Julia "Hurricane" Hawkins reached the starting line of the National Senior Games' 100-meter dash in mid-June in Albuquerque, New Mexico, well ahead of time. She approached, grasping onto her adult daughter and son's hands for support. Hawkins tucked a sunflower behind her right ear for good luck. She felt slightly more nervous than she did three years ago when she ran in her first-ever Senior Olympics event, fulfilling one of her bucket list items of "finishing the 100-meter dash at age 100." She wasn't so much worried about the running part of it. Hawkins had been having a little trouble with her eyesight and was nervous it would impede her run.
"I was pretty sure I could run all right if I could get down there and get some time to orient myself," she says.
But all the worries, the nerves Hawkins felt, vanished when the race started and she took her first step. She felt like the fastest person on the planet for that moment. Hawkins became the oldest person to run -- and win -- the 100-meter dash at the National Senior Games for the women's 100-plus age division. That win was in addition to the gold she snagged the previous day at the 50-meter dash.
She'd seen a roadrunner (a species of fast-running ground cuckoos) in Albuquerque the previous day, and she took it as a sign that she'd win. Hawkins had always joked with her family that she was a roadrunner. They'd even bought her a roadrunner brooch, which she wore on some of her dresses.
"Hurricane! Hurricane!" Friends, family and strangers screamed her nickname, an ode to her need for speed, as she ran. Relatives, neighbors and friends had traveled across the country to be a part of the crowd to cheer her on. Hawkins had no clue she was leading the race. All she cared about was running as fast as she could. It was like she had her ears plugged until she crossed the finish line. As soon as she did, she heard somebody yell, "You won. You did it!"
As Hawkins stood by the finish line drawing slow breaths, a 13-year-old girl walked towards her, shyly holding her mother's smartphone. She had just started running for her school and was there to cheer for the athletes.
"I want to be just like you when I grow up, and I want to have a picture of you if I could have it," the teen said to Hawkins.
The Hurricane posed for a photo with the teen, who later said she was going to print the photo for her bedroom. The image was going to remind herself to live life fully, to be intensely passionate about things, and to keep pushing to be the best version of herself.
"It makes you feel good to think that you might be helping people that need a little push -- to be a little more careful about their [health] and their activities, so if I am doing a little of that, I am pleased," Hawkins says.
Hawkins has lived through the Great Depression, World War II and the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, her now deceased husband, WWII veteran Murray F. Hawkins (they were engaged while he was at war), was deployed at Pearl Harbor right before the Dec. 7, 1941 attack, and she had to wait eight days -- "the longest eight days of my entire life," she called it -- before she found out that he was alive. They went on to live 70 years together as husband and wife in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Murray lived to be 95.
The first time Julia saw Murray was at a Louisiana State University church party more than 75 years ago. Her memory is sharp; she remembered going home after the party and writing about him in her diary, "I met a cute fellow tonight -- a very cute and smart man. I think I am going to want to see lots of him."
She loved cycling then. When Murray was stationed in Pearl Harbor, she would cycle seven miles every day to the rural town of Ponchatoula, Louisiana, to teach at a primary school. She was one of the few people in the area who was allowed to buy a bike; a rubber shortage, caused by the advent of WWII, made it difficult for people to buy a bike unless they could prove they really needed it.
When Murray came back after the war, they bought an acre of land in Baton Rouge, where she's originally from. The couple raised four children there and grew old together. It's where Hawkins still resides. Murray took a job as a petroleum engineer (he later became a professor at LSU) and she took care of things at home. Hawkins planted all sorts of flowers -- jasmine, carnations and roses -- in her back garden and tended to them. She developed a love for Bonsai trees, "'They're like my children," she says. Hawkins clips, waters and fertilizes the trees daily. The oldest Bonsai tree she's grown is 50 years of age.
"If you marry a good man, and you live with him for that long and raise children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren -- what a lucky life that is!" Hawkins says.
At 103, the decades seemed to weave together as she recalled some of her favorite memories. Before being nicknamed "Hurricane," she was called "Flower girl." She always wore a flower in her hair. She loved giving people blank journals to record words and pictures of their magic moments. Hawkins would add her special memories to kickstart the journals for her loved ones -- there were references to Louisiana sunrises, birds in the backyard and desert cacti.
At 80, she'd accumulated a stack of her own journals, her children helped her turn those memories into a memoir. It was just for her family, and she titled the read, "It's Been Wondrous." When she turned 100, she'd added her running and cycling experiences to her memoir and was able to self-publish for the world.
Hawkins would cycle to get seeds, plants and groceries, and as she grew older, at around age 75, she decided she wanted to test her skills in a formal competition. She'd watched one of her favorite movies of all time, "Chariots of Fire" (1981), which is centered on the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris, and thought it would be keen to explore her Olympic potential. Hawkins signed up for cycling events at Senior Olympics events around the country, winning bronze first and then gold. However, after falling and dislocating her elbow at the age of 99, she decided it was time to move on from cycling.
Years of cycling had kept Hawkins' legs and hips in great shape, and she longed for a fresh challenge. She'd traveled to Greece more than three decades ago with her daughter to see her son-in-law run a marathon. Watching hundreds of people from across the world get ready to run together seemed exciting.
The first time she went running on her street, her friend and coach Tom Campbell was watching nearby. "She takes off running ... and I was surprised because I wasn't expecting actual running!" Campbell said in a 2018 SportsCenter video. "I don't know what I was expecting."
"Running thrills me to death, that's why I do it," Hawkins says.
The first time she participated in a 100-meter race, she won gold. By 102, she was running out of space in her medal box, with least 20 medals secured at last count. Hawkins has three world records to her name, including a 39.62-second 100-meter-dash record at age 101. At the time, she joked with reporters, saying she "skipped a nap to run the race."
Hawkins maintains an active lifestyle. She walks and stretches daily and works on her garden regularly. She eats a balanced diet of yogurt, soups and salads, but will give in to the occasional cravings -- fried crabs and oysters top her favorite-foods list.
Hawkins might be 103, but she still has things she wants to cross off her bucket list. The immediate one is walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. Ever since she read David McCullough's book "The Great Bridge," which explores the famed bridge's construction, she'd wanted to go see it. But, flying isn't so easy for the Hurricane. Despite having access to wheelchairs, it's an ordeal getting from the house to the airport, going from one end to the other end of the other airport, changing planes and deplaning. She noted that she's still recuperating from her flight experience to and from Albuquerque, New Mexico, but "New York is tempting me, maybe I will do it soon," Hawkins says.
During her time in Albuquerque, people came up to her and said things like, "I want to be as fit as you," and "I want to live life like you." She met one of the founders of the games, Harris Frank, at an event. Frank couldn't stop smiling in Hawkins' presence, telling her, "I am amazed that you're 103 and you're running."
"I've lived through a lot," says Hawkins. "I am thankful if people can look at me [and be inspired] to live a good, happy and full life. That really makes me happy."