This fall, we challenged our athletes to reflect on their core: how did they arrive where they are now, and how will those experiences prepare them for the challenges of an Olympic year? We would like to introduce Ari Hendrix, one of our Underbird marathon runners.

Ari's journey is one of determination and resilience—transforming her setbacks into stepping stones, evolving from an elite point guard to a marathoner, and ultimately setting her sights on the Olympic Trials. Thank you Ari for your vulnerable and compelling story about the healing and transformative power of running.

I can still picture my early running memories with my dad so clearly. As a little girl, it brought so much joy to both of us. My dad always thought I was going to be a track star. He would take me out in front of our house, and he would have me race as fast as I could to the stop sign. I can still picture his trusty-favored Rolex on his wrist, timing me running down the street. It brings a smile to my face now thinking of it. Never would I have imagined that those moments would bring me to where I am today, and be what catapulted my journey in running.

I was always very athletic and played multiple sports. My dad was always there to support me, whether it was being the only girl on the flag football team, or being the only girl in the boys league for youth basketball. I played it all. And the one thing that never changed was that I was fast. That's what everyone would say - I could sprint and run so fast that the boys had a hard time keeping up. The sport that I excelled at though was basketball. My love for the game was unmatched, and as a 5th grader, I knew it was what I wanted to do. I took a basketball with me to school every day so that I could play at recess, and I’d bring it home and play with my brother in the front yard or shoot around by myself. I would watch all the games on TV, I was obsessed. I had an amazing family that truly believed in my ability. My dad would take me to tournaments and film my games. We would then go home and watch them back and try to learn things about what I could do better (these were camcorder days!) From an early age, I was serious and I wanted to be the best I could be. I knew I wanted to be a professional basketball player and that was it.

I played on several of the top club basketball teams in Southern California and traveled all over to play and get coached and for schools to scout me. I did this throughout middle school, even as my home life changed dramatically. My dad was more absent and not as involved, as he developed a substance addiction. My mom is a backup singer and at the time she was touring with Tom Jones. I still had all of these practices to get to and somehow my mom still made it happen for me. She and my coaches worked out a schedule so that someone would come to pick me up and get me to practice and home while she was on tour. Practice was a 30-45 min drive from where we lived. And they made that happen for me. As a kid, I appreciated it, but now as an adult, it really touches me and means so much that they all worked together to make that happen, they all believed in me that much.

My parents got divorced during my freshman year of high school and we moved from Ojai to Ventura. That was the last year I would see or hear from my dad. I always wondered if he ever came to a game or kept up with my career. I would later learn that he did. He knew I made it to playing basketball in college, he knew, and I will always hope he was proud of me. I like to think he was.

The move to Ventura moved us into the Ventura High School District. Ventura was a basketball powerhouse in the state of California - Coach Ann Larson is one of the greatest high school coaches for girls basketball. My years in Ventura I learned so much about the game and grew to love it even more. One of the biggest moments in my high school career was in the California State playoffs against Long Beach Poly, the 4th ranked high school team in the country at the time - and I hit a game-winning shot at the buzzer! Until around this time in high school, my mom lived in Las Vegas because she was working with Tom Jones, and most of the year they were performing there. I’d asked if I could stay in California and live with my older sister to be able to finish high school at Ventura and continue to play with my basketball team. I had established myself there as a player and some of my best friends were on the team. My team, my coaches, my friends, and basketball all made Ventura home.

I visited several colleges my senior year and decided I would attend a junior college for 2 years before transferring. My time at Santa Barbara City College was fantastic, and I became one of the top point guards at the Junior College level in California. I was recruited and offered a full scholarship to attend the University of North Carolina Pembroke. I visited UNCP and thought it would be a great fit, the staff there saw a lot of potential in me and thought I could make an impact on the team immediately. I learned early to go with my gut—if I feel moved in some way or feel like something is the right thing for me, to trust that. Sometimes it’s harder than others but there have been several big decisions in my life that I’ve made this way.

I would say early on in my time at UNCP I knew it was not the right fit for me. It was far from home, and I found that really hard. I was not playing as much as I thought I would. I put in extra time in practice and practiced on my own, but it just wasn’t the right fit. Before the season ended, I knew I would not be returning for my senior year. The head coach at Minot State found out I was looking to transfer and reached out to me! And so I decided to move to Minot, North Dakota. I’d never been to North Dakota and was warned it would be very cold, but I needed a change. I think this was not only one of the biggest decisions I would make in life, but one of the best and most impactful decisions I would ever make.

