We have all heard the phrase "work hard, play hard."
I am confident in saying that I have worked hard throughout my track career. Winning gold at the Paralympics and world championships, and setting three world records reflects my hard work. But, 'play hard' is a missing piece on that resume of success. My track career has fulfilled my desires in sport, but it has also left me longing for more enjoyment within the lifestyle of a high-performance athlete.
When I ask myself why a successful track career has given me only lackluster personal satisfaction, I believe the answer is hidden in the high-performance mindset surrounding my sport. The term "high performance" is frequently thrown around in athletics. As an athlete, constantly hearing that phrase made me think there was only one way to get to the top. I thought the necessary mindset was being laser-focused. I needed to follow a strict schedule of training, competing, recovering, and then doing it all over again. From the beginning of my track career, that was my approach to attaining success.
Leading up to the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo, I went to Chula Vista, California, the former U.S. Olympic training center. Surrounded by a few teammates, the Athlete Health First treatment staff, and my assistant coach Geoff Harris, I achieved the laser focus that is expected of high-performance athletes. I worked my way into the best shape of my life, which resulted in the performance I'm most proud of — my T-38 1500-metre world record time of three minutes 47.89 seconds. I was thrilled that the mindset worked, but I was left feeling drained and in need of a change of environment.
My support team in California and Canada was a major contributor to my success, but I missed having my family involved in my career. We were living across the country from one another. As many athletes know, the time outside of competition season is just as important to training as the months immersed in major competitions. I committed to spending time back home. I decided to move back to where I grew up, Alpharetta, Georgia.
After the move, the training was as hard as ever, but I felt reenergized and excited for those early morning workouts again. Having my brother Max and my partner Cherie alongside me for some of the more challenging training sessions gave me extra incentive and support in my new home. This probably wasn’t what most people would consider a 'play hard' adjustment to my lifestyle, but it was the perfect balance of work and play that I needed.
Even though I was enjoying my training, I needed to know if the new environment would result in elite performance. The ultimate test was going to come in the Trials of Miles meet in New York City, my season opener in the 1500m. I set the goal of running sub 3:52, an ideal performance. Meet day came, and I found myself excited to put my training to the test, to answer the question, "Is this setup working?"
The pace was fast from the start, and I found myself in almost last place. With 800m to go, I made a solid move to get back in the race. A kick for the final 200m got me across the finish line at 3:48.6. I was quite surprised because this was the first meet of the season and I was already less than a second off my personal best time.
I knew then that I had made the right decision to move and surround myself with the people that gave me energy and excitement to pursue my athletic dreams.
Since that season opener, I've flirted with my 3:48. I set a PB in the 800 by .92 (1:52.00 WR) and reached the semi-final of the Senior (Able-Body) men's 1500m. Each success has validated that my work hard, play hard mentality was exactly what I needed.
Looking back, I wish I could tell my younger self two things: The first is not to take for granted the community that helped you get to where you are today. The second is that when putting together your team, ensure you have someone to support every aspect of your mental and physical performance. Coaches, physiologists, therapists, friends, family and partners are vital to reaching the start line at major championships and genuinely enjoying all of the good, bad, and ugly along the way.
I've learned to take pleasure in the moments I'm not training. I believe there is a way to balance elite, high-performance training and competition with having fun.
Ultimately, I know competing on the world stage is finite, but my support team will last a lifetime.
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