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.

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Today, I'm a 35-year-old man with a flame shaved into my beard. If the '80s movies I love so much are any indication, this is a sure sign I'm going through some kind of existential crisis. Next week, when the semester starts and I begin teaching again, it will not be strange if my colleagues start to worry about me just a little. A sports car or a neck-jerking pivot to physical fitness — that's an understandable response to the realization that life is fleeting. But a large meticulous flame carved out of facial hair? What does one do with that?

At this moment, though, I'm showing my face proudly to a woman wearing a swimsuit with a taco cat on it. We have only recently met, but she's telling me that she's so into my "fade" that she wants to kiss it. Then she does, blowing a raspberry into my cheek so hard that her hat falls off. Neither of us can stop laughing.

"Live Mas!" she yells with the excitement of someone who's never had trouble fully seizing the moment.

"Live Mas!" I shout back without any irony. There is no irony here in Palm Springs, where, for four days only, hundreds of people celebrate their love for Taco Bell.

Here, there's only swimming and hot sauce-themed leisure wear, and the warm pleasant feeling that comes from eating too much and knowing that you're with your own people. Even if the only thing that connects you is a love for a fast food giant that feeds you when you're hammered and shameless at 2 a.m.

We drank the Baja Blast! My Taco Bell fade and my friend's specialty manicure!Mark Shrayber

What does it mean to Live Mas? This is a question I am forced to ask myself over and over during my 24-hour stay at "The Bell," where I have stowed away as a friend's plus-one. We are, of course, both politely pretending that I'm a full-on guest with all the perks that entails, but we also both know that I wouldn't be here eating unlimited quesadillas poolside without her.

So maybe that's the first thing Live Mas means: To build strong lifelong connections which you can, with some luck, exploit to your benefit. :) :) :)

But this is too cynical an interpretation, because everyone here is so happy. Happy that they've gotten a reservation; happy that they can cool off in a room themed after an iconic Mountain Dew Drink, and happy that they can share their own personal story of what Taco Bell means to them. (Though there's no formal essay contest — I've checked.)

Me: This room won't be that cool. Also me: OH MY GOD, THIS IS THE COOLEST ROOM I'VE EVER BEEN IN!!!Mark Shrayber

Snatches of this story float around the "Fire" pool, where all the entertainment is concentrated: One couple canceled their trip to Prague because "Prague will always be there" — a brave stance considering climate change; another met last year on Tinder after the girlfriend's Taco Bell senior photos went viral; at the opening ceremony on Thursday, where sauce packets were cut instead of a ribbon, a city official brought others to tears with both her Taco Bell fashion and a memory of how her parents would feed an entire family with 19-cent-tacos from the first-ever Taco Bell in Downey, California.

Oh, I forgot one: The guy who skipped out on Prague? He got a giant bell shaved into the side of his head, so he might have to miss out on a black-tie event happening later this week. But it's all good. Bring on the nacho fries.

I make fast friends with four women who are here for a bachelorette party, the bride overwhelmed with good vibes and prosecco. This year, for her 30th, she rented a party bus. Inside? $100 worth of Taco Bell that her fiancee was worried might not be consumed.

"But little did he know," she shouts in the hot tub where we're "cooling off" after a long day of 108-degree sunning, "we ate it all!"

A bachelorette party and a birthday! We're really living it up (but also staying hydrated.)Mark Shrayber

Others whoop it up at the twist, but we all get it. Though there's no essay contest, I don't mind telling you that when my first boyfriend dumped me 14 years ago, I stuffed my face with chalupas. When I lost a job I really loved four years ago, I once ordered so much Taco Bell that the delivery app of my choice informed me I'd exceeded the maximum number of items they could comfortably fill in one order. We get it — though none of us can truly explain it.

There are, if you look at the The Bell from a literary perspective, many other writers who deserve this experience more than me. They could talk about the blue of the pool. Or the insouciance of youth. Draw parallels between marketing stunts such as this and the end-stage capitalism. Or envision a "Demolition Man" future where Taco Bell is fine dining and none of us know how to use the three shells in the bathroom to get ourselves clean.

And I wish these writers could be here to paint you these landscapes, but what you've got is me, a literal Taco Bell super-fan, and what I'm doing is eating and getting sunburned and taking a synchronized swimming class with the Aqualillies, who refer to themselves as "the world's most glamorous water ballet entertainment," but have very little idea of what to do with 10 eager recruits who can't stay afloat or on beat.


G-L-A-M-O-R-O-U-S!!Photo courtesy of Taco Bell.

"It's okay," one of the instructors comforts me just before the Tacolilies (the name of our "team") are invited to perform our watery version of "Senorita" — which was supposed to be two minutes long, then 1:15, and has now been judiciously cut down, due to talent, to about 45 seconds — in the bigger pool. "We regularly teach five-year-olds. And you're doing much better."

Usually, I would take offense at such blatant reads, but today I'm unbothered. I'll continue to be so right until I get home and discover that I've left all my electronics on United Flight 5223 (if anyone wants to get them back to me). And even then, I rage at myself for all of five seconds before checking that I've still got what's important: A certificate that says I did not drown while doing water ballet.

It's still there. As is my phone, which is blowing up with messages from people who took pictures of me in what Taco Bell calls its "power suit," and which is best described as "cult outfit, but kinda make it fashion." I bought my husband one, too, and I look forward to the argument we're going to have about holiday cards later.

This is "Live Mas."

I've never been so happy to match with someone else in my life. MaMark Shrayber

Or maybe it's the moment another stranger tells me that we'll be friends forever. Such friendships are forged quickly when you've got less than 24 hours to make lifelong connections and I'm pleased to get the full experience.

"We may never meet again," he says while we're swimming, "but we'll always have this time together."

Then we establish that he lives just across the park from me in San Francisco.

"Aw, man," he says, floating away to take pictures of the people he came with, "I've got lots of close friends I never see because they live across that damn park."

But the sentiment holds.

We Live Mas it on.

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