Olympic bronze medalist Ashley Spencer talks about the exceptional mentality that she uses to conquer life's hurdles
"The race is only over one of two ways: when you cross the finish line, or when you quit."
Ashley Spencer used that sentence to summarize the mentality that allowed her to win the bronze medal in the Women's 400m hurdles at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. That same quote serves as a testament to the perseverance and mental toughness she's employed to overcome the many obstacles that she faced along her journey as a collegiate and professional athlete.
Ashley is a 23 year old Indianapolis native who loves Yolanda Adams, Walt Whitman, and Anita Baker. She occasionally gets active on Instagram Live in her free time, and makes it clear that she's absolutely terrible at getting the right ratio of powder and sugar in her Kool Aid. It's easy to overlook seemingly minor details such as this when talking to a world class athlete, but these are important details that reinforce the fact that exceptional people are still people, just like the rest of us. They just have consistently exceptional work ethic that many of us can't fathom.
Ashley's wasn't a favorite to be on an Olympic podium every step of the way. After winning two NCAA 400-meter titles at Illinois, she struggled through two injury-plagued seasons at Texas. She was devastated by the loss of her late grandmother, Joyce Smith Campbell, in March 2014. Her grandmother had been the one who encouraged her to get involved in track in the first place. The wish of Campbell, Ashley's "Nana," was to see her daughter in the Olympics.
Her Nana's dreams were actualized in 2016, but Ashley's path to success was anything but picture perfect. In her preliminary heat, Ashley took the lead after the eighth of ten hurdles, but clipped the ninth hurdle and fell back to ninth place. She still managed to regain focus and sprint to reclaim the lead by fractions of a second, which allowed her to qualify for the finals. In the finals, Ashley got off to another relatively slow start, but managed to surge to the finish line once more, passing world champion Zuzanna Hejnova of the Czech Republic to claim her bronze medal and go down forever in history.
Check out the video of her come from behind preliminary victory in the video below.
Ashley's story is amazing, and the conversation I had with Ashley about her mentality, experiences, and plans for the future is very inspirational for those of us seeking to achieve exceptional results, even if those results don't involve an Olympic podium.
What's your focus for this year, in the wake of your Olympic success?
I've been training hard for the World Championships. People think that Olympian athletes only compete every four years, which is absolutely ridiculous. We're currently focused on the World Championships, which are particularly competitive the year after the Olympics. A lot of people are coming in with tons of momentum after the games, and those who didn't make the cut are coming in with a chip on their shoulders. I didn't make the World Championship team the year before the Olympics, so the pressure is on.
When we first connected, one of the first things I saw is that you have the perfect Twitter/Instagram handle, @TheTrackQueen. That was before you went to Rio. When did you pick the name?
I picked it when I moved to Texas, when I won my second national title. I was actually really surprised that it was available. I thought somebody would have beat me to the punch. That was in 2013. I grabbed it as soon as I realized I could.
When that happened, did you think you were going to be an Olympian?
Being an Olympian has always been the goal. I didn’t think that far ahead when I picked the name, because each year has different championships over the summer. I did think that, given my progression, it made sense to expect that I would reach that level. It worked out well for me.
Do you have plans to turn @TheTrackQueen into a brand?
I do have plans for my brand. I’m working towards tackling a few different outlets. It’s still very early in the game. I’m not where I want to be yet in terms of popularity, but this is my first full year of being a professional athlete. When I have a big enough fanbase, I definitely intend to release merchandise. T-shirts
We just need Fetty Wap on a “Trap Queen/Track Queen” remix, so you can flourish.
I’m saying? We LITERALLY need to get him on the track. That was so cheesy. Don’t judge me.
I’ll give you a pass. That being said, can you sing?
I wouldn’t say I’m a Whitney Houston or a Jennifer Hudson, but I can hold a note. Don’t ask me to sing. Maybe later. Like, later in life. Or never.
What’s professional athlete twitter like? Do you fry each other over bad dietary choices or have $200 spikes debates?
I'm active on social media. I don't really follow a lot of people on my social media, mostly because a lot of people on social media are very young. I've also always set boundaries. Social media is social, but I don't follow a lot of people because there are a lot of things I'd rather not see. I do interact with a lot of other athletes, simply because I am an athlete.
