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Olympian Mechelle Lewis Freeman

When an injury sidetracked her running career at the University of South ­Carolina, Mechelle Lewis ­Freeman wasted no time launching her plan B. She set her sights on a master’s degree in marketing and communications and imagined herself settled in a corner office of a New York City advertising agency.

Two weeks into an unpaid practicum, however, her plan B threatened to unravel. She’d moved to the city for the internship and was planning her wedding when the engagement was suddenly called off.

Rather than leave New York brokenhearted and empty-handed, Freeman found a way to make her plan work. She moved in with a coworker, completed the internship, graduated, and was offered a position with the firm. All in three months. None of it was easy.

June 2023 cover of Experience Life with Mechelle Lewis Freeman running on beach“It was a time of pure isolation,” she recalls, noting that the lessons she’d learned from her parents — move from a foundation of faith, get clear on her values, hold herself accountable to her vision — guided her through the period. “That was a time of understanding myself and coming into my power,” she adds.

As her sense of self became clearer, plan A reappeared.

Freeman’s college track-and-field teammates had continued to compete and were qualifying for world championship teams; some had made the 2004 Olympic team. At that point, it had been four years since she’d run competitively. But she’d been considering it again, so she started training. Soon she saw her athletic dreams hadn’t died after all.

“I realized if I wanted to make the Olympic team, I had to 100 percent commit to that vision,” she says. So, Freeman chose to chase her dream.

In 2007, she won gold at the world championships in Osaka, Japan, and took home two silver medals from the Pan American Games — momentum that helped her secure a spot on the women’s track-and-field team for the 2008 Olympics.

After retiring from competition in 2010 and returning briefly to the advertising world, Freeman refocused her career — now to support new generations of athletes. She founded TrackGirlz, a national nonprofit that provides access to track and field to middle- and high-school girls. She is head women’s relay coach for USA Track and Field. She leads trainings for Ultra Fit, Life Time’s performance-focused group training program, teaching fellow coaches the science of moving optimally, so they, in turn, can coach others. And in her work with the Life Time Foundation, she’s helped pilot the launch of movement programs for schools.

For Freeman, this all adds up to helping as many people as possible discover their own power and potential.

Q&A With Mechelle Lewis FreemanMechelle Freeman

Experience Life | After the 2008 Olympics, you shifted your focus from your own dreams to those of others. What inspires you to lead women and create opportunities for girls through track and field?

Mechelle Lewis Freeman | When I was growing up, my mom always did everything she could to make sure my sister and I had access to opportunities. So, when USA Track and Field called me about coaching after I retired, for me it was, OK, what can I do to be an example now? My focus shifted from myself to what I’m creating for others, what I’m leaving behind.

With TrackGirlz, which I founded the same year I started coaching, I started to think about how middle- and high-school years are so formative for girls and how track and field helped me with my development during this time period. Then I learned more about track and field’s influence — that it’s the highest-participatory sport for middle- and high-school girls, and how it makes such a significant physical, mental, and social positive impact on girls’ lives. And I realized there was a need for more support.

I started with workshops where I brought my network — Olympians and world champions — to these communities, giving girls direct access to the highest-level athletes. Now we have grants that give direct resources to girls, and we have a curriculum for third parties to implement the empowerment lessons we’ve been teaching.

EL | What’s the connection for you between the literal movement of fitness and movement toward goals — and through life’s challenges?

MLF | I do think of physical movement as a metaphor. We were born to move. I want to be able to move as best as I can, feel the best as I can. Movement is that freedom to be an example for my children and other athletes.

It’s also important for us to be moving or progressing toward something mentally, physically, and spiritually. I believe we should be constantly moving toward being the best humans we can be.

And real things happen. My dad has stage IV cancer and they’ve given him months to live. My twin sister recently had a stroke; she has aphasia and can’t move her right arm or speak or write as fluently right now. I lost a best friend, who I lived with in New York, to cancer.

This last six months for me have been what I call a Job phase: In the Bible, Job had everything and lost everything — his kids, his fortune, his health. We’re going to face death. We’re going to face loss. But at the end of the day, your faith can get you through that, too.

That’s when you find out if you can still hold yourself accountable to who you are. That’s where your threshold increases, and you grow. That’s when you’ll be exposed to those magical spaces that a lot of people won’t be able to touch. I hope that I can touch those highest levels of faith and perseverance and squeeze out all that I can experience in the days on this earth that I have.

EL | Do you ever take a break?

MLF | [Laughs] I mean, I look at my day and it’s constant movement with everything that needs to happen! But rest and recovery are important, whether physically — you need your body to have that recovery to be able to perform your best — or mentally.

I find my mental rest in gratitude. A lot of times I’ll find myself frustrated ­because I want to achieve something and I’m not there yet, or I feel like I am falling short. But then I stop and realize I’m also so grateful — for my husband, David, for my children, Bayne and Harley. I’m grateful for my sister, my parents, and my support system. I’m grateful for my role to lead these women on a track.

There are so many things that can move you into the hustle and bustle of life — that tug of just trying to do it all and wanting it all. But I find the rest and recovery is in being grateful for what’s in front of you as well.

EL | What life lessons do you share with those you lead that go beyond athletics?

MLF | I teach what I learned in New York when I didn’t know how I was going to make it all work, but I knew I had to be true to myself. I call it that bold stage of “doing it afraid” because you’re going to be scared as hell, but you’ve still got to do it, whatever it is, step by step. You’re not going to see the end of the staircase, but you take the next step, and then the next step shows up and you take that step. That’s the whole faith part.

Then the commitment and discipline are your everyday choices. What are you listening to every day? What are you reading every day? Who are you talking to every day? Everything you take in is going to take up space. It is so important to feed what you want to grow and starve habits that don’t align with where you’re going. You’re either moving forward or you’re moving backward. But you are always moving.

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This article originally appeared as “Leading With Heart” in the June 2023 issue of Experience Life.

Photography: Kwaku Alston/; Stylist: Lisa Bae; Hair: Adria Bruce/@thebellhaus; Makeup: Christina Buzas/Celestine Agency
Jill Patton, FMCHC

Jill Patton, FMCHC, is a Minneapolis-based health writer and functional-medicine certified health coach.

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