Clipped Wings

I am.

If this were Jeopardy and "I am." was the answer given then the question would be this: “Who is Team USA’s best leadoff leg in recent history?”


Answer: I am.


I’m not trying to be cocky or arrogant it’s not actually my style. But like Liam Neeson a la “Taken” I do possess a particular set of skills…


Those skills include my ability to use geometry, physics, adrenaline, and pure savagery to destroy the stagger within 50 meters, sometimes sooner.


I know the second leg like the back of my hand. I know which foot she steps with first, and that that causes a slight delay in her acceleration even though her body is moving, I know the second step momentarily tightens the space I have between her and the inside lane. I know that I will run her down and that she will hit the turbo because I am screaming “go” at the top of my lungs in full speed into her left ear. 


I probably yell “stick” but it’s unnecessary, it’s unnecessary because we can feel when the exchange needs to take place. That moment is akin to the split second before a whistling tea-kettle pierces the silence with its scream to announce boiling water. 


When the gun goes off I’m at a gentle boil,  when I catch the first runner I’m at a rolling boil, when I’m in the exchange zone I’m screaming that it's time. 


And it is.


And we pass the baton.


And because I know she’ll take it from there I turn around and begin the trek back to the starting line to meet myteam at the finish.


Yes, I often referred to the 4x100 meter relay team as my team.

Why?

Because I have been through a lot of horrible things in my life…and I’m somehow still standing, still managing to smile. So I am often uniquely qualified to explain to my team that we have everything under control.


In 2012, it was talking to a nervous Jenebah Tarmoh before the first round and making her laugh during the long walk from the call room to the track. It was adjusting her headband on her face and telling her I would do the hard part, that I would get her the baton and she could just run, and that after the race we’d talk about where we wanted to go on vacation. Before the final it was keeping the conversation light and fun as Bianca, Carmelita, Allyson, and I chose to talk about the epidemic of bad weaves present in the call room, where we stood on cruises, and Red Vines versus Twizzlers. 


I kept them laughing.


2016 required a different kind of leadership. I was exhausted, the long jump final was the night before, I didn’t get in until after midnight and had to be back at the track at 7am. I sprain my ankle at takeoff in every championship final I’ve been in and that morning my ankle was not even weight bearing. I had them tape it for stability and I took some ibuprofen, and I asked my ankle (I know it seems weird) to just allow me to punish it on the turn for one more race and I’d get treatment. 


Everything was going well…and then I saw the baton fly through the air.


I walked back to the start, and watched Morolake bring it in. The first and only question I asked of Allyson and English were if they were ok and if there were any injuries we needed to tend to.


The mixed zone was hard, I didn’t know what happened- I couldn’t see from my vantage point. But I saw the replay with Lewis Johnson of NBC along with the team. Allyson mentioned we would protest so we rushed through the rest of the media mixed zone and got back to the warm up area.


Once there, Allyson walked behind the tent and I followed her. I told her that I wasn’t there to talk to her, that I was just there to be with her. I told her she could cry and I wouldn't say anything or try to comfort her but that I would stand there with her.


She cried.


And I stood by her.


Later we found out we were running again by ourselves, a still controversial decision that fans of other countries continue to call me a cheater for. Our team was gathered and the solo time trial was explained to us.


I said to them, “okay, we can do this. But I need to go to sleep. I’ll be back. Eat and rest ladies. This is going to be fun”


I went back to my condo and fell asleep. 


In the call room, when it was just us, I asked the ladies for their attention. I told them to be prepared to be booed. After all, we were in Brazil and we got them disqualified. I said to them that if that happens to just use it as fuel to go even harder. That it’s really hard to judge it you're running fast when you’re running alone so to just run with everything you had. I assured them that I’d set the tone.


I walked out to my blocks and stood there alone, looking at the outside lanes, stripped of the visuals that typically help me run devastating leadoffs. 


I looked at my shadow…


Smirked a bit…


And thought, guess I’m racing you then.


By the time we got to the final, anxiety had reached a fever pitch, the feeling in the call room was as electrifying as it had ever been. 


But we had lane one.


The reason Team USA didn’t pose when they announced us was my fault. 


I assured my team that I would take it upon myself to make sure that our lane wouldn’t matter by the first handoff, I told them that I would catch two for them. I told them that we could be anywhere, run anywhere, and that we could get this done. That this was nothing, we were the best, the defending champs, the world record holders, that we were going to put on a clinic, that we were going to quiet all doubt about whether we belonged.


I pulled Allyson aside and said to her, "this gets done in two and we will watch English and Tori bring it home. But we get this done in two". Allyson gave me that intense stare she's known for before races. She nodded her head up and down repeatedly, her jaw muscles flexing and I knew she heard me, I knew she would deliver.


And then I told them all…"I can’t smile and pose guys, I’m sorry. I have to go to a different place to run this leg I promised you…


This isn’t cute…


This isn’t pretty…


This is war…


And I’ve never seen a soldier pose before battle."


They agreed. 


They believed.


And you know what happened next.


41.01 from lane one.


I had no way of knowing that that would probably be the last time I represented Team USA as a member of the 4x100 meter relay team at a global championship.


I had no way of knowing that those accomplishments would mean nothing to the new relay coach.


No way to foresee that Richburg would tell me on the phone the night before my flight to not even show up to Birmingham relay camp— essentially robbing me of a chance to even race off for the position.


No way to know after missing a week of long jump training to go to relay camp in Monaco that that would mean absolutely nothing in the big picture.


No way to know that Richburg would tell me in the lobby once we arrived in London that I still may run.


And they had no way to know that given everything that I was going through in my personal life that the last thing I needed was to be jerked around by older men making me feel disposable, and worthless, or that my previous accomplishments, and successful execution in that role didn't matter in the slightest.


Honestly, I tried to insulate myself from the drama that these relay selection processes seem to incubate in after Monaco when I recognized that this environment, this ambiguity, and this chaos was something that I probably couldn’t handle emotionally. 


I asked my coach to help me, he stepped in made some calls because he knows me and he knows that I’m at my best when I have specific guidelines, rules, protocol. With that information, I can make the best decision.


The problem was that there were no guidelines, no rules, no protocols.


The whole process was breaking me down.


I wanted to run. 


I wanted to fly.


I was available. 


But my wings were clipped.


And that hurt.


Congratulations to my Team USA ladies who brought home the gold medal anyway.







Blogger’s Note: I wrote this blog because I’ve remained mostly silent on why I did not run the first leg of the relay. Not wanting to distract from the team, I kept my mouth shut all while hearing rumbles that I was being a diva, or was making demands, none of this was true. I confronted Orin Richburg early during the champs and said to him, “It’s one thing to have been shut out of running this relay, it’s another to hear false reports of my character in the process.” He assured me it wasn’t coming from him, I made it clear I would set the record straight if it continued. So here we are. I’m setting the record straight. 
 

nick steadman