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At the height of the pandemic last year, the reigning world champion in the 100-meter hurdles began to lose faith that the postponed Tokyo Olympics would ever take place.
Nia Ali struggled to envision the world returning to normal in time to allow tens of thousands of athletes to safely convene this summer.
COVID numbers were soaring across the globe. The race to develop a vaccine had just begun. Some of America’s most prominent Olympians couldn’t access their usual training centers, so they ran sprints on neighborhood streets, sparred in empty department stores or swam laps in backyard pools.
It was against that backdrop of uncertainty that Ali, 32, decided she could no longer put her life on hold for a precarious Olympics. She and her partner, Canadian sprinter Andre De Grasse, agreed to try for a third child, even if the timing of a pregnancy meant sacrificing Ali’s hopes of chasing Olympic gold in Tokyo.
“I thought it was a gamble worth taking,” Ali told Yahoo Sports. “At that time, I wasn’t really confident that the Olympics would move forward this year. I didn’t even see it as a 50-50 chance, honestly. I really didn’t think it was going to happen.”
Of course, the Tokyo Olympics will happen later this summer — and they will happen without Ali. As the rest of American track and field’s top stars try to qualify for the Games at this week’s U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, Ali is watching from home in Jacksonville alongside her 5-week-old son.
Ali’s absence invites the question: Does she have any second thoughts? Has she experienced even a tinge of regret, considering she’d be among the leading contenders not only to make it to Tokyo in the 100 hurdles but also to bring home a gold medal?
Emphatically, Ali insists the answer is no. She says she’s at peace with her choice. Ali is looking forward to enjoying time with her newborn son and the rest of her family the next few months. Then she’ll return to the track on a mission to drive home the message that has become her mantra over the course of a decorated hurdles career.
“I want people to understand you can balance track and motherhood,” Ali says. “Having a baby doesn’t have to hold you back from achieving your goals.”
'This is career suicide'
Nia Ali still bears the scars from the first time she revealed she was pregnant.
She drew a mixture of surprise, skepticism and derision six years ago when she chose to have her first child just as her professional career was beginning to blossom.
Nike found out and docked her pay for sitting out the 2015 outdoor season. The response from fellow athletes was even more disheartening.
“It was like, ‘This is career suicide. What are you doing? You’re just taking off!’ Ali recalled. “Some people even asked me, ‘Does this mean you’re done with track?’ I was like, ‘Why do I have to be done with track. It was so bizarre. It was almost like people thought it was over for me.”
Anyone who questioned if Ali could regain her previous form after childbirth underestimated the toughness and tenacity of the Pennsylvania native. This was someone who in high school told prominent college track and field coaches, “You don’t know me now, but you will. I plan to win nationals in hurdles and I want to come to your school.” And this was someone who followed through on that promise despite a horrific family tragedy.
In April 2009, when Ali was a student at USC, her father shot a woman he was involved with, then turned the gun on himself. For awhile, the grief overwhelmed Ali, but she refocused on her sport and her studies in time to capture the 2011 NCAA 100-meter hurdles title.
“If I say I’m going to do something, I want to mean it,” Ali said.
That same mentality led Ali to speak out against her critics and silence them after her eldest son Titus was born. Balancing training with late-night feedings and diaper changes, an exhausted yet determined Ali produced the best year of her career.
Ten months postpartum, Ali edged fellow American Brianna Williams to win the 60-meter hurdles at the 2016 World Indoor Championships. Only a few months later, Ali qualified for her first Olympics and then secured a silver medal in Rio de Janeiro as part of a 1-2-3 American sweep.
As Ali circled the track with an American flag draped over her shoulders after that race, she scooped up 15th-month-old Titus and allowed him to run alongside her and pose for pictures. It was a viral moment — and a symbolic one.
“It was really special just being able to quiet the haters and prove to myself that having a baby wasn’t going to hold me back,” Ali said. “It reinforced that what I’m saying, the message that I’m putting out there, is true.”
Further reinforcement arrived a few years later when Ali gave birth to her daughter Yuri and then once again came back stronger than ever. Ali capped a superb 2019 season by outrunning a strong 100-meter hurdles field at the World Championships in Doha.
The motivation for Ali’s victory once again was her eldest son. Before that race, Titus told everyone he encountered that his mom was going to invite him down to the track to join in another victory lap.
“I was like, ‘Whoa, slow down,’” Ali recalled with a laugh. “‘You know I have to actually get on the podium for you to get down to the track?”
From Olympic dreams to 'phantom hurdling'
Having won the 100-meter hurdles at the previous year’s World Championships, Ali began preparation for an Olympic year with confidence and enthusiasm.
“Tokyo honestly has always been on my bucket list to visit,” Ali said, “so I was super excited.”
Then she learned about COVID-19 while at a meet overseas.
Then the virus reached U.S. soil.
Then pro sports began shutting down and the country entered shelter-at-home lockdown.
Suddenly Ali and her training partners in Jacksonville found themselves scrambling to find somewhere to work out. The track where they usually trained was closed to the public. They would sometimes even get kicked out of city parks in the area.
When Ali and her coach did find a flat patch of grass on which to train in spring 2020, they often had no real hurdles at their disposal. Ali instead would do what they called “phantom hurdling,” leaping over an imaginary barrier every eight steps to the amusement of passers-by.
“My teammates would laugh at me,” Ali recalled with a chuckle. “People would be looking like what is she doing? Is she OK?”
The postponement of the Olympics from July 2020 to July 2021 eased the urgency of Ali’s training but not her mental anguish. Part of her lamented that she had been at peak fitness when the pandemic struck. Part of her questioned whether the new timetable for the Olympics was realistic given the spread of the virus.
After she and De Grasse decided the timing was right to try to have another baby, Ali braced for an onslaught of negativity. After all, the first two times that she had revealed she was pregnant, other people acted like it was a deathblow to her career as an elite athlete.
Much to Ali’s surprise, the response this time was very different. Nike expressed support by inviting her to appear in a commercial supporting athlete mothers. Fellow athletes asked if she planned to try to compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials even after learning that her due date was only a handful of weeks beforehand.
“It’s funny because it completely reversed on me,” Ali said. “It went from people having no faith in me at all to thinking I can have a baby in May and make it back by June.”
Ali believes the change is a product of more than just her own success after childbirth. It’s also the outcome of high-profile female athletes like Serena Williams, Allyson Felix, Alex Morgan and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce being outspoken about having children at the height of their careers and demonstrating that it’s possible to remain atop their sports afterward.
“The attitude today is night and day from what I experienced in 2015,” Ali said. “Night and day.”
It’s Ali’s goal to show in the coming years what a mother of three can accomplish on the track. She says she doesn’t feel 32. She feels like she can keep competing at least through the 2024 Olympics in Paris, if not longer.
Not long ago, Ali ordered a few hurdles. She intends to set them up at the field next to her home so she can ease back into some light training. Just because she’ll be absent from this summer’s Olympics doesn’t mean Ali is even close to ready to hang up her spikes.
“I’m really excited for these next three years and I do plan to compete,” she said. “I’m going to go after some new goals and try to keep getting better.”
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