Olympic Hurdler Anna Cockrell Reflects on the Tokyo Games

    Over the past two years, anna cockrell’s ups and downs have included battling depression, injury, dealing with the pandemic, earning her master’s degree in public policy, winning the 100m and 400m hurdles at the ncaa championships in june, making the tokyo olympic team in the 400 hurdles later that month, and running in the final in tokyo.

    when he was at the university of southern california last year and the pandemic started to shut things down, his coach told him to get out of los angeles. he went to his parents’ home in north carolina and stayed there for the next several months. “So I was able to take a break and not have the pressure of racing on me,” says Cockrell.

    Reading: A. cockrell olympic games tokyo 2020

    That pressure had been building. “Each practice felt like an indicator of whether or not I was going to be successful, rather than just a step on the journey,” she says. “It was like, ‘Oh my god, my teammates just killed me. How am I going to run in the Olympics if I can’t even win one rep in practice?’”

    When all the competitions were postponed, “it went from being an ever-present stressor to being really far away,” says cockrell. “That opportunity to get away from the competition, and just be, hang out at home with my parents and watch movies and not work out, was a really good thing for me.”

    The time off helped her reboot and then get back to practicing. At the NCAA Championships in June, she became only the second woman to win the 100-meter and 400-meter hurdles double, and she was feeling good as the Olympic trials approached.

    in testing, in the 100m hurdles, “my first round was fine, I was happy with my semi, and then in my final, I was a little disappointed… I just wasn’t as ready as I wanted to be.” , she says.

    In the second round of the 400m hurdles, the runners had to line up four times before the race began. “I was so nervous because the headlines were telling me I was taking too long to get to my blocks. and then they told me my hand was not behind the line and they gave me a yellow card,” says cockrell. the third time it was a technical problem unrelated to her, and the fourth time it was a clean start, and he qualified for the final.

    in the final, she finished third, earning a spot on the Olympic team. “I just did it… I knew what my race plan was, I knew what I had to do, and that’s what I did.”

    Between the trials and Tokyo, he says, “I was just trying to keep things as simple as possible, which is hard when you cry on national TV and then people want to talk to you about it.” In addition, her eligibility for the NCAA increased, so that she went from being a collegiate athlete to a professional one overnight. “that was a big change really fast…so i was just trying to really lean into things that were familiar and accept new things as they came up.”

    The next novelty was the Olympic Games. “I was telling myself, ‘It’s just another matchup.’ it’s just another encounter. it’s just another encounter. I went out for prelims and was good throughout the warm-up. and then I went out on the track for my first race, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this isn’t just another meet,'” she says.

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    cockrell says that in his first round, he didn’t execute his race plan very well, but he still pulled it off. “Coach [Quincy] Watts was like, ‘Hey, everybody has a horrible career. you’re entitled to a fucking career. you passed, the next one.’” so he went to the semis, when he was pouring rain. but he was undeterred, having raced in all kinds of weather, and made it to the final.

    In the final, “I ran as hard as I could, and it didn’t go well,” he says. she ended up being disqualified for a lane violation. but she learned from this first Olympic experience.

    “If I felt like I did everything perfectly, or I didn’t have anything else I could improve on and that was the result, I think it would be really demoralizing,” he says. instead, “I have a whole list of things that I know I can fix, I know how to start fixing them, I know I have a lot of people around me who can help me become a better version of myself, who can help me be better” . to the next level as an athlete.”

    Now, expect some downtime, and then you’ll make decisions about how to move forward as a professional.

    off track

    cockrell has been outspoken about his mental health, including in a speech at the usc student-athlete graduation in 2019 and in an interview at the olympic trials, right after he made the team. Around the same time, other athletes, including Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, spoke out about protecting her mental health.

    “I hope the effect is that the people who are fighting recognize that there is nothing wrong with them for fighting,” says cockrell. “Something he kept feeling was like, ‘What’s wrong with me? why can’t i put it together? why can all these people around me function, can they just be okay?’ and i’m not okay.”

