Rice assistant track coach Andrea Blackett delivered the following comments during Tuesday night's "Pearls of Wisdom" lecture which focused on the history of women's athletics at Rice. The "Pearls of Wisdom" lecture series is presented by the Rice Women's Athletics Advisory Board.
My Journey As a Professional Athlete
At the age of twelve I started running track for my secondary school. At that time it was just for fun and a social activity. I grew to love the sport and once I made my first national team at the age of 15 I was hooked. This was when my eyes were opened to the world of track and field and the possible rewards if I worked really hard. I was exposed to regional competition for the first time and I knew that in order to move on and take my track career to the next level I would have to not only run fast, but I would have to manage my academics as well so that I could be considered scholarship athlete material. Two years later, in April of 1993 I got the call that a coach named Victor Lopez from Rice University was coming to Barbados to recruit myself and 4 of my teammates. My social activity had grown from just fun to an awesome opportunity. On August 15th of that same year I stepped foot on this great campus- this was my first trip ever to the US. As intimidating and scary as this was-one thing remained constant- my love for track and my desire to be the best that I could be- whatever that meant at the time.
The value of a good mentor: The Rice Days
My coach here at Rice Victor Lopez would change my life forever. He was not only a coach but a mentor and friend who taught me many of life's most important lessons. I will never forget at a meet at Stanford my sophomore year , he yelled and screamed and got in my face as soon as I crossed the finish line, because he thought that I had run a poor race. Now bear in mind, I had just run my personal best! The point he was trying to make to me then was that good is just not good enough when you know that you can be great. There were times when I was laying on my back exhausted and the urge to throw up was moments away and he would bend over me and tell me to get up because it was time for me to start my next interval.
As crazy as I thought he was I am thankful that I had a good and decent person to guide my career and that he had an undying faith and belief in me. There were times when I was beginning to have doubts but he refused to. Reality is that no one's athletic career is going to be smooth sailing. There will always be some big waves that knock you down. At the highest levels it becomes 80% mental and 20% physical because every one is talented in the collegiate and professional ranks.
I firmly believe that the important life lessons and tests of character are not learned when everything is falling into place, but they are learned when you have to roll up your sleeves, get dirty and persevere through the tough times. As the bible says in Ecc 9:11 "The race is not given to the swift or the strong but to the one who endures to the end."
I don't believe that I ever woke up one day and decided that I wanted to be a world class athlete. I just kept working hard and expecting the best of myself.
My time here at Rice University was amazing. I learned a lot, I matured as an athlete and a person. I met some great life long friends and my current mentor and boss Jim Bevan. I had to learn how to balance school with Division I athletics and I definitely became a master at time management. Even though I was committed to my athletic career I knew that I would need that Rice degree and I went on to complete my masters while I was competing because I knew that there would be a life after track that I had to prepare for.
The End of Rice Years
Four months after graduation from Rice I was on the professional circuit and ranked in the top 10 in the world. I had three and a half successful years in a row and I competed in my first Olympic Games in 2000 and 2 WC Finals. Finally becoming an Olympian was a great accomplishment and a moment of pride for me because I had given it everything I had my junior year at Rice only to be 0.2 of a second outside of the qualifying mark for the 1996 games.
However, the injuries and illnesses started to come fast and furiously. I had a hamstring injury that lingered and in Sydney at the Olympic Games I caught chicken pox which turned into shingles two years later. This is simply part of the game. I had two consecutive seasons where I couldn't even come to within 2 and a half seconds of my personal best. This was when the self doubt, frustration, annoyance and at times depression crept in. I kept plugging away, I just knew I had to keep fighting and persevering through this season in my life.
The stakes become a lot higher when you are a professional athlete. If you don't perform well you will have a hard time paying your bills, you will likely lose any sponsorships or any funding you have- I have had to deal with all these things at one time or another.
How To Overcome
I do believe Rice adequately prepared me the real world and for that I am truly grateful. I believe I was prepared for the stress of a professional career. I was prepared to handle disappointments even when I knew I had put in the work. I was able to hang in there with my faith in God, the support of my coach, family and my very close dependable friends who believed in me and understood my love and passion for track.
I was able to regain form and go on to compete at another Olympic games and to make the WC final twice again. I finally decided to end my career before the Olympics in 2008 after sustaining another injury. I am at peace with this decision because I know that I have given it everything I had and I can look back on my career and have no regrets.
So, for those who are interested in being world class in their field of choice I will leave with you these 3 things:
Stay focused!! Never take your eye off the prize. There will be times when you have to be relentless and keep fighting for what you want when life has kicked you down. The lessons you learn when you are at the bottom of the ladder are the tools that you will need on the climb to the top.
Stay true to yourself, your values and your beliefs. It doesn't cost you anything in life to do the right thing and be a good and honest person. There will always be people and things along the way to tempt and entice you to take short cuts. Make sure you surround yourself with people who understand who you are and what you stand for and will support and hold you accountable for your actions. There is never an easy way out- short cuts will always catch up to you.
And finally I would say, never take yourself or your sport too seriously. At the end of the day it is called sport for a reason. Sometimes even though you have worked as hard as you can and you firmly believe you deserved to win, it may simply just not be your day or it may just not be your destiny. However, make sure that when it is just you alone with the mirror you are able to look at yourself with your head held high and know you left it all out there and did the best job you could do!!!