Hurdler Anna Cockrell is one of the brave Olympians normalizing mental health discourse

·Yahoo Sports Columnist
·5-min read

TOKYO — In an Olympics where thankfully mental health has been a focus of discussion more than ever before, one of the athletes who has been so bravely transparent about her own fight took to the track first thing Saturday morning.

Anna Cockrell, the American 400-meter hurdler in the midst of the season of her young life — she became just the second woman to win both the 100-meter and 400-meter hurdles at the same NCAA championships, then followed it up with a third-place finish in the U.S. Trials that clinched an Olympic berth — overcame an admitted case of nerves in her Round 1 race to move on to the semifinals on Monday.

“I was super nervous, so I’m glad it’s done,” Cockrell, 23, said in the mixed zone area at Tokyo Olympic Stadium. “I’m glad it’s done, I’m glad I got to experience this, feel what this is. I’m ready for the semis now. I’m ready to really run now.”

Cockrell was third in Heat 1 with a time of 55.37 seconds; teammates Dalilah Muhammad and Sydney McLaughlin had the fastest (53.97) and fourth-fastest (54.65) times in the opening round, both easing up as they neared the finish line.

While the rivalry between McLaughlin and Muhammad and the likelihood that the winner of the gold medal race will break the world record again is one of the stories of this meet, Cockrell’s charm and transparency are an endearing combination.

“I let my nerves get the best of me a little today, which is disappointing, but I mean the good news is that I made it to the next round,” she said. “Always a positive in there. It was just a lot of ‘oh my goodness, oh my goodness, oh my goodness’ and then just trying to focus on what I needed to execute for the race.”

Her emotional reaction to finishing third at the U.S. Trials went viral; gasping between sobs after she said on NBC, “in 2019 I was super depressed, I didn’t want to be here anymore, so to be standing here today as an Olympian is more than I can take.” She sent love to her family watching back home in Charlotte, and to the coaches who never gave up on her even when she said she’d given up on herself.

She has since written “Letter to my Younger Self” for The Players Tribune, revealing more and going into detail on what began her downward spiral: the death of her Papaw at the start of her freshman year at the University of Southern California, and deciding that the way to cope was to bury her sadness and work harder than she’d ever worked before, keeping an unreal schedule of academics, track and volunteering that became overwhelming. She pushed herself to graduate from USC in three years, pushed herself to keep leading the Trojans vaunted track and field team, pushed, pushed, pushed, and as she said “playing with fire.” The result was her depression.

TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 31: Anna Cockrell (center) of Team United States competes against Sage Watson of Team Canada and Yadisleidis Pedroso of Team Italy in the Women's 400m Hurdles Round 1 - Heat 1 on day eight of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Olympic Stadium on July 31, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Anna Cockrell (center) of Team USA competes against Sage Watson of Team Canada and Yadisleidis Pedroso of Team Italy in the Women's 400m Hurdles Round 1 - Heat 1. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Her candor has led of course to a response that has been mostly positive, and comes with its own set of conflicting feelings.

“It’s always mixed emotions talking about it, because it is very deeply personal, and whenever I talk about it I get lot of response and that can be gratifying and difficult, because on one hand it’s nice to know that people have taken comfort in me sharing my experiences but it’s also a little bit disheartening to know that so many people are struggling,” Cockrell said. “So it’s big, complicated adult emotions I’m grappling with at the moment but the response has been overwhelmingly positive and I'm just grateful that people will want to listen, and that people have a response to it that’s mostly positive.”

In Tokyo, Cockrell has the comfort of familiarity — USC has 15 recent and former track and field athletes at these Games, including Rai Benjamin, Michael Norman, Kendall Ellis and Isaiah Jewett, all of whom were Cockrell’s teammates.

“These are the people I’m around all the time,” she said. “Isaiah and I are really close, so we’ve been processing a lot of big, complicated, lifelong dreams and emotions together, so that’s been cool, and it’s nice to not have the pressure of competing and the social pressure of not knowing anyone so that takes some of it off. It’s very comforting to have the group here.”

Asked how much she interacts with McLaughlin and Muhammad, Cockrell said those women are pretty quiet and with a smile, “usually when we interact it’s me doing all of the talking because I can’t shut up.” She noted that the three spend the bulk of their time with their respective training groups.

With her first race behind her, she turned toward what she needs to improve for the semifinals.

“Today there’s been a little too much freaking out and not as much execution, so I’m going to get that right for the next round.”

Best of Tokyo 2020 Day 9 slideshow embed
Best of Tokyo 2020 Day 9 slideshow embed

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