When Chloe Abbott stops to think about who inspires her, she finds it’s as much Allyson Felix as it is Etta James. So when she graduated from the University of Kentucky in the spring as the 2019 NCAA runner-up in the 400 meters, with a degree in theater and vocal performance, she wondered where she should channel her career aspirations.
“It’s always been that you have to pick and choose between theater and music or track,” Abbott says. “They both are so demanding and the coaches don’t want to share their time or the directors don’t want to share their time.”
The highlights of her collegiate years took place on the track, of course, but also on the football field, where Abbott sang the national anthem in front of 62,000 fans, and on the basketball court, when she serenaded another pre-game audience of 20,000. She collected memories not just on the podiums, but also on the stages, as a cast member in Cabaret and participant in dance showcases.
Abbott, 22, wanted the best of both of her worlds, but when she looked to friends who decided to pursue professional running, she wasn’t initially convinced it was possible.
“I’ve seen so many athletes who’ve had really bad contracts and really struggled with the stress of feeling pressure from their agents and their coaches,” Abbott says. “I was like, ‘This seems like a horrible life to live.’”
When the pandemic hit in 2020, putting an abrupt end to her NCAA athletic pursuits, she focused solely on her music, trying to make contact with people in the industry and eventually recording in the studio. But it didn’t take Abbott long to realize that she missed a routine that included running.
“I have issues when I’m not doing both at the same time…I felt so gross,” Abbott says. “I’m not going to lie, I was just in this limbo state. When I got back to the track and started practicing again, I was like, ‘This makes so much sense.’ I’ve learned that’s how it has to be for me—together, they help keep my brain at a nice, even level.”
Abbott was a standout runner in Northville, Michigan, where she ended her senior year with three state titles in the 400 meters, 200 meters, and the 4 x 400-meter relay. She went on to compete at Purdue University before transferring to Kentucky. It was her track prowess that earned her scholarships to attend college and pursue her passion in the arts, too.
As the pandemic continued on, Abbott confided in her mother, an attorney, that she was struggling to pick a path. Her mom offered help and eventually landed in discussions with On, a Swiss-based running shoe and apparel brand that recently launched a distance pro training group in Boulder, Colorado, coached by Dathan Ritzenhein, a three-time Olympian. In those conversations, representatives from On saw an opportunity to support Abbott as an athlete and a vocalist, too. After the deal was signed, Abbott even composed and sang an original song in a promo video for her new sponsor.
Abbott confesses that she had never heard of On before their initial talks, but after testing the new spikes and training shoes, she was intrigued. (“They said, ‘If you don’t like the shoe, then clearly this won’t work.’”)
“I want to be an advocate for people who are like me, who feel like it’s not possible to do other things,” she says. “I want to show them that it is possible with the right people in your corner.”
Although she’d like to eventually live in New York, Abbott also doesn’t want to make a lot of changes all at once, so she is continuing to train with her Kentucky teammates and coaches. Her professional debut is on Sunday in the 400 meters at the American Track League meet in Fayetteville, Arkansas. She’s already qualified for the 2021 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials, but would like to get her 400-meter time down to 49.4 or faster. Her current best is 50.98.
She’s also been busy recording in the studio and has a music video dropping on February 14 and more to follow in the summer, close to the 2021 Tokyo Games, she says.
“The song we’re going to drop in February is called ‘Slim Thin,’ and it’s basically about self love,” Abbott says. “Black History Month is important and I feel like the song really showcases love for Black women and their bodies.”
Abbott is drawn to R&B, soul, gospel, and classics over pop music. She enjoys Jhené Aiko, John Legend, and Sam Smith, she says, and Etta James, too, of course.
On the track? Her role model is without question Allyson Felix, not just for her legendary (and ongoing) performances, but for the work she pursues outside of competition, including advocating for Black maternal health and parental leave policies for professional athletes.
“I don’t fangirl over many people at all, but Allyson is just so humble, so relaxed, so beautiful,” Abbott says. “I aspire to be as impactful as she is in the world. She is not just a track athlete. She just has so much more to say.”