Donavan Brazier competes at the IAAF World Championships London 2017 (© Getty Images)
As an athlete you often get this question: what’s your biggest accomplishment to date?
My biggest accomplishment? It sounds kind of stupid, but in fourth grade I won a writing contest. Ok, maybe not the answer you expected, but bear with me.
I was always this really stupid kid in elementary school – I don’t know how I got that role, but I was just The Stupid Kid. I never really did anything right, got bad grades, was fooling around. So in fourth grade we had this writing competition. It was about Martin Luther King Jr and Black History Month and I told myself, for once, I was going to really try my hardest in this competition. I thought “I betcha, if I just really settle down and think about it, I can probably be really good at something.”
Growing up, Muhammad Ali was my biggest idol and he still is to this day. I know for a lot of people he’s an idol from an athletic standpoint, but for me it’s not just that. I see a lot of great athletes, but Muhammad Ali – like Martin Luther King Jr – was different, especially for his time.
The sacrifices he made for the sport, not serving in the military in the Vietnam War because he thought it was wrong to serve a country where they wouldn’t even serve him at a bar or where he was made to sit at the back of the bus. The stances he took on public issues were so important, and I thought even at a very young age that that was really cool.
A lot of black people at that time didn’t realise their self-worth. A lot of people wouldn’t say “I’m great” or “I’m gonna be something great”. But Muhammad Ali did. He was an advocate. He just screamed “I am the greatest. I know where I’m going. I know my life’s purpose.” He gave confidence to so many others that followed – the Tommie Smiths, the John Carloses. So the topic for the writing contest struck a chord.
When I was younger, unsurprisingly, I always wanted to get into boxing. The problem was, I didn’t want to go through all the pain of boxing. I know there’s two types of pain – there’s physical pain of being punched in the face and then there’s the mental pain of pushing your body in other ways. I’m more of a mental pain kinda guy.
The writing contest got me thinking that if I put all my energy in doing something, I can be good. All these other kids are doing great things, so why can’t I do it?
I remember, I wrote my paper in his eyes, speaking from a first-person point of view: Martin Luther King’s dreams – as told by a fourth grader. I wrote about the impact he had on the black community, the sacrifices he made, his vision.
Turns out, things do work out when you try. I won the competition out of like 100 other students. It showed me, damn, if I really put my energy into doing something, I can actually do it.
Similarly, I was never really fast, track was just a social thing to do in school. All my friends did it. In middle school I was the worst leg of the 4x8, I was terrible. I was running 2:30s – the girls were beating me.
In high school I still didn’t do anything great academically. I never got the best GPA and there was no way I could afford to pay my way through college, so my options felt limited. I was still running in school and I actually started getting better. Eventually I became good enough at running that I thought “maybe, if I train really hard, I can get a scholarship somewhere.” Once I came to that realisation, I was back in fourth grade writing competition mode.
I decided I’d try and get as good as I could at track and get myself that scholarship. You still have to do decently at school, obviously, but you don’t have to be as good at school if you’re good at sports. And I had a reason again to try my hardest.
I got my scholarship, went to Texas A&M. I never thought I was done achieving things, but when I got to college I thought “wow, I really made it.” I was doing alright in college and I started thinking “damn, I want to run professionally now.” And once I went professional, I went “dang, I might be able to compete with the best in the world.”
Still, I keep on trying to raise my level. I have high expectations for myself now – a lot more than I did at a younger level. I never grew up thinking I was going to be a professional athlete. But gradually I realised I had as much of a right to follow a dream as anyone else.
That writing competition is a great reminder of what you can achieve when you have a legitimate reason – a dream – and sometimes I have to remind myself of it.
Sadly, I don’t think I saved the paper. I wish I did.