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Quanera Hayes and Allyson Felix celebrating their 1-2 finish in the 400-meter final alongside their two-year-old children will likely be one of the lasting images of the 2021 U.S. Olympic Trials.
But the road to victory has hardly been paved with gold, as 29-year-old Hayes can attest. She won her first U.S. outdoor title in 2017 and was a member of the gold-medal–winning 4 x 400-meter relay at the world championships in Doha, Qatar, that year, but she had to scrape her way back to fitness after giving birth to her son, Demetrius, in 2018.
When the pandemic resulted in the postponement of the Olympics, it was a “true blessing,” because it gave her more time to get race-sharp. Yet COVID-19 also brought one of the biggest challenges of her life: a months-long separation from Demetrius, who had gone to the Bahamas to visit his grandparents at the beginning of the pandemic. Travel restrictions meant that it would be four months before mother and son were reunited.
When Hayes ran the race of her life to make her first Olympic team, it meant that she’d have to leave Demetrius behind again. She realized a lifelong dream by making it to Tokyo, but her experience at the Games was far from perfect. She finished seventh in the 400-meter final and was not selected for the 4 x 400-meter relay, which later won gold.
She couldn’t shake her disappointment until a month later, when she had an out-of-body experience to win the Diamond League final in Zurich—guaranteeing her qualification for the 2021 world championships next summer in Eugene, Oregon.
Women’s Running spoke with Hayes about her faith, motherhood, and the journey to becoming an Olympian and Diamond League champion.
Women’s Running: When you first found out you were pregnant, did you always plan to come back to pro track and field?
Quanera Hayes: I was scared, I was depressed… At that moment, I really didn’t think about it. I didn’t think about anything, because it was just like, “Wow, I’m having a baby.”
It took awhile for me to come around to the idea of me being pregnant. I got really depressed because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I thought about giving him up and that made me even more depressed. I had to just pray a lot, and my family, they supported me and they assured me that everything was going to be OK, and when you start going to doctor’s appointments and stuff like that and you start to see the baby grow and feel the baby move, you know, it is just a different experience. And you know, eventually I came around and I just always knew that my career was going to be OK. I knew it was going to be tough to get back into running, but I was never really scared and it was just a thing where I had to trust God and just take it one day at a time, honestly.
WR: Did you keep training through your pregnancy or did you take a break?
QH: I walked a lot. I couldn’t really run because he was sitting so low that it was very uncomfortable to run. I would walk two miles a day. I would walk a mile in the morning and then I’d walk a mile in the afternoon, just to keep myself moving, because I tried to sit out for a week and I just went crazy because I’m so used to doing stuff. My doctor allowed me to do some walking and I’d do a lot of stuff around the house just to keep myself moving. But mainly I just walked, and I would go to the gym and do light weights that my doctor approved of just to really keep myself going. It wasn’t to try to stay training, it was just for my peace of mind to keep myself sane from having to sit out.
WR: What was the experience of getting back in shape like?
QH: It was the toughest thing ever. I would stop running in the middle of training because I was just hurting so much and I would get so tired and I just didn’t want to do it. It was a mental adjustment. I really had to get back that toughness and that fight when I came back to running. And it was just not being scared to go out there and compete again, because I was just really scared and really nervous, not knowing where my body was and not being able to make it through a practice without stopping or without hurting. That transition back was really, really tough and having to learn how to run again, how to come out of blocks because everything just felt off—no matter what I did, it just felt off. I didn’t feel like I was getting any stronger and I didn’t feel like I was getting any better. So I just really had to train myself mentally before anything else, because that’s the thing that gets you through practice and running track, is the mental aspect of everything. The physical, you know what it is, but you have to mentally push yourself to get through the physical.
There’s been plenty of practices crying, plenty of nights crying, wanting to rush everything. And then it was a point to where I just had to really trust the process and pray to God. And just like, all right, God, you know, I’m literally right here at your feet. I don’t know what to do, it doesn’t feel right, but I’m just going to trust you and I’m going to keep going.
WR: Were you sponsored by Nike throughout your pregnancy and your comeback? Were you worried at all about telling them about the pregnancy?
QH: Yes, ma’am. I’ve been running with Nike since April 2016. I was [worried], but I talked to one of my Nike reps and he assured me that everything was going to be OK. He was actually upset that I was scared to tell him because he’s a very big family man. So he just let me know that we support you, we’re going to back you up with everything … just worry about having a healthy baby and getting through your pregnancy and you know that everything is going to be OK.
WR: What were your thoughts on Allyson Felix very publicly saying that Nike didn’t support her when she was pregnant and coming back from pregnancy?
QH: She did pave a way for us to not be penalized for being pregnant. I’m happy that she did speak up about it. You know, my experience is not the same as her experience. But I’m very happy that she spoke up because it did help a lot when it came to my pregnancy, and the fact that she spoke up, even though I had support throughout my pregnancy from Nike, it’s still a business at the end of the day. And I still would receive reductions and everything like that, but because of her, and her tenacity and her strength to speak up about pregnant women and women in sports in general, it’s saved me from getting [pay] reductions more than what I was supposed to. She paved the way for me as well even though our stories are quite different. It still helped me in a lot of ways, too.
WR: What was the point at which you started to feel like your old self?
QH: I’m a lot stronger than I was before. Honestly, it’s not like a moment that you can pinpoint. Everything was just a slow progression and I say that I’m a better athlete now or that I’m a lot better because now I have a different purpose for running. The fact that I do have my son now gives me a different outlook on why I’m running and who I’m running for.
