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Over the last couple of years, Anna Cockrell’s highs and lows have included battling depression, an injury, dealing with the pandemic, earning her master’s in public policy, winning both the 100m and 400m hurdles at the NCAA Championships in June, making the Tokyo Olympic team in the 400 hurdles later that month, and running in the finals at Tokyo.
When she was at the University of Southern California last year and the pandemic started to close things down, her coach told her to get out of Los Angeles. She went to her parents’ house in North Carolina and stayed there for the next several months. “So I had the opportunity to pause and to not have the pressure of competing looming over me,” Cockrell says.
That pressure had been building. “Every single practice felt like an indicator of whether or not I was going to be successful, instead of just a step on the journey,” she says. “It was like, ‘Oh my God, my teammates just killed me. How am I going to run in the Olympics if I can’t even win a rep at practice?’”
When all the competitions got postponed, “it went from being this omnipresent stressor to being really far off,” Cockrell says. “That opportunity to step away from competing, and just kind of be, and hang out at home with my parents and watch movies and not work out—it was a really good thing for me.”
The time off helped her reset and then get back to practice. At the NCAA Championships in June, she became only the second woman to win the double of the 100m and 400m hurdles, and she was feeling good as the Olympic Trials approached.
At the trials, in the 100m hurdles, “My first round was just OK, I was happy with my semi, and then in my final, I was a little bit disappointed… I just wasn’t quite as sharp as I wanted to be,” she says.
In the second round of the 400m hurdles, the runners had to line up four times before the race actually started. “I was so flustered, because the starters were telling me that I was taking too long to get into my blocks. And then they told me that my hand wasn’t behind the line and gave me a yellow card,” Cockrell says. The third time was a technical problem unrelated to her, and the fourth time was a clean start—and she qualified for the final.
In the final, she finished third, earning a spot on the Olympic team. “I just went for it… I knew what my race plan was, I knew what I needed to do, and that’s what I did.”
In between the trials and Tokyo, she says, “I was just trying to keep things as simple as possible, which is hard when you cry on national TV and then people want to talk to you about it.” Also, her NCAA eligibility was up, so she went from being a collegiate athlete to a professional one overnight. “That was a lot of change really quickly… So I was just trying to really lean on the things that were familiar and embrace the new things as they came.”
The next new thing was the Olympics. “I kept telling myself, ‘It’s just another meet. It’s just another meet. It’s just another meet.’ I got out there for the prelims, and I was fine the whole warm-up. And then I stepped out on the track for my first race, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is not just another meet,’” she says.
Cockrell says that in her first round, she didn’t execute her race plan very well, but she still made it through. “Coach [Quincy] Watts was like, ‘Hey, everyone has a crappy race. You’re entitled a crappy race. You got through—on to the next one.’” So she went on to the semis—when it was pouring down rain. But she was unfazed, having run in all kinds of weather, and she made the final.
In the final, “I ran as hard as I could, and it didn’t quite go my way there,” she says. She ended up getting disqualified for lane infringement. But she learned from this first Olympic experience.
“If I felt like I had done everything perfectly, or I had nothing else I can improve on and that was a result, I think that’d be really demoralizing,” she says. Instead, “I have a whole list of things I know I can fix, I know how to start fixing them, I know that I have so many people around me who can help me become a better version of myself—who can help me get to the next level as an athlete.”
Now, she’s looking forward to some downtime, and then she’ll make decisions about moving forward as a pro.
Off the Track
Cockrell has talked about her mental health openly, including in a speech at USC’s student-athlete graduation in 2019 and in an interview at the Olympic Trials, right after she made the team. Around the same time, other athletes, including Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, talked about protecting their mental health.
“I hope the effect is that people who are struggling recognize that there’s not something wrong with them for struggling,” Cockrell says. “Something I kept feeling was like, ‘What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I get it together? Why are all these people around me able to function, able to just be OK?’ And I’m not OK.”
When high-profile people in the spotlight feel this way and say so, it might start to change the norms. “It’s really OK to need support and to ask for it,” Cockrell says. “I also hope that by more of us speaking out about it, we can start to move from conversations just about the individual to about: How do we get more people access to the care that they need? It shouldn’t just be people who have wealth or who have good health insurance who are getting mental health care.”
