“Pack Light”, Words of Wisdom From Olympic Medalist Kristi Castlin

“This concept for me was literally and figuratively. The literal aspect came from me starting off on circuit packing bags 50 to 55 pounds to travel to Europe for 2 to 3 weeks. The figurative aspect came from relationships. It took me a while to really become selfish while being an athlete. I poured a lot of my feelings into a relationship that didn’t work out. I wanted the person that I was dating to be so successful and accomplish so much. I often fantasized or focused on becoming someone’s wife and living that lifestyle rather than giving every ounce of my efforts to being the best in the world. I had to realize that the window for my success was extremely small and love is forever. My journey of success has been and continues to be one of length so there’s no need to carry extra baggage if I don’t have to.”
I had the pleasure to interview Kristi Castlin. Castlin received the Bronze Medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics for the 100-meter Hurdles. In 2016, Kristi and her teammates, Brianna Rollins and Nia Ali, made history by becoming the first Team USA women to sweep an Olympic track and field event. It was also the first time any country has swept women’s high hurdles. For Kristi, her Olympic Bronze Medal was the crowning achievement in a long upward surge toward success, including many international and national wins. Born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, Kristi began running track at the age of 14 after four years as a dedicated cheerleader. She went on to be a four-time Georgia State Champion as well as a school, county, region, and state record holder. In her senior year she won the Wendy’s High School Heisman award. She was a high achiever as four-time time NCAA runner up, ACC champion, ACC record holder, and school record holder. Kristi has competed in over 40 different countries, and continues to rank in the top ten worldwide for 100-meter hurdles. Kristi was just as focused and dedicated in her educational studies. She signed a full scholarship to Virginia Tech after receiving numerous scholarship offers. She graduated with honors, earning a 4.0 average and a degree in political science. Kristi is committed to speaking openly about her experiences with the type of random violence that can sometimes strike innocent citizens without warning. She lost her father to gun violence at a young age, and was at Virginia Tech during the mass shooting in 2007. She also meets many fans who generously relate their own similar encounters. Her success demonstrates that everyone can rebound from tragedy with even greater strength, and can prosper despite extreme obstacles.

What is your “backstory”?

I started running track in high school in ninth grade after years of successful field days. I wanted to start in eighth grade but my mother was a bit overwhelmed as a single mom raising two kids, so I was only allowed to do cheerleading. Cheerleading was my first love and believe it or not, so many elements of cheerleading overlap with being a high-level world-class hurdler. I was always a competitor. I wanted to be the very best in everything I did and always competed to find myself in first position. I chose to do the hurdles to be different. Every other girl wanted to do the 100 & 200 regular sprints, but I opted to do the opposite of what everyone else was interested in. As a freshman, I fell in my very first hurdle race but got back up and still managed to win the race. I didn’t even run in proper track shoes, instead I opted for jelly Melissa sneakers because I thought they were stylish. I definitely got some track spikes after that. I won a lot on the county and regional level my freshman year and made it to the Georgia state championship as a freshman. I placed sixth in the 100 m hurdles and seventh in the 300 m hurdles and was devastated. I told myself from then on I would win every single state championship and I did. It only got better from there.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your Olympic career?

I’m not sure if this is the funniest moment of my Olympic career but it was definitely one of the most enjoyable experiences for me. It sounds cliché but being a part of the first sweep in US history will just be the most memorable moment in my life. I just had so much fun touring with Brianna Rollins and Nia Ali. We shared so many laughs and experiences, from the Steve Harvey show, the Today show, and New York Fashion Week, there were just so many interviews and fun experiences. In those moments I felt like a superstar and that was something that I always longed for as a little girl. I didn’t know if I was going to be an actress or on TV entertaining, but I just knew that I was going to be a superstar and in those moments, those Olympic moments, that’s exactly how I felt.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

One of the most interesting, exciting, and most stressful tasks I’m currently working on is building my first home. I’ve been working on every aspect such as the architectural plans, design, demo, etc. I purchased a piece of property in 2014 located in Vine City in Atlanta, Georgia. I had no idea that it would be home to what is now the Mercedes-Benz Stadium and a booming area of development in Metro Atlanta. Back in 2014 many people categorized this area as rundown and forgotten, but I saw it as an opportunity and a great place where millennials could afford housing within city limits. I saw potential for a place that could develop into something amazing with the efforts of young people, community engagement, fitness activities and highlighting access to public transportation. I have partnered with the Laureus Sport for Good, a global organization dedicated to using the power of sport to end violence, discrimination and disadvantage, proving that sport can change the world. My mission right now is to help develop innovative and impactful programs that directly help the community.

