Team USA heptathlete Chari Hawkins on overcoming anxiety and making 'strong sexy' for women in sports


Chari Hawkins - The Pursuit of Progress | On www.youtube.com

On the surface, Team USA heptathlete Chari Hawkins has it all: She's aiming for a spot in the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, she's mentoring young female athletes, and recently became sponsored by On running shoes.

But her path to success hasn't been an easy one. Hawkins sat down with Upworthy to talk about how she works to overcome self-doubt and anxiety, body issues facing female athletes, and what messages she's hoping to pass to other young women.


Upworthy: Most people naturally assume high-performance athletes have an abundance of confidence. You're open about your own challenges facing anxiety. What has that dynamic been like?

Chari Hawkins: When I was in college I used to try to injure myself because I didn't want to run. When it came to competing I realized I didn't like it. I finally started to ask myself questions: Why am I feeling this way and what can I do to fix it? I had been making my personality and performance connected into one thing. The person who I am was tied to how I performed. I started realizing that competitive track is something that I love to do but it's not who I am.

Now that you've had success on the international stage, what kind of anxiety do you face and what are some of the ways you cope with it?

Last week, I found a tip to deal with anxiety. I was coming up on a big practice where it was a really hard workout and I was silly nervous for it. I was starting to get butterflies in a negative way. Before practice, I was getting a sports massage. They are brutal. I decided if I could take that pain I could take the pain of my workout the next day. I started visualizing my race model for the next day, my pace, I was working with the pain that I was feeling. I was able to get through it a lot better. I wasn't as squirmy. The next day, it was my most successful workout ever. It was almost as if I had already experienced it. When I started feeling pain or anxiety in my workout, I pushed past it in my head. Afterward, I was thinking of how it could help people in areas outside of sports. like if you were at a public speaking event.

You've faced some uphill battles on the road to success. How close did you come to quitting and what made you push forward?

A few years ago, I kind of knew I wasn't going to be good enough for the Olympics. My coach told me, 'I think you're done.' I had been questioning myself. Still, I knew that I had more in me. I did a lot of research and found a college and decided to get my masters degree. I decided to run for the school. I decided I'm going to work and not have one day where I don't work as hard as I possibly can. I'm not going to go without fighting as hard as I possibly can. That's exactly what I did. Got enough sleep, put the right kinds of food in my body. I was working on getting faster, stronger, but also on my physical recovery. Just making strides in so many areas. It took me from 25th in the nation to 3rd. I honestly truly believe that it's because I made a promise to myself to give everything I could. I wasn't necessarily born for the Olympics. Now, even looking back, I see girls that go to national and become all-American. I didn't actually go until my third year. I definitely was not as naturally gifted. If I can have my mindset on 'I am going to the Olympics,' not 'I hope to go to the Olympics.' My eyes were just so focused. This is an actuality. You don't need to be a freak athlete.

As a competitive athlete, and especially as a woman, you face enormous pressure to maintain a certain image while also competing at the highest level.

Body image can get in the way of happiness for both men and women. It's that way in all aspects of life but especially for athletes and track and field athletes. One thing I've learned is how much genetics come into play. I'm kind of a very soft athlete naturally. I'll be at my very strongest and I'll kind of look like I'm a little bit out of shape. It doesn't define myself as a person or how I view myself as a human being. I have incredibly broad shoulders, which helps me throw. I have an incredibly short torso but I've learned how much it helps me with hurdles. Your body may not look like "her" body but she may not be able to do the things you can do. It's all about doing your best to stay healthy and letting your body so that it can.

You have very supportive fans but other high-profile women in competitive sports have famously been the target of sexism and online bullying. What's your experience with that been like?

Someone via social media told me that I needed to lay off the cheeseburgers because they didn't see any abs popping through. I learned the hard way about two years ago, I ate nothing about vegetables. It wasn't about anything other than I wanted to look good in my uniform. I was getting outside compliments but my performance went downhill. If I wanted to achieve my goals, my goal was to get better at this sport that I love to do, not be unhappy with my body and performance. Our bodies are capable of so much we just have to appreciate them and take care of them.

Recently, you became one of the first athletes sponsored by On running shoes. I'm a competitive long-distance runner and full-disclosure where On running shoes. The first time I wore them I honestly wondered if they were "legal" for competitions because of the edge they seemed to give me.

Yeah, I thought the same thing! The first time I wore On during a race, my feet felt like they were on fire but in the best possible way. It's something I would proud to get behind. Our shoes and apparel can express so much about who we are but it's also about being comfortable, being functional and being healthy.


You've spent time mentoring young runners through the Girls on the Run organization. What have you been able to pass along through your own trials and triumphs?

It's been such an incredible experience. Every single day they got a little better. The day I spoke to them, the subject was joy and all the things that bring them joy. Every time they ran a lap they got a bracelet. They wrote something on a board that brought them joy. What an incredible practice. Running isn't a punishment. At the same time, they don't have to be average. Running can kind of help you become your own empowered self. They don't need to fit any mold.

Chari Hawkins is currently training in preparation for a potential role with Team USA in the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

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