I can handle things a lot better as far as when I’m getting tired or or just don’t feel like doing it. I wake up every day like, I’m doing this for my son. I have him to look to me—”My mommy didn’t give up, she had me, she made the Olympic team.” My mentality is a lot different and I’m a lot better athlete now because I’m a mom.
WR: What was it like to win the Olympic Trials?
QH: Once again, it goes back to my baby. I have won USAs before, but this time it was a lot more special because I am a mom and it was such a big mommy movement thing this year for the Olympics, and so to be a part of that was in itself just a great experience. And, you know, standing up for the moms and encouraging other moms to keep going after their dreams, that was a very surreal moment and just something that was that was unexpected.
I didn’t expect being a mom and making the Olympics would be so big, but to be a part of that history was very special to me. And then, to be a part of it with Allyson… the first-time mom, the most decorated [American] female track athlete ever… to be a part of that with her was a very special thing and I was just really, really happy, just thankful to see everything coming together. Knowing how hard I worked for that moment… it was just so unreal.
WR: Does making the Olympics feel different from the other U.S. title that you won [in 2017]?
QH: Yes, because everybody wants to be called an Olympian, and they say, “Once an Olympian, always an Olympian.”
It opens so many doors outside of track and field just to say that you’re an Olympian. So it does feel a lot different because that’s something that most track athletes dream [of]… so to say that I have that title—it never gets old.
WR: What was it like to go to Tokyo?
QH: It was really stressful. Being in the rooms and not being able to explore the city and then the rooms were so small. I had to spend a lot of time outside reading or studying and stuff like that because I would just be sitting in my room so bored.
I was feeling sick the first week because my body wasn’t really adjusting well to the time difference. I was going to sleep on time and stuff like that, but during the day, I would just feel so out of it, just dizzy. I’d be walking and stuff would just start spinning. The first week was just horrible, but going to the stadium and competing and stuff like that felt really, really good to be on that big of a stage, even though we didn’t have any spectators there. I liked it better—not having the spectators—it felt a lot less stressful being able to compete, you know, freely… I like it better because it’s not so nerve-wracking.
WR: You were kind of in a tough position because you weren’t able to run the 4 x 400-meter relay at all. Were you disappointed by that?
QH: I was very disappointed about that.
It took a while for me to come back from that experience. I was down. I was going to stop running. I was gonna shut my season down and everything. It was horrible. Oh, I had to do a lot of praying. Yeah, a lot of praying because I was just not in a good space… what was said to me at the time, literally not even 30 minutes after I finished the 400-meter final, what one of the coaches said to me really just broke my heart.
There wasn’t a meeting about the relay pool or anything like that. I was completely, literally blindsided by that experience.
When I was done with the 400 meter, I was very proud of myself for how I ran in lane two, and not being able to run off anybody because the girl in front of me pulled up. The race that we had planned was based off of the person in front of me so I can stay in the race, but when she pulls up, that distorted where I was in the race. I still ran, I wasn’t tired at all. I wasn’t hurt. I still had a lot left. So in my head, I’m thinking, ‘OK, Quanera, it is what it is, running in lane two is hard. You can’t do it the same way how you would run out of the other lanes. So you’re good. You still have the the relay to go.’
I even said it in my interviews, ‘Yeah, I’m OK, I’m proud of myself. I have the relay, so I’m good, I’ll walk away with at least one medal,’ but when I got back to the warm-up area and I found out that I wasn’t going to be on the relay, I cried. I had to walk away. Literally, I cried and I cried when I got back to my room. I cried when I was on the plane. It was really tough. It was really tough for me.
[Editor’s note: The women’s Team USA 4 x 400-meter relay gold-medal winning team members were Sydney McLaughlin, Felix, Dalilah Muhammad, and Athing Mu. Selection of relay members is up to U.S.A. Track & Field coaches and officials.]
WR: How did you decide not to end your season?
QH: Praying and talking to God and just realizing that I don’t run for medals. I run to give glory to God. I run [so] that the people can see God through the mishaps, through the good times and the bad times. I didn’t want myself to feel validated by what somebody else said to me. My validation comes from God, that he called me to run. He called me to be here and everything happens for a reason.
WR: What was it like to go win the Diamond League final after that? That’s such a great comeback story.
QH: That was completely unexpected because that was my very first time on the [Diamond League] circuit. And then the way my body was reacting from the previous meets, I was just like, “I am so tired, my body hurts, I’m ready to go home, I can’t do this anymore,” because I just wasn’t really performing the way I wanted to perform. Running-wise… I did not feel like myself. I didn’t feel free. I didn’t feel fluent.
It was very hard for me to try to get into the groove of things. When I got to Zurich [for the Diamond League final], once again, prayer—it was really just praying my way through it.
I actually met some really good people in Zurich, some good Christian women. We did some prayer and worship and we had a Bible study [with fellow athletes Natoya Goule and Mariya Lasitskene] and it was just really about staying in tune with God.
The day I ran, my coach sent me a scripture—the one about trusting in God and having your strength renewed: “you will have the strength of eagles and you will run and not grow weary.” And then I had a couple pray with me and they said that same scripture to me. So while I’m at the track warming up, I’m repeating the scripture in my head over and over and over and when I got on the line… I was on my knees and I was praying, “God, just give me the strength to get through this last race.”
When that gun went off, I just ran. I have never felt that good.
When I saw my name pop up first, I was so overwhelmed with joy and, oh my goodness, even now. It feels so unreal. It feels so hard to believe because I was just trying to get through that race and just run freely and just let God use me and I didn’t even care about winning at that point. It was just like, “Alright, Quanera. This is your last one and then you get to go home to your baby.”
To actually come out here and win it and to know that God still has his hand on me just meant everything.