’t do both and you’d have to choose? But you will.
- Lastly, because of the pandemic, the Olympics will be postponed a year.
You were a junior in high school when you made the U.S. Pan-American Junior team and in that moment you knew that wouldn’t be your last team.
The following year, you went to the 2016 Olympic Trials and couldn’t even make it past semi-finals. But it instantly became your dream. You told Papaw before he died that the next Olympic cycle you’d make it to the Games.
Five years later, you’ll return to the Trials stage. In a little over 53 seconds, your dreams will become reality.
The whole time you’ll be thinking, “Run. Go. Oh my God. Oh my God. Run. Run. Arms back. PUNCH BACK! Run. Oh my God, the race is over. I think I was third. Was I third?”
The race is honestly a blur, but you’ll trust yourself, training and technique to get you through. And you will get through.
I’m living in this moment right now and it’s hard to put into words when things that you dreamt about happen.
I’m an Olympian.
I’m still processing it all. It’s amazing.
I know that, from where you’re standing right now, all that I’ve said doesn’t seem possible. This seems really out of reach.
The biggest difference between you and me?
Now, I’m a lot more honest with myself. If I’m not having a good day, I say, “This is a bad day and that’s O.K. It’s really O.K.” I’m going to breathe and try to think about what’s going on, then try again tomorrow. Remember all the time you practiced breathing from your diaphragm in voice lessons? Using that and practicing diaphragmatic breathing is going to change everything.
I’m a thousand times more forgiving of myself and I give myself a lot more grace than you ever have. If it’s a bad rep, it’s just a bad rep. It wasn’t my best one, but I still got some work in.
And I think I’ve also just tried a lot to take the pressure off of myself. Just giving myself the space to say, “You know what? If track doesn’t work out for me, there’s more to life than this. This isn’t the sum of who I am.”
I’m giving myself the space to say, “I can be in this sport if I want to be. And when I don’t want to be, I can walk away. There’s no value judgement on that.”
I’m focusing a lot more on the gratitude side of things and being grateful for being alive. No, enjoying being alive.
And let me tell you, that’s better than any medal.
As bad as you’re feeling right now, I’m here to tell you that in two years, being alive is going to feel good again. More days than not, you’re going to be really, really happy. Happy is going to be your default, as opposed to a fleeting moment.
You’re going to figure out a lot of shit and life is just going to feel better.
Now, I’m in Tokyo preparing to compete in my first Olympic Games. No matter what happens out here, I am important, I am worthy, I am valued and I matter.
And so do you.