We all have our fears, whether it's heights, swimming, clowns, bees or even pickles.
My biggest fear is looking back on my life and wondering “what if?”
“What if I worked harder?”
“What if I took the chance to study a little bit more?”
“What if I got out of my comfort zone and took a leap of faith?”
In 2018 I almost retired from track, I had already won two gold medals in Rio, set the world record multiple times, won 2 World Championships and I felt burnt out.
After months of getting ready to throw in the towel, I finally took a second to ask myself, “what my future self would think?”
Would I regret not giving myself the chance to truly be an athlete?
Up to this point, I was either a student-athlete or balancing working 50 hours a week as a coach along with a master’s program. I did not want to risk wondering what if anymore. At this point my coach, Jeff Petersmeyer, had coached me remotely for 5 years so I figured I'd go all in and make the move to be trained in person.
I threw caution to the wind, and within 3 weeks I left my job at Northern Arizona University and was relocating to Louisville, Kentucky. Where I had no job, no place to live and no clue where the best pizza places were.
I’m so happy I bet on myself and won.
It’s truly all I have ever done and it would have been outside of my character to have given up because I felt “uncomfortable.”
The more I tell my story, the more I realize that I am not special. The more I realize there are literally millions of people out there who were dealt a similar deck of cards as me.
It’s truly humbling to see that I have been afforded not only the opportunity to live, but to thrive.
I pride myself in challenging statistics and tackling my “impossible” from the moment I was born. It was like a starting pistol went off and the race began.
A portrait of Roderick Townsend and his mother.
My mom is a Black woman. When she was 15 years old, she dropped out of school, no longer had a place to live and was pregnant with a little boy who would be born with a disability inhibiting any usage of his arm. Meanwhile, my father was in prison serving time.
The doctors expected me to be no more than 7 pounds, but little did they know a huge 11-pound man-child would take his first breath.
This brought on its fair share of complications, the umbilical cord was wrapped around my neck twice, and the doctor had to make a split-second decision to save my life. The process involved breaking my collar bone and dislocating my shoulder.
This damaged all of the nerves in my brachial plexus (nerves that control the shoulder, arm, and hand). I initially had no movement of my right arm and it stayed that way for a while.
I didn't even know this until my Mom told me about it later in life. She even remembers the day that I moved it for the first time. Apparently, I was mad and threw a fit and began whaling BOTH of my arms in the air.
From that point forward although I had movement in my arm. It was very limited, so although most folks can't readily recognize my disability it has a pretty drastic effect on being an athlete.
Although day-to-day life is not too affected, with limited range of motion, size, and strength in my right arm I had to adapt if I ever wanted to play a sport.
I grew up playing football, all the way up into my freshman year in college.
It wasn't until my freshman year at Delta Community College that I found track and field. I found some success as a decathlete. Yes, the guy with one fully functional arm found a way to do the decathlon.
I knew my goal was to get a scholarship at any cost, adapt or settle with less, adapt or wonder “what if” for the rest of your life.
I decided to give it my all and it paid off, after 2 years of learning how to be a track athlete I went on to get a full scholarship to Boise State.
Fast forward to today, and I’ve obtained a master's degree, a couple of gold medals, traveled the world and proudly compete on a global stage with USA worn across on my chest.
Roderick Townsend practicing his shot put.
I say all of this so that people can see I am built from adversity.
I know what it means to overcome the odds, trek my own path and to fight for and earn every opportunity that led me to where I am today. And being a Black man is still exhausting.
For me, being born with a birth disability was easy compared to being born Black.
Don’t get me wrong, I love being Black. Black is beautiful, powerful and amazing.
I was raised by Black women and married my beautiful, Black wife. Black women have constantly been my support, my foundation and my rock. Made out of gold, cocoa butter, love, honey and brown sugar. My mom, aunties, coaches and friends of the family who I call my aunties are the women who shaped me into the person I am today, which means so much more than anything I will ever accomplish as an athlete.
Nonetheless, we face our challenges on a daily basis.
I’ll never forget being 7 years old and running to my mom crying.
She asks, “What’s wrong with you that has you so upset?” I respond by telling her, “I don't want to go to jail.” She then asks, “Well what have you done that makes you think you are going to jail?” Tearfully and confused I ask, “well don’t all Black boys have to go to jail?”
I have dealt with my fair share of racism, “fitting the description,” driving while black and it’s disheartening that I have not once felt safe in a situation with a police officer that I did not know.
I know some good cops who are great examples of what the job is supposed to be, but it doesn't change the fact that when my neighbor and I were pulled over the cops approached both sides of the car with their guns drawn.
To those who are tired of hearing about Black people complain about the police, just imagine how we feel living it.
This is nothing new.
Black parents have given their kids the talk. How to make it home alive when dealing with a police officer.
We have seen that as a Black person you could be in bed sleep and be killed by the police, you can be pinned down by an officer's knee unable to breathe, but still somehow be a threat.
You can be 12 years old playing with a toy gun and although the cop shot you within 2 seconds upon arrival they wait almost 5 minutes to provide you with any medical attention.
“What ifs” still frighten me more than anything.
What if one day I'm getting cuffed and due to my disability the cops think I'm resisting arrest?
One day I pulled up to my house and walked into my backyard, a cop followed me back there and wanted me to prove that I wasn't trespassing and that it was in fact my house.
What if I raised my voice out of anger even though I had every right to do so, would I have been considered a threat?
Back in high school, I along with two of my friends were walking to the park. The cops stopped us because they said we fit the description of some people who have been breaking into cars.
One of my friends was distraught and terrified and he began to cry.
In that moment, the cop didn't see a child. He instead told him to stop resisting, even though he simply did not understand what the cop was asking him.
These stories are not uncommon. Many Black people have stories like mine.
I'm not special.