by Falesha Ankton
Former Regional Development Director for Gonzaga, now owner of Felite Performance
My heart was pounding intensely as I looked up at the crowd of 12,000. This feeling was all too familiar — I was the underdog yet again, and I felt all 24,000 spectators’ eyes on me. I was about to run my last collegiate 100-meter hurdle race at the NCAA Division I Track and Field Championships. In Northwest fashion, it started to rain and then we had to wait for hurdles to be set up, adding to the nervous tension. In those few minutes I thought back to my last race as a high schooler at the California State Meet. I was the underdog then, not expected to win, about to run in front of a crowd of 5,000, and nerves had overtaken me.
I ran off with the lead, only to hit the last hurdle and take the longest fall in history. (I could hear the spectators’ collective “Ohhhhhhhhh.”) By this point in my career I had perfected my fall; I did a tuck-and-roll to prevent my face from getting bruised. My arm was cut up, pieces of the lovely track all over me, leaving scars that still remind me of that epic fall.
You can imagine my feeling of defeat, disappointment, embarrassment. Tripping in front of one person would have been bad enough, but 5,000?
That day, I learned how to deal with failure, how to bounce back from life’s obstacles.
Five years later, I was in a similar situation. The gun went off on that rainy day in June and I was in lane one — the designated one for the slowest entering ti me. They might as well put “won’t win” on my back. I shocked everyone that day. I ran the fastest race of my life, I became the second-fastest hurdler in school history, ninth-fastest collegiate runner that year, and — one of my proudest accomplishments to date — I became an All-American.
In that moment, everything came full circle: my whole track career I had been preparing for this moment. I looked up at the clock and saw my name and time, and I dropped to my knees, overcome with emotion. (Until the official grabbed me and told me it was ti me to exit the track. Didn’t he know I was having a moment?)
The beginning of my story started my sophomore year in high school when my track coach suggested I try the 100-meter hurdles, an event that frightened many track athletes. At first I was not thrilled, but aft er many face-plants, I learned to love this event and eventually learned to apply facing fears of hurdling to my everyday life.
Like most individuals, I wanted the easiest event with the least room for error, such as the 100m or 200m sprints. Aft er a few practices I was pretty frustrated; I wanted to find the individual who invented the 100m hurdle race and ask him what was he thinking to add 10 hurdles to an already fast race. (And am I just as crazy as he is for agreeing to run this race?)
Becoming a hurdler meant higher emphasis on form and technique, like foot quickness and mental sharpness, toughness and determination. Eventually, I came to recognize those as the skills that shaped me into the woman I am today.
Life is much like hurdling — whether in relationships or projects assigned, you want the smoothest route without obstacles. Although we don’t enjoy roadblocks, they foster necessary experiences that teach adapting to the surroundings. We all tend to have a “flight or fight” mindset of when facets of life become challenging. Running hurdles allowed me to always fight — to address the issue and find alternatives and solutions. I could have easily quit the first ti me I face-planted, but I got up each ti me and attacked the hurdle with even more grit than the time before.
Rejections are not symptoms of defeat, but tools for evaluation and redirection. Aft er a series of races with falls and walking off the track questioning why I continued to run, I rethought my approach. I had been focused on all the wrong things. The next few meets consisted of only sprinting and prioritizing my speed, which enabled fresh legs for a new personal best time when returning to hurdles.
This happens frequently in life: A boss doesn’t approve your work, a partner thinks your ideas are less than brilliant. You can either feel rejected or use the feedback, reevaluate and alter the approach to come up with a viable solution.
The next time you’re knocked down by an obstacle, remember you haven’t truly been defeated unless you fail to get up again. Challenge yourself to use life’s setbacks as fuel. It took me seven years to have the race of my life, but I wouldn’t have been successful if I hadn’t continued to rise after every fall.
Originally published in the Winter 2016 issue of Gonzaga Magazine