In addition to building my home, I am working on some exciting aspects of my brand. I’m adding lots of cool features to my website, social media platforms, and developing new merchandise for all of my fans. Of course, I’m also working to get everyone on board with me as I prepare to represent the US again at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

The most interesting experiences and inspirations for me right now come from young people ages 12 to 18. I just know that right now they’re at the age where they are discovering who they want to be and who they really are. I know you don’t learn exactly who you are at that age, but I do feel that their experiences, relationships, and exposure drive who they will ultimately aspire to be. I attended a town hall with ESPN’s The Undefeated addressing gun violence at a YMCA in Chicago shortly after the Olympics. I was surrounded by NBA players, TV personalities, pastors, and people of the community. I’ll never forget the reaction I got from the young people once they saw my Olympic medal and put it around their necks. I could feel their excitement and passion not just for me but for actually being put in the shoes of someone who had sacrificed and achieve their dreams. A few of the kids even mentioned that they were aspiring to be Olympians, Super Bowl champions, and successful entrepreneurs one day. It’s those moments in life that make me feel good about the hard work, dedication and sacrifice that was required of me to become an Olympic medalist. These young people are the future leaders of our world. I always make it my priority to make their message heard and be there to listen. They are the true influencers and tastemakers of our future and I always want to stay hip to what’s hot and what’s not!

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

I am most inspired by blacks of the civil rights era. They were fearless and experienced many sacrifices, and without equal pay, equal housing, equal education, and equal opportunity, they still managed to be relentless in their pursuit of equality. Every time I want to quit or doubt myself I reflect back on the women who never had the opportunity to be athletes. They never had the opportunity to go to a Division I school on a full scholarship. They never had the opportunity to go to an integrated high school. They sacrificed so that girls like me could be a part of movements such as “Black Girl Magic”. Sacrifices were made so that it would be okay to be a black girl and be confident and celebrate our success and aspire to reach news heights and go to places that no one has gone before.

Who do you aspire to be like one day?

I tend to use others for motivation or inspiration but I always aspire to simply be my best self. I believe that God created all of us equally, but unique, and it’s my responsibility to exceptionally put on display all of the gifts that I’ve been blessed with. I always push myself to be more, to give more, and to experience more. I want the world to understand as much of my journey as possible. Just to understand what it was like to be a black girl in America, primarily influenced and inspired by black women that took the world by storm. Instead of following footsteps or emulating, I try to be the first. I always challenge myself to create my own footsteps and lanes. I was my mom’s first kid, the first state champion at my high school, the first female Olympic Medalist at Virginia Tech, and a part of the first sweep in US history for the Olympics. If there is a stone that’s unturned, more than likely that’s where you will find me.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I use my success to bring goodness to the world by being part of initiatives that help to inspire young people. I try to be as transparent as possible about my success as well as my struggles. I think the media sometimes paints this perfect picture of success when it comes to entertainers and athletes that is just so jaded. Celebrities and successful people are still HUMANS. They go on journeys, make mistakes, have setbacks, and that’s what makes their art and passion so relatable. Whenever I speak or make appearances at youth events, I try to remind young people of the exact times that I was standing in their shoes. Whether it be in schools, sports, college, relationships, career, etc. I think meeting our youth is one of the most important tools I can offer. How much more would our youth be motivated to embark on the journey of winning an Olympic medal if they can actually feel one around their necks. I say that my medal is everybody’s medal. Touch it, feel the weight, feel the sacrifice, so that one day they too may experience that exact same feeling.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why.

Five things I wish people would have told me when started out: I don’t think that there is anything that anyone could’ve told me when I first started, because I would say I was definitely pretty hardheaded and didn’t listen to anyone. What I could offer is five reflections on things I learn from or could’ve done differently when I first started my career as a professional athlete.