Immediately from the pre-season, I knew this was where I was meant to be: my teammates were great, and I was coached by the amazing Sheila Green-Gerding. The season began and in my first game I broke the school record for most assists in a game. The season was off to a great start! I felt settled in my life, happy with my decisions, and surrounded by wonderful people. And then came the day that is still so clear and sharp in my mind. Right before our second game, I got the call that my dad had committed suicide. I was shocked. I flew home and spent time with my family in California. Writing this now, I immediately feel all of the emotions of that day. My teammates and coaches were amazing and so understanding. They helped me through the first shock waves of this news.

After I returned to school, I decided to dedicate my senior year to my dad. To play for something bigger. I was so focused and determined to honor him. I was an All-American that year, one of the top point guards in the country at the NAIA level.

After the season I was offered an opportunity to try out for several overseas teams at a camp. I was so excited. This is what I had worked my whole life for! I continued training after the season was over to be ready for the tryouts. I flew to New Hampshire where the combine was, hopeful and determined to prove myself.

After two days at the combine, I was not offered a contract with any team. I was disappointed. I didn’t know what to do. I still hadn’t completed my undergrad, my dad was gone, and my basketball dreams felt like they were over. To be honest this would be the first time I dealt with depression. I lost a lot of weight and the people in my life were concerned. I was frustrated, sad, and lost. My dream that I had worked my whole life for did not work. And that was my plan, my plan was to play basketball.

I enrolled at Cal State LA and started taking classes while working a part-time job. About 8 months later, my college coach Sheila Green-Gerding called me. She had heard I wasn’t doing well and wanted to know if I wanted to come back to Minot and be a student assistant coach, and then after getting my degree stay on and go to grad school and be a graduate assistant coach. I jumped at the opportunity and said yes. And back to Minot, North Dakota I went.

It was as soon as I got back to Minot that I started running. I knew I needed to focus on something and find something to fill the void of basketball. I thought of my dad. and I thought of our times running out in front of our house, how he always thought I was so fast.

So I started running, most days alone on the treadmill in the staff gym at the college. I would get up at 4am and head to the gym. At the time I was going to school, coaching, and I had a part-time job in the evenings at a restaurant in town. I knew though that I wanted to have a goal. I wanted to run for my dad but I wanted to work towards something, so I decided I wanted to run the marathon. It was the longest distance I was aware of and seemed like it would be hard but something that I could do. So in January 2012, I signed up for the Bismarck Marathon and I got to training. I followed a plan I found online and hoped for the best. My goal for the race was to not walk. The training was different, every run I did was the longest run I had ever done. Bismarck was not far from Minot, so I drove down the night before. I was nervous because I had never run this far. The race was so tough and incredibly hard. But I stuck to my goal: I just wanted to not walk and finish. And I did both of those things! I finished in 3:57 minutes. I had done it! I was so happy and excited. The bug was planted! This is what I wanted to do.

From there I started trying to reach new goals in the marathon. Next was to qualify for the Boston Marathon. In my second marathon I did that, and then a year after running my first marathon in Bismarck, I went back to run it again and ran 3:15 and won the race!

I love running. It’s what sets me free and makes me feel alive. It saves me from myself. It helps with my depression and anxiety that I still deal with today. I have met so many people through running. And I am so thankful for it. I’m so thankful my dad believed in me and showed me the joy that running can bring.

I wish my dad could see me today, to see the things I have done in running.

When I first started I never imagined I would qualify for the Olympic Trials. I went from a 3:57 marathon to a 2:35! I have so many people to thank for that, so many people who stood in my corner, even when my corner was dark and hard. It's been a journey. A good one, and one that I cannot wait to continue. I think of my dad and me as a kid on the corner now, those two out there having fun, laughing and having a good time. It brings a smile to my face. It makes me remember my “why I run”. Those are some of my most special memories and I take them with me to every startline. And when I stand on the startline of the Olympic Trials, I will picture that and I know my dad will be smiling just as big as I will.

Not only did Ari bring down her marathon time from 3:57 to 2:35, but she is currently the 3rd fastest US-born African American woman in the marathon! Ari’s resilience is undeniable and her progression in the marathon is awe-inspiring. We are thrilled to have her on our Underbird Team and can’t wait to follow her journey to the Olympic Trials startline.

You can follow Ari on Instagram and Strava. Meet the whole Underbird team here. Look out for their stories in coming weeks.

October 14, 2023 — Ari Hendrix

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