Hanging Up My Spikes

Thomas Lovelock/Sports Illustrated via Getty

As weird as it might sound, this was actually a pretty easy decision.

Track has been a huge deal for me, don’t get me wrong. I was practically born into it. And this sport has been good to me over the years. I worked hard, and that hard work has been rewarded — an NCAA championship in the 400, two Olympic gold medals and 11 World Championship golds. Countless moments of pure joy. 

So me and track? We’re cool. We had a great run. There’s love there for sure.  

But at the same time.… 

I am not my sport.

You know what I mean?

Track is not the whole of who I am, or even what I do. It’s not who I am. And I never wanted it to be, either. I’m so much more than just someone who runs fast. And knowing that — realizing it with absolute certainty — is why making this decision to retire from the sport that’s been a huge part of my life since I was nine … it wasn’t really something that I agonized over. 

I’m 36 now — a mom, a graduate student. It’s time to move on. I feel it in my heart. 

I’m good with it. 

And all that passion that I had for running? The drive, the focus, the determination? I’ve found a new place to put it all. And I couldn’t be more excited for what’s next. 

Natasha Hastings | USA Track & Field | Hanging Up My Spikes | The Players' Tribune
Taylor Baucom/The Players' Tribune

Right now I’m doing my master’s in clinical mental health, and after I earn my degree my plan is to become a psychologist. But there’s way more to it than just that. 

I’ve worked with sports psychologists throughout my athletic career, and a few years back it hit me that all of them have been similar in a pretty major way — they were all older white men. I wasn’t angry about that or anything. It just felt unfortunate. Unfortunate that there wasn’t more diversity, or more choices to work with different types of people. And back in 2019 when I started looking for a therapist to help me work through some challenges and stresses in my personal life, I didn’t want to go that same route again. 

So I did that thing we all do, right? I pulled up Google and typed in “Black female therapists,” followed by the city I was living in. It’s a pretty big town, but only a few options popped up. And that just hammered home what I had already realized.

When I was finally able to connect up with someone who was a good fit — someone who looked like me, who had some of the same life experiences, someone I really connected with — I knew I had found something special. That connection was truly meaningful to me, in lots of different ways. And not long after that, I decided that becoming a therapist was what I wanted to do going forward. But not just any therapist. 

I want to be a Black woman working as a psychologist in a field that has historically been dominated by men and has far too few therapists who are women of color. I want to be someone who can help demystify therapy for those in our community who all too often learn, or are taught, to keep their feelings and struggles inside. I want to make it so people like myself and other women of color will be able to work through things with someone who looks more like we do, or who has faced similar challenges, someone who has shared more life experiences with us.

Those things, right now, reaching that goal … that’s my mission. And I’m ready for it. 

Before I got to this point, though, I gotta be honest: I basically needed to hit rock bottom. I needed to realize what it meant to really take care of myself mentally, and the importance of that. And believe it or not, missing the 2012 Olympic team was a huge blessing in disguise for me. It took feeling that low for me to hunker down and start working on my mindset.

Ultimately, I decided to put in the time and the effort. And eventually that work began paying off when I least expected it.

Natasha Hastings | USA Track & Field | Hanging Up My Spikes | The Players' Tribune
Antonin Thuillier/AFP via Getty

The big turning point for me was actually this one Diamond League meet in New York City in 2013.

And look, you have to understand … I’m from Brooklyn, right? Brooklyn! BK. I have New York in my blood. So I always, always, always want to show out when I race there. But for some weird reason anytime I competed at home, I somehow just blew it. Trust me, I wish it hadn’t been that way, but there was something about being home, being in my city, in front of lots of friends and family, that just seemed to get to me.

So there’s the backdrop for that race. I was feeling that pressure.

Then, to make things even more challenging, this wasn’t just any old meet in New York. It was one of those events where the stands were absolutely packed – mostly with Jamaicans, my people. And this was a meet that had seen Usain Bolt set a new world record for the men’s 100 meters in 2008. So even though it wasn’t a qualifier or anything like that, it was a huge deal to me.