1. Focus On Yourself — I sometimes got caught up in other people’s success and wondered why or when I was going to get my major breakthrough, and I could never really understand what I’d accomplished and how far I’d come. When I learned to celebrate myself and my small victories, and acknowledge every barrier that I’d already broken and goal that I met, my energy shifted and helped me become a much more focused and significantly better athlete.

2. Pack Light — This concept for me was literally and figuratively. The literal aspect came from me starting off on circuit packing bags 50 to 55 pounds to travel to Europe for 2 to 3 weeks. I’ll never forget the one time I was traveling with one of my agents and we ended up having to take a train and had to run through the station in Brussels to catch the last train of the day while trying to carry a 50 pound bag plus my carry-on and backpack.

The figurative aspect came from relationships. It took me a while to really become selfish while being an athlete. I poured a lot of my feelings into a relationship that didn’t work out. I wanted the person that I was dating to be so successful and accomplish so much. I often fantasized or focused on becoming someone’s wife and living that lifestyle rather than giving every ounce of my efforts to being the best in the world. I had to realize that the window for my success was extremely small and love is forever. My journey of success has been and continues to be one of length so there’s no need to carry extra baggage if I don’t have to.

3. Eat Small Meals Throughout The Day — I’ve always been a major snacker and never really wanted to eat meals, and I realize that’s okay. I started doing more research on great foods that would provide me with energy throughout the day but still satisfy my urge to snack. One of my favorite additions to my snack regimen is Munk Pack’s Oatmeal Fruit Squeezes. I love them because they’re certified gluten-free which I found helps me trim down for my races, and they have just enough carbs and sugar to get me through some of my long workouts. In the past I would never dare to eat during a hard workout but I would always find myself lacking energy. I can throw them in my gym bag in the morning and it’s an instant source of energy — with real fruit — that I can enjoy throughout the day. I’m always sure to also add some type of energy bar, nuts or carbohydrate drinks to give me the extra boost in training.

4. Document Travel — I’ve traveled to at least 45 different countries and I wish someone would have told me to document more of my experience as a pro athlete. Just my feelings at certain times or the highs and lows. I can remember a lot of highs and I can remember a lot of lows but I think when you can literally look back on how far you’ve come it just helps you tell the story that much better. A story that can one day maybe impact the life of another young person aspiring to walk in my footsteps.

5. It’s OK To Be Nice — I would always think to perform well that I had to tap into this anger or rage that elevated me to another level. Through experience, I learned that all of those feelings needed to be channeled as motivation rather than anger. I’d build up somewhat of a wall and wasn’t able to truly develop relationships with my peers because I always wanted to be the very best at everything all the time. Given my competitive nature I still want to be the best at everything all the time but I learned how to keep myself passionate and motivated by clearly stating my goals and outlining the method to which I will achieve them.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

When it comes to a couple, I’d definitely like to have a sit down with Barack and Michelle Obama. I’d like to get the opportunity to re-live the moment I visited the White House because I was so overwhelmed and so inspired that I burst into tears. All I could think about was how many times I was inspired to do more, to be more, and to rise above adversity by the former President and First Lady. I always wondered how people felt when Martin Luther King Jr. was alive. I know times are different and the burdens to be carried and barriers that were broken during that time were immeasurable. However, I felt in my body, in my spirit, and in my mind that the feelings I had towards my President and First Lady somehow emulated the feelings of my grandmother and great-grandmother 50 years ago. It would be my dream to just sit down with them wearing jeans, a t-shirt, having a mojito and just talk about life and experiences and just learn about those moments of life when they were in my shoes. The individual I’d like to sit down with is Serena Williams. I actually was introduced to her at her party at New York Fashion Week in 2016. It was so cool because she actually acknowledged the fact that the track girls were so fashionable and fabulous at the Rio Olympics. She took time out from her event to celebrate and compliment us. With Serena, I’d like to just have on a pair of comfy PJs in a posh hotel suite or apartment and just enjoy girl talk. I’ve watched her go through ups and downs, experience motherhood, and be one of the most successful athletes in history. I’d love to get her advice on being an athlete transitioning from her 20s to 30s, maintaining her character and professionalism while still standing up or social justice, and last but not least getting in a little dance or a twerk session.

Originally published at www.huffingtonpost.com on December 17, 2017.

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