The Question: What Will I Do Next?
Erika Pierce is, for lack of a better term, a force of nature. A natural, lifelong athlete, she makes leaping over hurdles look so easy that one would think she actually has wings. But while Erika's athletic talent and achievements are utterly awe-inspiring it is her overall approach to life - a cocktail of confidence, conviction, love, and sassy irreverence - that makes her irresistible as a friend and outstanding as a teammate. She's a wise old soul in a strong, fast (and dare I say hot) 44 year old body. We are so glad to be able to share her perspective and wisdom on the blog!
What will I do next?
This question haunted me as I packed up my bags, boarded the MARTA en route to the Atlanta airport, and realized that my dream of running in the Olympic Trials had been fulfilled.
First, a little background on me. Thirty years ago, having been cut from my high school softball team, I reluctantly went out for track as a freshman. It was not a love affair at first, in fact, I regularly opine that I didn’t choose track and field; it chose me. My collection of elementary school field day medals was evidence that I had some natural speed and that, coupled with my years of classical ballet training, pointed me in the direction of short track distances and field events. However, it was far from all sunshine and rainbows. I quit after the first week. I rejoined the team out of boredom. Long team runs often ended with me walking, faking a cramp, or scoring rides back to the track from upperclassman cruising the neighborhoods around the school. I will readily admit that I have never liked practice, however the first time I stepped into the blocks at a track meet, I fell in love with the sport. I felt eerily calm and unabashedly confident on the starting line. There is nothing like the energy of a track and field meet, and once the season got underway, these weekly fixes kept me motivated to stay on the team through my years in high school, ultimately earning a scholarship to a Division I Track Program.
I put up decent times/marks in college, but was certainly not a standout. I still thrived at the meets, but the spark was waning, and when a nagging injury my senior year would not subside, I decided to hang up my spikes for good (so I thought). I graduated and found myself in an unfulfilling desk job with an unfulfilling relationship and so I did what so many college grads do when they are unhappy in their current situation. I returned to graduate school and began to train and race again on my own terms.
I was a Heptathlete in college, but I decided to forego the complexity of that type of training and focus solely on one event: the 400 meter hurdles. I remember sitting down in 1994 with a composition notebook where I wrote my deepest thoughts, goals, and secrets and writing, “I will run in the 1996 Olympic Trials.” I had never even been at a NCAA Championship! It was a crazy dream, but I wrote it down, and I changed everything about my life to achieve it.
Those two years are a bit of a blur, but in the end, I did it. By June 1996, I was one of the top 32 in the 400 hurdles in the U.S. and I ran in the Atlanta Olympic Trials. I was so incredibly lucky to have a family and sponsor that was able to financially support my passion and, knowing that a top 3 finish just was not in the cards (especially due to the rumors of the Performance Enhancing Drug abuse in the sprinting world at the time – sound familiar?), my goal was not to make the U.S. team, but simply to make the trials. I was at the pinnacle of my athletic career.
And then it was over. I felt relieved, yet lost in a way.
Over the last few weeks, I have read the blogs and posts from the Haute Volée Qualifiers from the Marathon Trials. I have been feeling all the feelings. I read with admiration their poignant musings on how to regroup and deal with what the future may hold. These athletes are at a fork in the road in their athletic careers; I can tell you, it’s scary.
After that day in 1996 when I ran in the semi-finals of the Olympic Trials, I did not step foot on a track to compete for seventeen years.
These years were spent searching for something else to choose me – for another activity or passion to replace the void of competition. Like an addict in recovery, I replaced track first with things like wedding planning, Ph.D getting, and baby-having, all noble and greatly fulfilling endeavors. My husband, who I met one month after the Trials, did not know me as a runner. We made up our own athletic memories that included co-rec soccer and softball, the occasional pick-up basketball game with friends, and sometimes even running a local 5k. My intentions in these athletic pursuits were purely recreational and unfortunately, far from soul-satisfying.
Then, one day in 2013, track and field found me again. A friend mentioned something about Masters Track and Field and after an afternoon looking on-line at age group rankings and results from recent meets, I started training immediately. I hoped that muscle memory and basic fitness from maintaining an active lifestyle would make me competitive in my former events. I began hurdling again. And high/long jumping. I bought a shot put and I got serious about my gym membership. I slowly regained a piece of who I had been.
Returning to the sport was a little like being reunited with an old friend; we still had fond memories of each other, yet it was very clear that we had both changed significantly since our last encounter. I was a mom of two with a drastically different body, was a full-time middle school teacher, and was generally busy and stressed in ways that forty-somethings are. And the track world, which had been such an ingrained part of who I had been, seemed foreign and frightening.
I first decided that if I was going to do this, I was going to go full tilt. I would stick to a training schedule, eat right, cross-train, do core work, meditate, do yoga, and make it a priority in my life. Once again, I had the family support to embrace this disciplined lifestyle and see what my 42 year-old body could do. My children were understanding when I left the house at bedtime to run hills in the dark. My husband got the kids up and ready for school when I was lifting at the gym before work. I had an army behind me that regularly moved into position to make it all happen.
I signed up for my first meet, the 2013 Indoor National Championships, and did what I could to prepare for the Pentathlon as well as a smattering of other individual events just to get my money’s worth out of the registration fee. I was petrified, but there was a familiarity about this fear that also was motivating. I trained my ass off. When I entered the Prince George’s County Sports Complex where the meet was being held, I paused for a moment to take it all in. I felt at peace. I was reborn in a way no 25 year-old version of myself could understand.
Over the last three years as a Master’s Athlete, I have set age-group American Records, run, jumped, and thrown age-grade times and distances that put my elite performances to shame from back in the day. I have won ten National Titles in 7 different events. As I move into the W45 age group in one month, I have new goals and dreams that I have written into my Believe Journal. I feel like I have so much to say to those athletes who are coming off the high of the Olympic Trials and are, too, wondering what is next. Well, maybe nothing if that’s what you want. Or, maybe even more than you’d ever imagined. The Trials can be the end of your story, as I thought it was for me, or it can be only the beginning of a life filled with competition, goals, and achievements. It is up to you. But I hope you figure it out before seventeen years pass you by.
My story, although unique to me, is truly all of our stories. We remember our glory days fondly. We daydream in our few unscheduled minutes for fewer responsibilities and more spontaneity. We look in the mirror and watch time have its way with our bodies and faces. It is easy to fall into the trap of throwing away what is next because we are so focused on what has been. I am proud to say that I am a part of a team that embraces the Master Athlete; we are not an afterthought, but an integral part of the team’s identity and the brand’s mission. I value the support of the Oiselle community and I am overwhelmed daily by the unwavering support of my teammates. I am ready to write the rest of my story. All of you Fierce Flyers from the Trials – we anxiously await your next chapter.
When I look at my Volée Kit selfie that I posted to the Oiselle Team Facebook page, I see someone who has passionately found love with the sport again. I see an elite athlete who is at the true pinnacle of her athletic career. I see a woman who looks forward to whatever is next.
I see someone who is eerily calm and unabashedly confident.
- Erika Pierce