On top of all that, the weather totally sucked.

I still remember it to this day. I was in lane 7. It was cold and rainy — just absolutely miserable. The air had that damp, chilly edge that makes your fingers feel that close-to-numb feeling. Exactly the kind of thing that would’ve gotten me off my game in the past.

But instead of freaking out or losing my focus, I found myself putting into practice some of the things I was learning from the mindset training with my sports psychologist. All of a sudden, I began thinking: The sun is shining in lane 7! 

I don’t even know where that thought came from, to be honest with you. But almost immediately it felt good. So I just kept saying the same thing to myself in my mind. Over and over.

The sun is shining in lane 7. The sun is shining in lane 7.

And I wasn’t just saying it, either. It was like I actually believed it, like I could feel the rays of sunshine hitting my skin and warming me up. 

From there, when the starting gun went off … I couldn’t even tell you how it went. I don’t remember the race at all. My mind went blank. That’s how it’s always been during my best races.

But when I looked up at my time it was like, Shit, all that stuff from our sessions … that actually worked!

A few weeks later, I’d become U.S. champion in the 400.

Looking back on it now, one thing I definitely remember from that cold and rainy day in New York is my mom just absolutely going nuts. And now that I think about it — whether it was that meet in my hometown, or one of 100 other races over the years, win or lose — the one constant throughout everything has always been my mom….

Screaming her head off for me from the stands. 

Even when I block everything else out, and the entire world goes silent, I can always still hear my mom cheering. And I feel like that’s … kinda perfect.  

My mom has always been the one to nudge me in the direction I need to be going, whether I realized it or not. It was never that she forced me into anything, she just made sure I was always doing something. Growing up, she always emphasized that I have an after-school activity. When things got especially tough for me in this sport, and I’d tell her I didn’t want to run track anymore, she’d just look at me and say, “That’s fine … but you’re going to do something.”

Her unconditional support and encouragement has been a major influence in my becoming a well-rounded person, and she has been so important in helping me to understand that I needed to create a path for myself after track. My mom is a huge part of why I was open to seeing a sports psychologist in the first place, and when I started going to therapy, she was the one who gave me the encouragement I needed. Having her in my corner gave me the strength to take that first step. And she’s been there every step of the way since. She’s just as excited as I am about this next chapter. 

I could not be more appreciative and grateful. 

Natasha Hastings | USA Track & Field | Hanging Up My Spikes | The Players' Tribune
Courtesy Natasha Hastings

Now it’s time for me to put everything I’ve been thinking and talking about into practice. It’s time for me to go make a difference. 

Throughout my career, I’ve often told young girls I meet at the track or at other events that we need more women in positions of influence — journalists, camerawomen, coaches, everything. And for me, deciding to become a mental health professional came with the realization that I needed to take a dose of my own medicine.

Right now, I’m doing everything in my power to focus on the communities that are closest to me, the ones I know the best. And, sadly, those are also communities where people often have trouble saying, “Hey, I need some help.”

I want to be a part of changing that for the better.

As part of my degree program, I dove headfirst into issues relating to what it means to be a Black female athlete, and I’ve learned as much as I possibly can about destigmatizing and demystifying mental health support in minority communities. When I write papers, I focus on things that I can relate to and that I’ve experienced. Everything feels very personal. And important. 

I’ve been keeping super busy, too. On top of my studies, I’m ramping up the work I do spearheading the Natasha Hastings Foundation, which provides young girls with scholarship opportunities, mentorship and safe spaces to build up their self-confidence and discuss whatever’s on their mind. I’ve also started working on the human performance team at Under Armour. In that role, I’m able to take my experiences in track and combine them with the things I’m learning in graduate school, and I’m feeling more and more equipped to help pay it all forward to future generations of athletes.

When I think about the future in this field for me, I have that same feeling that I had back in the day with track … the feeling that anything is possible, that I’m ready to give this everything I have.

It’s a feeling that my job’s not done yet. That it’s actually just getting started. And that I’ve got so much more yet to give.