    When high-profile people in the spotlight feel this way and say so, they may start to change the norms. “It’s all very well to need support and ask for it,” says Cockrell. “I also hope that if more of us talk about it, we can start to move from conversations just about the individual to about: how do we get more people to access the care they need? It shouldn’t just be people who are rich or have good health insurance who get mental health care.”

    therapy has been helpful for cockrell, but he realizes that barriers prevent some people from accessing it. “When I talk about what I’ve been through, I don’t want to just say, ‘go to therapy,’ because I know I have many privileges in my life that allowed me to go to therapy that other people don’t have.”

    Also helpful: Being honest with yourself and the people around you about how you feel. “I found that the quicker I can identify and recognize something, the quicker I can figure out how to deal with it and how to deal with it in a healthy way, rather than just trying to let it go or fix it. she says.

    Cockrell noticed how people responded to athletes opening up. “At the same time that you see a lot of people who have really rallied around and supported Simone Biles, you see people who have called her weak, who say she let her team down,” she says. “I hope her voices support her. . . they are able to drown out negativity.”

    “I think it would be naive to say that just a couple of us saying ‘I was depressed’ will change the whole culture. I hope it can be the beginning of a change,” he says. people understand that no, it’s not weak, it’s not shameful, it’s not shameful, it’s not giving up.”

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    Just like talking about mental health, talking about racial disparities can come at a cost. “Last summer, I was talking a lot and organizing a lot,” says Cockrell. “And I continued to do it, but I also recognized that I also needed to take care of myself. I couldn’t sacrifice my health to continue speaking in public.”

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    some of the images that have been painted of black activists have been inaccurate, from cockrell’s perspective. she has talked about being contrasted with gwen berry. “It was really weird for me to post the video of me crying about being part of the team and people being like, ‘oh this is what we want, not gwen.’ life, but we’re aligned in a lot of ways. And just because I’m not talking about it right now doesn’t mean it’s not important to me, doesn’t mean it’s not a part of me,” she says.

    Part of the problem is that “sometimes the media can flatten people into one-dimensional or one-issue people. And none of us are that. We’re all multi-faceted and have multiple things that matter to us,” she says. .

    Furthermore, activism doesn’t take just one form. while one person is on the megaphone, another is organizing. “You can have many roles, and you can play different roles at different times…. But I think we all have to find ways to engage with movements that matter to us in ways that are sustainable for us.”

    cockrell has also felt and seen how biased perceptions of black women can be. “The question is: are you seeing black women as whole people? Do we exist to entertain you, be it athletically, through music or acting? do you see black women only in bondage positions? Do you see black women as equals? she says. “Obviously we have made progress as a society, but there is still an inherent mistreatment of black women.”

    and sometimes people’s opinions and actions are inconsistent. “It’s easy to love someone like Simone Biles, who does things that are out of this world. but what about your black co-worker? what about your black neighbors? how do you treat them? no one is putting them on a pedestal,” says cockrell. “Are you checking your biases? Are you microaggressing against them while raising Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka?


    (Photo: Getty Images)

    Lessons Learned

    Over the past two years, cockrell has learned to “let nothing determine who you are or your value,” he says. “I think I got into trouble when I started to define myself through athletics, and my performances became indicative of who I was as a person. a good day, a good performance, does not mean you are a good person. because the flip side of that is that a bad one means I’m a bad person.”

    and, he says, when you need to center yourself and calm down, find out what works for you and use it. for cockrell, that’s the diaphragmatic breathing he did before his races. “I do the same thing in practice,” she says. “If I have a workout that I’m looking forward to, or if I can feel like I’m getting too out of control, I’m not really there in the moment, I just lay down and breathe for a couple of breaths.

    Whether you’re breathing or something else, find a way to “get back into your body the moment you find yourself,” he says. So, “don’t get too caught up in ‘what does this bad race mean? what does this bad day mean? you know, it doesn’t mean anything. it was just a bad day. it just wasn’t the best, and that’s okay. because you know what? you can try again tomorrow, and the promise of tomorrow is a really beautiful thing.”

    related: olympic tianna bartoletta on simone biles, elite athletes and why mental health is more important than gold medals

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