I'm not on Twitter a lot. If I am on Twitter I just scroll. I used to be very dedicated to Snapchat. I'm mostly on Instagram right now. That's my favorite social media. I only follow like 300 people on there. Very rarely do I follow back, and it's terrible. But I was doing the followback thing for a while. The problem is, people just post anything on there, and I need to stay focused. I've been doing Instagram Live pretty frequently. It gives people a perspective of me they don't see unless they're with me, and I get a lot of good feedback from it. I get encouraged to start my own YouTube channel, because the stories I tell are funny. Apparently, they're funny. I don't think they're funny.
I think you're funny by accident because you get right to the point.
Yeah, it's a different side of me than people expect. There's a lot of things that people take for granted when talking to athletes. A lot of people ask things you can find on the internet. I encourage people to ask personal questions, about things outside of athletics. One of the favorite questions I was asked was about my favorite meal to cook. I actually want to invest in a restaurant. I love things like this.
My mom always makes fun of me because I can't make simple meals. I can't make Kool Aid. I can't get the right ratio of water and sugar. I don't know why, but I just can't do it.
So you can train seven to eight hours per day, but you can't put Kool Aid powder and sugar in water?
Yeah, I don't know why. It's always too watery, or too sugary.
That should be your first YouTube video. The Kool Aid Struggle Chronicles.
I swear. Let my mom tell it, I just don't have the ability to do it. I thought about making a YouTube channel. Maybe I'll do it this year.
How would you describe the lifestyle of a professional athlete? Is it as cool as it seems?
It’s different than you think. We’re mostly focused on our training. We don’t spend much time on social media at all. Being a professional athlete is hard and incredibly time consuming. A lot of people see the glitz and glamour, but people don’t see the 12 or 14 hour spent on a plane traveling to the opposite side of the world to run one event. People don’t see us being in the middle of nowhere type cities, and not being able to find anything good to eat.
It’s a really rough lifestyle that we live. We are a really big family. We compete against each other, but we have such a feeling of closeness within the sport that we can respect each other for what we do on the track and support each other off the track. It’s fun. I wouldn’t change my job for anything in the world. I always told myself that one day I’d be able to travel to the countries I saw in geography class as a kid. I didn’t think it would be this soon. At the age of 23 I’ve traveled to 15 different countries and seen the world’s most beautiful cities. That’s my job.
Truly amazing, and well deserved. Have you ever wanted to quit, or not train as hard as you do?
Absolutely. Being an athlete in general is mentally exhausting and physically exhausting. All you want to do is turn your phone off, close the door, and escape. You reach that level of defeat. You might not have a good race. Maybe your travel day didn’t go as planned, or they lose your bag. It happens often, but it’s never prevented me from going to practice or going to race.
My grandma passed away in 2014, and she was the one who pushed me to become an athlete and dream of becoming an Olympian. At my lowest point, I was in my closet and crying because she was no longer in my life. Despite that, and my injuries, I still picked myself up and went to practice, because I know how I wanted my life to be and what I wanted to do. I knew I couldn’t accomplish that while sitting in my closet crying. You’ll always have those points of weakness, but you just have to ask God for strength to get you through it. God didn’t bring you to your lowest points to leave you there.
Have any songs helped you get through those tough times?
I have a couple. As far as gospel, I love “Open Up My Heart” by Yolanda Adams. Also “How Excellent,” the Walt Whitman version. My favorite song is "365" by Anita Baker. My grandma shared that song with me. Anita Baker has to be my aunt, I swear she was part of my family tree at some point.
What are the biggest distractions you consistently face as you push yourself to stay focused?
I have friends who don’t work out and aren’t sore on a daily basis. Track and field is a 24 hour a day job. You get out of it whatever you put inside of it. I’m constantly training, thinking about training, or watching film and bettering myself. There are times when friends are taking trips and going out over the weekend, and I can’t go with them because of practice. I get a bit jealous. I like entertaining and having fun with my friends. When your friends are tweeting about waking up at 11, but you’ve already been up for 6 hours, it gets annoying. You just want to tell them to shut up.
How do you tune out the distractions?
I make it known that I have to train, and I need that time. Over the years, I've lost some friends because I don't put my friends before what I want to do - my training. It's sad, but necessary. The friends that I do have get it. -One's in law school, one's going to be a physical therapist, one's in nursing school. They all understand that I'm training from 10AM until 4PM. So they expect me to train, eat, and rest. After I've done that, then maybe we can meet up. They understand. I surround myself with people who understand what I'm doing and respect what I'm trying to do. My friends are still encouraging and supportive.
