Every Team USA athlete has experienced a different road to the Pan American Games and faced different tests or trials throughout his or her athletic careers. But the more athletes you speak to, the more medalists you meet, their similarities slowly begin to appear. After that moment of triumph, an athlete’s priorities and core beliefs snap into focus – the importance of family, leaving one’s comfort zone, growing through adversity.
To celebrate a momentous night for Team USA, as athletes medaled in nine of 10 event finals, we take a trip around the track to uncover the common beliefs, experiences and lessons that drive some of America’s best athletes.
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“Track is 100 percent mental”
Yogi Berra, the hall of fame baseball player and semiprofessional pundit, once mused that 90 percent of baseball is half mental.
Chanel Brissett, the Pan American Games silver medalist in women’s 100-meter hurdles, would argue her sport goes one step further.
“Track is 100 percent mental. If you put in the work, your body is definitely going to be in shape. But whatever your brain tells your body to do is what you will do,” she said. “So, the key is mental toughness.”
The junior at the University of Southern California is taking several extra steps to improve her own mental toughness, including using a specific app that sends her positive quotes every morning.
“I’ve also been listening to positive music,” Brissett said. “Definitely listening to encouragement from my teammates, making sure that I’m always in a clear headspace and giving myself positivity.”
Your friends are your future
Overwhelmed. That was how Justin Robinson felt when he touched down in Lima.
The American sprinter has shined on the international stage, earning a silver medal in the 4x400 relay at the 2018 IAAF World Under-20 Championships. But the Pan American Games presented a new challenge and new competition for the up-and-coming American star.
“Entering the prelims, I was a little bit nervous,” Robinson said. “You know, running with some of these older guys, I’ve never done that before. After I got past that first barrier, I got more relaxed going into the final.”
He credits his teammates for giving him support throughout his Pan American Games experience. That support, in part, helped him secure the bronze in the men’s 400.
“It’s a great experience, especially getting to travel to a different country. It’s exciting, and definitely a bit overwhelming at the same time,” Robinson said. “But my teammates, Michael Cherry, Wil London, those guys really helped me keep a cool, level head.”
Growing outside of your comfort zone
The Pan American Games is a unique experience for many Team USA athletes, such as pole vaulter Katie Nageotte. A 2018 world championship finalist, she earned the silver medal in Lima, all while adjusting to life at an international Games.
“You know, I haven’t been to an Olympics yet, so I’ve never been to a competition with the village-type setting like the athlete village,” Nageotte said. “It’s different than any other event I’ve been to. It’s been so fun to see all of the athletes in other events, which we never get to do otherwise.”
She hopes to use the lessons she’s learned from the Pan American Games in her preparation for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, noting that the experience of leaving her comfort zone has led to growth both on and off the track.
One example? How to navigate the cafeteria at an athlete village.
“Going through this experience you learn things like how to get the best out of the athlete cafeteria and to bring certain snacks,” Nageotte said. “It’s just different from a lot of other competitions you go to when you’re in a hotel. An athlete village is definitely good experience, and hopefully I can use that in the Olympics next year.”
She paused. “Knock on wood.”
It’s all about family.
Without fail, each Team USA athlete was sure to thank others for their competitive success, be it their immediate family or lifelong friends.
For Sean Donnelly, hammer throw bronze medalist, it was his parents back in Ohio.
“I know they were watching on TV,” he said. “My mom already texted me and said, ‘Your dad recorded it!’ Coming from a Division III background and working my way up, my family would come to my meets almost every weekend. It’s very special to share this with them.”
For men’s 1,500 silver medalist Johnny Gregorek, it was his father, a formidable distance runner in his own right. The two own the fastest average mile time between a father and son – 3:50.60.
“I always get texts from him and my very supportive family,” Gregorek said. “It’s great to have someone who’s not only a father there to support you, but also to use some of his experience. I mean he’s a world class runner, so why not ask him?”
Heptathlete Annie Kunz even got to thank her family in person. Draped in an American flag after clinching the silver medal, she immediately spotted them in the crowd.
“My parents and my uncle came, so having them here is something I will never forget,” Kunz said. “It’s a moment you put in your pocket, and I’m just really grateful God gave me this opportunity, and that I have a really supportive circle of friends and family supporting me and encouraging me.”