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Anna Cockrell On Celebrating Olympic-Sized Goals

Track and Field: Pac-12 Championships
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport
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Image of Sport
On May 14, 2021, Anna Cockrell of the University Southern California won the women's 400-meter hurdles heat in 56.87 during the Pac-12 Championships at Loker Stadium.

Something different has started to happen to Anna Cockrell when she’s out in public — something that takes some getting used to.

"Like, I was at breakfast and the server was like, 'Oh, my God, like, you're at the Olympics,'" Cockrell said. "And I was like, 'Oh, yeah. Did you watch?'"

People see the 24-year-old track star and are excited to be in the presence of an Olympic athlete.

"It's still like a very strange experience to be recognized because in a lot of ways I still see myself as the same," she said. "I am the same. I'm still just trying to figure out my life one day at a time."

The Providence Day School grad is still processing her journey to Tokyo for the 2020 Olympic Games, which were held in 2021. It was an unusual Olympic cycle — the lack of big crowds to cheer on athletes and, families watching their loved ones compete through a screen instead of in person. Not to mention, the Games were postponed for a year due to COVID-19. But for Cockrell, that delay was a positive. Without it, she may not have made it to Tokyo.

Track & Field: NCAA Championships
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport
On June 12, 2021, Anna Cockrell of Southern California celebrates after winning the women's 400m hurdles in 54.68 during the NCAA Track and Field Championships at Hayward Field.

"The pandemic, I mean ... I don't think if I had stopped competing for that season, I wouldn't have had the year that I had this year because I wouldn't have been able to handle it, I wouldn't have approached it in a healthy way," she said. "I would have kept looking at everything I do on the track and saying, 'This isn't enough, this isn't good enough.'"

Cockrell is a sprinter, and hurdles are her specialty. Leading up to the pandemic, she was running track and field at the University of Southern California. It was a constant churn: train, race, repeat. In March 2020 she was ready to compete at the NCAA indoor nationals in Albuquerque, New Mexico. But the meet was canceled because of COVID-19. She flew back to L.A., where she got a call from her college coach, who told she should go home to Charlotte.

annaserenakiethgrad.jpg.jpg
Courtesy of Kieth Cockrell
Anna Cockrell stands with her parents at her USC graduation.

She figured it’d be a short stint, so she kept training at first. She didn’t know how bad things were about to get.

"When I first got back, I was still training," Cockrell said. "I was running in my neighborhood. I was working out of my basement. And then the NCAA season got canceled. And then the Olympics got postponed. And then I just stopped."

For the first time in years, she stopped running. She spent time with her family which includes her dad Kieth Cockrell, the president of Bank of America Charlotte.

Cockrell comes from an athletic family. Her brother, Ross, plays in the NFL for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Her sister, Ciera, had an impressive volleyball career at Davidson College.

kiethannatogether.jpg
Courtesy of Kieth Cockrell
Anna and Kieth Cockrell are pictured when Anna was a child and more recently.

So during that time home, she focused on being herself instead of a high-profile athlete with Olympic dreams.

"It was a long period of just like, 'I don't want to run and I don't have to and I don't have to be in this super high pressure, trying to be the best at the collegiate level, trying to make teams," she said. "Over the years, I'd gotten so wrapped up in the competition and ... I was so focused on the outcomes that the process became miserable."

So Cockrell swam in her parents' pool. She biked around the neighborhood. She was active, but she wasn’t training for the next big competition. Then she got a call from her old Providence Day coach asking her if she would come say hi to the high school hurdlers during practice.

"Some of them want to run in college, but some of them have no plan to run at the next level. They're just out there because they enjoy it and they want to get better," she said. "And to be in that environment, it's infectious to be around people who are doing something because they love it. So I was like, 'Oh my God, I actually really enjoy this.'"

Then she started to train with them. At that point, she was working her way back to where she once was, which she describes as a humbling experience.

"We were doing this one workout and I was done. And they're like, 'Come on Anna, you've got this, you've got this, you can do it!' And I was like, this is so embarrassing. But, you know, I got through it and they're like, 'reat job, you really pushed through that,' And I was like I did, didn't I?" Cockrell said with a smile. "It was just the most pure, unjaded, just love and light and brightness, and to have all that time to just train with them was awesome."

Track & Field: NCAA Championships
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport
Anna Cockrell of Southern California wins the women's 400m hurdles in 54.68 during the NCAA Track and Field Championships at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, on June 12, 2021.

She eventually got her endurance back along with her love for running. In September 2020, she was able to return to USC and train again. And when Olympic trials rolled around in June of 2021, she was ready. Not only did she end up making the Olympic team, she had a personal best in the 400-meter hurdles. She was interviewed after that race.

"I just trained really hard for this, I worked really hard for this," she told reporters through tears. "In 2019, I was super depressed. I didn't want to be here anymore. So to be standing here today as an Olympian, is like more than I can take."

Her reference to 2019 was another time when she had to pull herself back up. She was struggling with depression and a hamstring injury that left her unsure of herself and her future as a runner. Her coaches could tell something was wrong beyond her physical pain. With the support of her coaches and her family and the help of a therapist, she was able to heal physically and mentally. She spoke openly about that time in her life during the 2019 commencement speech she was asked to give at USC.

So when Cockrell qualified for the Olympics in 2021, it was about so much more than making it to Tokyo. It was about making it back to herself and learning who she was beyond the sport she loves.

It was her first trip to the Olympics, and she learned a lot. Next time — because she does plan on there being a next time — she wants to keep the focus on herself.

"I found it really hard because all of a sudden you're surrounded by all of these people, not just from track and field, but all these different sports," she said. "And you walk in the dining hall and it's like all this food — it's just so overwhelming from a sensory standpoint that it's hard not to look around."

Cockrell did not end up medaling. But she ran strong leading up to the final round, where she was disqualified for a lane violation.

Last summer, she points out, she was training with her old coach and high school students. A year later, she went to the Olympics. That’s worth celebrating, even if she didn’t bring back a medal.

"I wish I had performed a little bit better at the Games. I obviously I wanted to medal," she said. "So it's hard to grapple with, 'OK, I achieved all this, but there's still so much more that I want to do.' And I think that's the place that I'm in now is allowing myself to really celebrate what this entire year has been and still hold space for that feeling of like, 'Man, I'm disappointed. I wanted to do more.'"

One thing Cockrell feels clear about is her love for the sport. After many ups and downs, she feels good about her relationship with track. Running is part of what she does: It’s no longer the sum of who she is.

"I am so much better at just celebrating the little victories going to the Olympics is not a little victory. It's a big victory," she said. "But even if I didn't go, you know, even if I didn't make the team, I think I would still be in a good place about it, because at the end of the day, there are so many things that I wanted to do that I achieved. And I did it in a way that was not detrimental to my health. It was not detrimental to my self-esteem or my self-worth."

No medal, she points out, determines what kind of person she is. And that’s a lesson she’ll hold onto as she sets her eyes to Paris, where the summer 2024 Olympics will be held. There, she hopes to be able to race her best in the sport she loves with nothing to prove to anyone.

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Sarah Delia covers criminal justice and the arts for WFAE. Sarah joined the WFAE news team in 2014. An Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist, Sarah has lived and told stories from Maine, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. Sarah received her B.A. in English and Art history from James Madison University, where she began her broadcast career at college radio station WXJM. Sarah has interned and worked at NPR in Washington DC, interned and freelanced for WNYC, and attended the Salt Institute for Radio Documentary Studies.