March is Girls Sports Month, and as part of USA TODAY High School Sports’ third-annual Girls Sports Month celebration, we’re speaking with some of the most influential female athletes, coaches and celebrities in the sports world.
Brianna Rollins won the Olympic gold medal in the 100 meter hurdles last summer at the Rio Summer Games, and became part of a historic moment. American teammates Nia Ali and Kristi Castlin finished second and third, marking the first time three American women had swept the podium in an Olympic event.
Before Rio, she won the U.S. indoor championship in the 60-meter hurdles and the silver at the indoor world championships.
A Miami native, Rollins won three NCAA titles for Clemson and then turned pro after the 2013 NCAA Championships when she set the NCAA record of 12.39 in the 100 hurdles.
Now 25, Rollins is training for the outdoor track season at her training base at Cal State Northridge after missing the indoor season following an ankle injury.
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Q: When did you know athletics was going to be a big part of your life?
A: I’ve always been into sports since I was a younger girl. I really got competitive in high school, so I was about 14 years old.
Q: Did you participate in other sports and why was it that you landed on track?
A: I actually didn’t do any other sports. I just used to play in the neighborhood with my brothers and my cousins. I played a little bit of football with them because I was kind of a tomboy growing up.
I think track was attractive to me because I was always pretty fast. I would race all the kids in the neighborhood and I would beat them, so I thought, “Hey if I join a track team I can probably be really good at this sport.” Little did you know I was and that’s when I became a hurdler. I didn’t have any clue about this sport when I started running but it grew on me and I fell in love with it.
I picked up the hurdles my freshman year of high school, but I was actually a 300 hurdler before I was a 100 hurdler. I couldn’t do the three steps my first year of being a hurdler, but I got it my second year. I was always more in love with the longer hurdles but that changed when I went to college.
Q: You are the oldest of seven and you are the only girl. What was it like growing up with six brothers, especially since you are the oldest?
A: I just tried to be the best big sister I could be. Be a positive influence and good example for them so that they can try to reach their goals. … I wanted to show them there’s no limits to what they can do. We came up from the same background so if it’s possible for me, it’s possible for them.
Q: I figure you’ve been asked many time about Rio, but take us back to crossing the finish line.
Man, it was an awesome feeling to capture the gold medal and to even capture the 1-2-3, so it just lets us know when women can come together and encourage one another we can accomplish great things. And that’s what me and Nia and Christy did — we encouraged each other each and every round and we prayed together.
We just reminded each other this is what we came for, just continue to focus and we can come out here and do something big and we made history and that was probably the best moment that I could ever have for the Olympics.
Q: How difficult was it to keep that collegial relationship when there can only be one winner, and each of you had worked to be that one winner?
A: I think at the end of the day everybody has that understanding that there can only be one winner, and I’m sure everyone in their head wants to be that winner. When you think about it, the sport is the sport and it’s about competitiveness and it’s about that one moment. But after that one moment, you have relationships and friendships that you want to have outside of track and field because track and field and any sport doesn’t last forever. If you build and have relationships with people, those things matter more than just the sport itself.
Q: So where are you keeping your gold medal?
A: (Laughs). It’s actually hidden in my closet right now. I probably need to get a safe.
Q: Do you feel like sports can provide empowerment and confidence for young girls?
A: Being in a competitive sport makes you feel powerful and gives you more confidence. Sports itself isn’t an easy thing to do. Everyone can’t come out here and be a competitive athlete or an elite athlete itself. I think doing it gives you that boost of power and confidence and knowing I can be a boss on and off the track. You get that extra strength that you need for beyond whatever sport you’re doing.
I think sports itself is a mental battle. You can be physically in shape and doing the best you can in training, but if you’re mentally not ready, it can hold you back in a huge way. Having to train your mind just like you train your body is very important.
Q: You said you were a track athlete from the time you started with organized sports. Do you have a view on the issue of sports specialization for kids?
A: I just think that whatever you like to do, you just kind of gravitate to it. It’s not really a big deal to me whether or not you specialize in one thing. If you’re multitalented, that’s a pretty awesome thing to be, honestly, especially in sports.
Q: Not all young athletes have access to facilities or equipment to participate. What advice what you give in those situations?
A: Work with what you have, because at the end of the day, especially running, you can do anything at home or at your nearest park or the nearest gym. You can get strong and do things that you can do to be the best that you can be within the limits that you face.
Q: Last question, what overall advice would you give to young female athletes?
A: I would say to them that there’s no limits to what you can do as long as you continue to have faith and believe in yourself and work hard and know that you have a purpose in life. You can do whatever you want to do as long as you have those goals set in mind.
And I would say go for it. Whatever it is, whatever sport it is that you want to do just go for it and put the work in. But also remember to have fun.