USA Track and Field coach Mechelle Lewis Freeman on claiming her deferred Olympic dream

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From 14 through 21, Mechelle Lewis Freeman ran track. While she watched her University of South Carolina teammates train for the Olympics, she managed advertising and marketing accounts for global brands like Coca-Cola, IBM and Xerox. But she felt like something was missing. So, she left a corporate job after two years and decided to chase her Olympic dream. For Lewis Freeman, that's when everything changed.

She became a 2007 World Champion in the 4x100 meter relay. One year later, she became an Olympian in the same event. Currently, she's the USA Track and Field team's head women's relay coach. In the 2020 Olympic Games and 2022 World Championships, Lewis Freeman led her teams to gold medal performances.

With all her success on the track, Lewis Freeman wanted to give back and create change. In 2015, she started TrackGirlz, a Frisco, Texas-based non-profit dedicated to empowering girls through track and field.

In her own words, Lewis Freeman speaks on her journey as a runner and how the sport provided opportunities that she could've never imagined.

IN MIDDLE SCHOOL, my twin sister and I were running at a mandatory P.E. track meet. One of the high school coaches watched and asked us both, "Have you ever run track before?" I'm like, "No." He said, "You should run track when you get to high school. I have a good feeling you'll do well."

We started running track the next year and realized we were talented. We were quickly seeing that at practice at first, but then in competitions, breaking records being highly competitive at national championships.

My sister and I were offered full scholarships at the University of South Carolina. Track and field was a gateway that allowed us to level up each time and understand who we were as girls, who we were as individuals, and how we could impact the larger society and world.

In college, I thought to myself, "I only want greatness. I only want excellence. I only want to live at this high level." I was on the first national championship team for South Carolina in 2002 -- and that was for any sport.

I wanted to train for the upcoming Olympics in 2004, but I had a bad hamstring injury my senior year. I thought, "If I can't do track, what will I do?" And then, I decided I wanted to get my graduate degree in advertising. I saw the 1992 movie "Boomerang" with Eddie Murphy, Robin Givens, Halle Berry and David Alan Grier. It was about people making these ads and having fun in their lives and careers. And I told myself, "I want to do that."

After graduation, I worked in New York at an ad agency. But during those two years, I started thinking about running again.

Then everything changed. I quit my job. I moved to North Carolina and started training with a coach. There were a lot of moments of, "What did I just do?" I quit a job. Everyone thought I was crazy. I told people, "I'm going to make an Olympic team in two years." I had not run in four years at that point. But the doors opened, and I made the Olympic team two years later.

When I started training again and racing, I lost. I've lost more than I won. You lose and you're like, "Oh, my goodness. What did I just do?"

In 2007, at the USA Championships, the location site to qualify for the World Championship team, I went in, and no one was thinking about Mechelle Lewis Freeman because I had taken four years off.

I make it past the first round. Then, in the semifinals, I remember being on the line and afraid.

The gun goes off. We run, and I come across the line. The first three names go up, and they're just holding off on this last name because it was that close. Then, finally, my name goes up as the fourth-place qualifier, and I get it by a hundredth of a second. That moment changed everything. From there, I made the world team. I ended up running the 100 meters. I finished ninth in the world. I got a gold medal. Nike offered me a sponsorship. It changed my mindset of what I was able to do leading up to that next Olympic year, but that was the moment right there that changed everything.

I'm like, "Okay, God. I know you gave me this world championship, but I'm really trying to make the Olympic team next year. I'm really grateful for the world championship, but the Olympic team's what I really, really, really want."

I didn't start training until February of that year as I was recovering from an injury. I went through a lot mentally dealing with the injury. But I will say, at the Olympic trials, just being able to be in that moment and now going into it knowing that I am one of them and can be a part of this team is a different mindset.

When I knew I made the team, it was like, "It happened." And it made me think about all the people who said I was crazy for chasing after this dream after taking a hiatus. It made me think about everyone who supported me during that time.

I made it to the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics. I'll never forget when I walked on the track and into the stadium. Over 80,000 people were chanting and cheering. I saw a sea of USA signs. I remember looking around, knowing my father and sister were watching. I represented the vision, hope, and dream that we both wanted to have when we were little girls. My mom was in the stadium. That was her first time being outside of the country. Colleagues from my first ad agency were in the stands. I thought, "Wow. I'm here. I was in a cubicle two years ago, and now I'm walking in the stadium as one of the country's four fastest women to represent the USA."

But of course, the story is that we go on to get disqualified. We drop the baton.

The most eminent feeling the next day is that you're still in shock. You're hurt. But you must keep reminding yourself of the process, the journey. No, I can't say I'm an Olympic gold medalist. But I'm an Olympic athlete. And I'm grateful for that.

After the Olympics, I was working at this agency in Atlanta. At that time, they had a roster of athletes, and there were no track and field athletes. "Why don't you have any track and field athletes? A lot of dope women I know can easily be a client," I asked. My bosses told me, "Track and field's only relevant every four years." I'm like, "What?"

I started to think, "I've been called a track girl since I was 13. Track girls is a whole community. It's a hashtag. It's girls. They walk in their power. They look good. They are good. They're talented. They're smart."

I started thinking about how to combine my marketing experience and that path with my track and field experience, and TrackGirlz was born in my brain.

Growing up in Prince George's County, Maryland, right outside of D.C., the community organizations helped raise me. It was important to know that the girls in my program have access points for people who cared about them like I had people who cared about me. That's the vision for TrackGirlz.

In our curriculum for TrackGirlz, I use my story of those two years when I quit my job and moved to North Carolina to train for the Olympics. I didn't even realize that my core values in the curriculum spell "BRAVE UP." Boldness, resilience, authenticity, vision, excellence, unity, and poise.

That's what it takes.