I constantly remind myself that I'm still young, and there are a lot more things that I want to accomplish. Being an Olympic bronze medalist is fantastic, but now I want to be a gold medalist and break the world record. Now I want to go to cities I've never been to and go to track meets that are exclusive to certain people. There are always more things to accomplish. Maybe in 2021 after Tokyo, I'll take up a new event, like the 200. Not saying that I will, but there are options. I've discussed it a lot with my coach.
My Nana encouraged me to start running track. She passed away in 2014. I don't do this just because I want to do this. I run in memory of her. She always told me to do what I love for as long as I can. She was a cosmetologist, and she did hair up until a month before she passed, even going through chemotherapy. I always carry that with me. A lot of things keep me motivated. There's a lifestyle that I want to live. Things I grew up having that I can have now.
Was life before Rio drastically different than life after Rio?
Yes. Absolutely. I was injured for two whole years before I moved to Texas. I was kind of pushed to the wayside. People wrote me off. I guess you could say that I lost my fan base. I lost a lot of confidence in myself. I wondered if I was as talented as I thought I was. I battled myself a lot, mentally. I signed to Nike in 2015, but I didn’t make the 2015 world team. After Rio, I really regained confidence in myself as an athlete and as a woman. I’ve buried myself in doing things that make me happy, as opposed to other people. I realized that after my Nana passed away that I was very unhappy.
I started taking time out for myself more. Spending time with “me.” I’ve gained a lot of support living in parts of the world that I didn’t even know existed. I’ve been getting sponsorships, and I’ve been asked to speak at different events. It’s been a blessing I actually came from an event back home in Indy where I spoke to 3200 third graders on the importance of reading. My nephew and my cousin are both in the third grade, so just to see them be inspired by me is amazing. I’m just Ashley Spencer from Indiana. Seeing children be inspired by me has really changed me. I want to be the best role model I can possibly be, not only for my nephews, but also for as many people as possible.
Was Rio what you expected, overall?
No, no, no. Definitely not. Absolutely not. Where do I even start?
Let’s start with the most surprising things.
Everyone was saying we shouldn’t be in Rio because of zika. There was a big uproar over that, a month before the Olympic Games. Everyone said where we were staying would be terrible, and that the rooms were unfinished. Prior to our arrival in Rio, another team that was processing gave us a backpack full of Off and told us that we need to spray ourselves down constantly.
I was in Rio for 23 days, and I didn’t get bitten by a single mosquito. We trained on the Brazilian naval base, which is right by the water where they did the sailing competition. It’s mosquito paradise. I didn’t get bitten a single time. When we arrived to the Olympic village where all the athletes stayed, we were greeted by the Brazilian army. They had machine guns and patrolled around the village 24/7, which was kind of intimidating. Especially because there were a lot of people guarding building 19, which is where team USA stayed.
What was the coolest thing that happened to you in Rio?
I got to meet a lot of the athletes. The basketball players. Deandre Jordan. Kevin Durant. All of them. The coolest moment might have been the Nike house. Each shoe company had a hospitality area set up, and the Nike house was on a golf course. It was so beautiful. They allowed our families to come in. They had food, and gear for the athletes. They had special pins. We got pins for our country and could trade them with people from other countries. And Nike had their own exclusive pins.
By winning an Olympic medal, you've achieved the one thing that every high school track athlete dreamed of. Do you have any advice for other people seeking to achieve one-in-a-million accomplishments?
A lot of people want to be Olympic athletes. Even more want to be Olympic champions, but they don't have the work ethic. That's just not how it goes. For you to say that you want to work at a retail shop but not put in an application doesn't make sense. It takes time, effort, and dedication. It's hard. Not many people can say they went to the Olympic games, and even fewer can say they made the podium. Even fewer can say they made the podium individually. I did that because I dedicated myself to the countless hours of training and in the training room.
I was injured for two years. It's mentally exhausting. It's not for the people who are easily distracted. You have to put a lot of things on the back burner. Over the years I've seen a lot of athletes who come out number one in their state, or even number one in the country. They get to college and it's a huge distraction. They're on their own, and they make new friends, and see all these athletes from other cities. When they come home, instead of training they're seeing their friends. There's no dedication.
Long story short, if you have the dream you have to put in the effort. It's a lifestyle change. You have to dedicate your life to being an athlete. Your day should be planned around being an athlete. Yesterday I spent even hours training. Went to the track and ran. Cooled down and lifted. Went to the training room. It's a job, and it never stops.
Be sure to follow Ashley's life, training and Kool Aid struggles on Instagram and Twitter.