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.

Courtesy of Amita Swadhin
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In 2016, Amita Swadhin, a child of two immigrant parents from India, founded Mirror Memoirs to help combat rape culture. The national storytelling and organizing project is dedicated to sharing the stories of LGBTQIA+ Black, indigenous people, and people of color who survived child sexual abuse.

"Whether or not you are a survivor, 100% of us are raised in rape culture. It's the water that we're swimming in. But just as fish don't know they are in water, because it's just the world around them that they've always been in, people (and especially those who aren't survivors) may need some help actually seeing it," they add.

"Mirror Memoirs attempts to be the dye that helps everyone understand the reality of rape culture."

Amita built the idea for Mirror Memoirs from a theater project called "Undesirable Elements: Secret Survivors" that featured their story and those of four other survivors in New York City, as well as a documentary film and educational toolkit based on the project.

"Secret Survivors had a cast that was gender, race, and age-diverse in many ways, but we had neglected to include transgender women," Amita explains. "Our goal was to help all people who want to co-create a world without child sexual abuse understand that the systems historically meant to help survivors find 'healing' and 'justice' — namely the child welfare system, policing, and prisons — are actually systems that facilitate the rape of children in oppressed communities," Amita continues. "We all have to explore tools of healing and accountability outside of these systems if we truly want to end all forms of sexual violence and rape culture."

Amita also wants Mirror Memoirs to be a place of healing for survivors that have historically been ignored or underserved by anti-violence organizations due to transphobia, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy.

Amita Swadhin

"Hearing survivors' stories is absolutely healing for other survivors, since child sexual abuse is a global pandemic that few people know how to talk about, let alone treat and prevent."

"Since sexual violence is an isolating event, girded by shame and stigma, understanding that you're not alone and connecting with other survivors is alchemy, transmuting isolation into intimacy and connection."

This is something that Amita knows and understands well as a survivor herself.

"My childhood included a lot of violence from my father, including rape and other forms of domestic violence," says Amita. "Mandated reporting was imposed on me when I was 13 and it was largely unhelpful since the prosecutors threatened to incarcerate my mother for 'being complicit' in the violence I experienced, even though she was also abused by my father for years."

What helped them during this time was having the support of others.

"I'm grateful to have had a loving younger sister and a few really close friends, some of whom were also surviving child sexual abuse, though we didn't know how to talk about it at the time," Amita says.

"I'm also a queer, non-binary femme person living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and those identities have shaped a lot of my life experiences," they continue. "I'm really lucky to have an incredible partner and network of friends and family who love me."

"These realizations put me on the path of my life's work to end this violence quite early in life," they said.

Amita wants Mirror Memoirs to help build awareness of just how pervasive rape culture is. "One in four girls and one in six boys will be raped or sexually assaulted by the age of 18," Amita explains, "and the rates are even higher for vulnerable populations, such as gender non-conforming, disabled, deaf, unhoused, and institutionalized children." By sharing their stories, they're hoping to create change.

"Listening to stories is also a powerful way to build empathy, due to the mirror neurons in people's brains. This is, in part, why the project is called Mirror Memoirs."

So far, Mirror Memoirs has created an audio archive of BIPOC LGBTQI+ child sexual abuse survivors sharing their stories of survival and resilience that includes stories from 60 survivors across 50 states. This year, they plan to record another 15 stories, specifically of transgender and nonbinary people who survived child sexual abuse in a sport-related setting, with their partner organization, Athlete Ally.

"This endeavor is in response to the more than 100 bills that have been proposed across at least 36 states in 2021 seeking to limit the rights of transgender and non-binary children to play sports and to receive gender-affirming medical care with the support of their parents and doctors," Amita says.

In 2017, Mirror Memoirs held its first gathering, which was attended by 31 people. Today, the organization is a fiscally sponsored, national nonprofit with two staff members, a board of 10 people, a leadership council of seven people, and 500 members nationally.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, they created a mutual aid fund for the LGBTQIA+ community of color and were able to raise a quarter-million dollars. They received 2,509 applications for assistance, and in the end, they decided to split the money evenly between each applicant.

While they're still using storytelling as the building block of their work, they're also engaging in policy and advocacy work, leadership development, and hosting monthly member meetings online.

For their work, Amita is one of Tory's Burch's Empowered Women. Their donation will go to Mirror Memoirs to help fund production costs for their new theater project, "Transmutation: A Ceremony," featuring four Black transgender, intersex, and non-binary women and femmes who live in California.

"I'm grateful to every single child sexual survivor who has ever disclosed their truth to me," Amita says. "I know another world is possible, and I know survivors will build it, together with all the people who love us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Cipolla's graph with the benefits and losses that an individual causes to him or herself and causes to others.

Have you ever known someone who was educated, well-spoken, and curious, but had a real knack for making terrible decisions and bringing others down with them? These people are perplexing because we're trained to see them as intelligent, but their lives are a total mess.

On the other hand, have you ever met someone who may not have a formal education or be the best with words, but they live wisely and their actions uplift themselves and others?

In 1976, Italian economist Carlo Cipolla wrote a tongue-and-cheek essay called "The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity" that provides a great framework for judging someone's real intelligence. Now, the term stupid isn't the most artful way of describing someone who lives unwisely, but in his essay Cipolla uses it in a lighthearted way.

Cipolla explains his theory of intelligence through five basic laws and a matrix that he belives applies to everyone.

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When a pet is admitted to a shelter it can be a traumatizing experience. Many are afraid of their new surroundings and are far from comfortable showing off their unique personalities. The problem is that's when many of them have their photos taken to appear in online searches.

Chewy, the pet retailer who has dedicated themselves to supporting shelters and rescues throughout the country, recognized the important work of a couple in Tampa, FL who have been taking professional photos of shelter pets to help get them adopted.

"If it's a photo of a scared animal, most people, subconsciously or even consciously, are going to skip over it," pet photographer Adam Goldberg says. "They can't visualize that dog in their home."

Adam realized the importance of quality shelter photos while working as a social media specialist for the Humane Society of Broward County in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"The photos were taken top-down so you couldn't see the size of the pet, and the flash would create these red eyes," he recalls. "Sometimes [volunteers] would shoot the photos through the chain-link fences."

That's why Adam and his wife, Mary, have spent much of their free time over the past five years photographing over 1,200 shelter animals to show off their unique personalities to potential adoptive families. The Goldbergs' wonderful work was recently profiled by Chewy in the video above entitled, "A Day in the Life of a Shelter Pet Photographer."