Therapy has been helpful to Cockrell, but she realizes barriers keep some people from accessing it. “When I talk about what I’ve been through, I don’t want to just say, ‘Go to therapy,’ because I know that I have a lot of privileges in my life that allowed me to just go to therapy that other people don’t have.”
Also helpful: being honest with herself and people around her about how she’s feeling. “I found that the quicker I can identify and acknowledge something, the quicker I can figure out how to deal with it, and how to deal with it in a healthy way, as opposed to just trying to shove it aside or work through it,” she says.
Cockrell noticed how people responded to athletes who opened up. “At the same time as you see a lot of people who really rallied around and supported Simone Biles, you see people who have called her weak, who say that she let down her team,” she says. “I hope that the voices supporting her . . . are able to drown out the negativity.”
“I think it would be naive to say just a couple of us saying ‘I was depressed’ is going to shift the whole culture. I hope it can be the beginning of a shift,” she says. “And I think we have to actively work to make sure people understand that, no, it’s not weak. It’s not embarrassing. It’s not shameful. It’s not quitting.”
Like talking about mental health, speaking up about racial inequities can take a toll. “Last summer, I was speaking a lot, and I was organizing a lot,” Cockrell says. “And I’ve continued to do that, but I also recognized that I needed to take care of myself, too. I couldn’t sacrifice my health to keep speaking publicly.”
Some of the pictures that have been painted of Black women activists haven’t been accurate, from Cockrell’s perspective. She has talked about being contrasted against Gwen Berry. “It was very strange for me to post the video of me crying about making the team and have people be like, ‘Oh, this is what we want, not Gwen.’ And I’m like, no, Gwen and I have very different life experiences, but we’re aligned in a lot of ways. And just because I’m not talking about that right now doesn’t mean that it’s not important to me—doesn’t mean that it’s not part of me,” she says.
Part of the problem is that “sometimes media can kind of flatten people and make them one-dimensional or single-issue people. And none of us are that. All of us are multifaceted and have multiple things that we care about,” she says.
Also, activism doesn’t take just one form. While one person is at the megaphone, someone else is organizing. “You can have many roles, and you can play different roles at different times…. But I think we all have to find ways to engage with the movements we care about in ways that are sustainable for us.”
Cockrell has also felt and seen how perceptions of Black women can be skewed. “The question is: Are you seeing Black women as full people? Do we exist to entertain you, whether it’s athletically, or through music, or through acting? Do you view Black women solely in positions of servitude? Do you view Black women as equal?” she says. “We’ve obviously progressed as a society, but there still is inherent mistreatment of Black women.”
And sometimes people’s views and actions are inconsistent. “It’s easy to adore someone like Simone Biles, who’s doing things that are just out of this world. But what about your Black woman coworker? What about your Black neighbors? How do you treat them? No one’s putting them on a pedestal,” Cockrell says. “Are you checking your biases? Are you committing microaggressions against them while lifting up Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka?”
Through the past couple of years, Cockrell has learned “not to let one thing determine who you are or your value,” she says. “I think that I got into trouble when I started defining myself through track and field, and my performances became indicative of who I was as a person. A good day, a good performance, does not mean I’m a good person. Because the flip side of that is that a bad one means I’m a bad person.”
And, she says, when you need to center yourself and calm yourself down, figure out what works for you and use it. For Cockrell, that’s the diaphragmatic breathing she did before her races. “I do the same thing in practice,” she says. “If I have a workout that I’m anxious about, or if I can feel myself being a little too all over the place, I’m not really there in the moment, I’ll just lay down and I’ll breathe for a couple breaths.”
Whether it’s breathing or something else, find a way to “come back to your body in the moment that you’re in,” she says. Then, “you don’t get too caught up in ‘What does this bad race mean? What does this bad day mean?’ You know, it doesn’t mean anything. It was just a bad day. Just wasn’t your best, and that’s all right. Because you know what? You get to try again tomorrow, and the promise of tomorrow is a really beautiful thing.”