by Brittany Brown

There were days when I had to ask myself: is this worth it?

Days when I’d be so tired, so stressed, and worrying so much about how I’d pay rent, that the question was whether this dream was realistic.

I wanted to be a professional athlete, sure. I wanted to run at the Worlds, Olympics, but when you don’t have a sponsor, when you have to work a couple of jobs to make ends meet, it’s hard to hold on to that vision – especially when you’re not seeing results.

In college, things were a lot easier. You get that rent cheque into your account every month but after you finish, and it’s no longer there, life hits you.

I graduated from the University of Iowa in 2018 and after a bit of racing abroad that summer, I decided to return to train with my college coach in the fall. I had some support from USA Track and Field which I was – and still am – hugely grateful for, but it wasn’t enough to sustain life as a full-time athlete.

So I found what work I could. I babysat, I worked as a bus girl at a restaurant in Iowa City, and as a caregiver for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s.

The latter job may sound tough, but working there had a profound, positive impact on me. My grandmother on my Dad’s side had dementia so that, originally, was what got me into that field. 

Having that outlet balanced me. I’d come into work all stressed about my training, my races, my finances, and then watch someone in the last stage of their life, see their whole family come in and treasuring their time with them – it very quickly put things in perspective.

When I was leaving college, my career counsellor advised me not to just get any job to pay the rent while I trained, but something I could see myself working in down the line. Caregiving was just that, an outlet that served as a constant reminder that my life is not bad at all.

It was hard, yes, and I was grind mode, but that was an essential part of life as I figured out the next step.

Brittany Brown ()

Once you accept it's going to be hard to get where you want, you appreciate the opportunity you have to fulfil your potential. Yes, it sucks at times, but you have to find small things to be grateful for. If you look at the whole path – where you are versus where you want to be – you think, I may as well just stop now.

There was no such thing as a typical day.

I’d usually train in the mornings, then work at the restaurant from 5pm to 10pm, cleaning dishes or tables, running food to and from the kitchen. If I wasn’t there, I was at the home working as a caregiver.

I loved that job, and how it allowed me to listen to older people every day. At that age, they feel like they can say what they want and it’s often hilarious. I usually get along better with them because they take life slow. I may be fast on the track, but away from it I prefer it slow.

I needed that patience to get my breakthrough.

As 2019 went on, I knew I was in shape, but I simply couldn’t break my PB of 22.42. I finished second at the US Championships over 200m which got me on the plane to Doha for the World Championships, but going there I had no thoughts of a medal – I just wanted that personal best.

I was drawn on the outside lane in the heat, and when I started complaining about it my coach gave some much-needed perspective: “At least you’re not in lane one.” He was right.

I ran a PB in my heat, 22.33, and won my semi-final in 22.46. Suddenly I was a contender, which brought added pressure. When I look back at the video of the final, what stands out is how tense and nervous I looked before the race.

That’s how I felt, too, and in the warm-up area Grant Holloway came up and said, “You’re gonna be fine, it’s just another race, chill out.” He saw how nervous I was, and little comments like that can make all the difference – they ground you.

The final was a total blur. I remember nothing of it, only those moments after when I got to drape myself in the US flag. I remember thinking, Thank you, God. It’s over. I’m here and I made it. I was a world silver medallist.

Brittany Brown ()

After I did some interviews and people heard my story, I started getting a lot of messages on social media, and not only from athletes. People would tell me how they were also working multiple jobs, trying to provide for their families. You realise then just how many are in the same position – sometimes it feels like you’re the only one.

Growing up, I never dreamt of becoming a professional athlete. I didn’t even realise I was going to be any good until my third year at college. But once I saw that potential, I went after it.

After Doha I signed a professional contract with adidas, but I’ve tried to retain balance in my life for my overall wellbeing. My coach always says, “Make sure you’re doing something else, not just running” and so I try to find little projects now like volunteer work, poetry, yoga.

There is an expectation to be professional, but to be your best on the track, you have to be content away from it.

My career is built around shaving tenths of a second off my times and I'm naturally obsessed with details, but after a while I realised it’s okay to partake in things that contribute to your overall happiness, like going out with friends or having that cheat day cookie. 

Getting caught in a narrow mindset where all that matters is training can take an emotional toll and end up backfiring in your performances. I’m a sprinter, but I'm also a daughter, a sister, a friend, and lots of other things. When I talk to the college girls at Iowa, I tell them the reason I had success is that I have other outlets, whether that’s spending two hours a day talking to my Mom or doing something else to get my mind off track.

I hope they take some inspiration from my journey. I hope they see the value of resilience. When I was running 22.9 last year, I could have said it’s time to stop and move on with my life. Many athletes do.

But many also stick at it, even when the chances of being rewarded are small. I didn’t expect anything last year – all I did was prepare. Most times in life, you'll never know the outcome, you just have to become comfortable with the uncertainty. All you know when you step on that line is that you did everything in your power to prepare for that moment. 

In the end, that approach got me a world silver medal and, when I look at the year ahead, I refuse to put a cap on what I can achieve.

No matter how it goes, I hope others will see a message of hope in my story these past few years. When you keep going, it’s usually worth it.