Mary Omatiga

Football, False Starts and Family: Devon Allen opens up about his dual-sport career

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Being a professional athlete isn’t easy, but two-time Olympian Devon Allen juggled not one but two sports in a trying 2022.

The University of Oregon product opened up about his father’s death during the USATF Outdoor Championships, his shocking false start at the world championships and his time with the Philadelphia Eagles.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

OlympicTalk: How did you get your start in track and field?

Devon Allen: When I was probably about 10 or 11, I was at the YMCA summer program and we were playing kickball one day and after watching me score a home run, Judith, one of the volunteers, noticed my speed and asked me if I ran track. When I told her I didn’t, she suggested I get involved in the sport.

When my dad came to pick me up that day, she got his contact information and made sure that I knew how to get connected with the club track team that her dad Sebastian ran. It was the Rising Suns Club in Arizona. I started the winter program that November, and I’ve been running every spring and summer ever since.

How did you get into hurdling?

Allen: I had always been a sprinter, I did the 100m, 200m and 400m. During my sophomore year of high school, my coach at Brophy Prep, Tim O’Neil, saw that the hurdles would be a good event for me. The competition was not super strong or deep in Arizona, and he thought I could win it and score more points [for our school] at the state meet and do four individual events.

I trained for [the hurdles event] for about four to five weeks before I ran my first race and ended up qualifying for state. I then got second in the event at state championships as a sophomore and added it to my events. The next season, at the first meet of the year, I broke the state record in the 110m hurdles and realized this could be my thing. I did long hurdles as well in high school and college but stuck with the 110.

How did you get your start in football? Do you have a memory of when you first fell in love with the sport?

Allen: When I was 4 or 5 years old my cousins and I would always be outside in the neighborhood playing football with all the older kids, and even though I was the youngest I was dominating. I started playing tackle football around age 5 or 6 for the Renton Rangers in Seattle, Washington, where I’m originally from. I actually played quarterback on that team.

When we moved to Phoenix, I played on a couple of teams and progressed, playing running back until high school. We had a really good quarterback my freshman year of high school and had an air raid offense, so the football coach recommended I play wide receiver, and that’s what I stuck with.

When did becoming a professional athlete become a dream for you, and did that dream always include both sports? 

Allen: Yeah it did, as I improved. As a kid when you’re watching football games on TV, you always dream about going to the NFL, so I’ve had that dream since I was since I was 5 or 6.  My favorite football player growing up was Hines Ward because I was a Pittsburgh Steelers fan. You know, I might get in trouble for saying that since I’m playing for the Eagles now, but yeah, I was a Pittsburgh Steelers fan growing up.

I started doing the track thing, and when I started getting good around high school — being ranked as one of the top few athletes in my event in the U.S. — then that’s when I realized I could do the Olympics.

In high school, my dad would have me list my goals on a laminated chart on the fridge: six-month goal, one-year goal, five-year goal. In 2012, when I was a junior in high school, I crossed everything out and wrote down a four-year goal: 2016 Olympics. Obviously I still had dreams of playing football and being in the NFL, but at that time the Olympics were fresh in my mind, especially since the London Games had just happened.

Were there any Olympians whom you admired growing up?

Allen: When you’re a kid, you typically look up to athletes that are doing your event. I didn’t start hurdling until 2012-2013,  so growing up it was always Usain Bolt because prior to that I was a 100m runner. Wallace Spearmon was another one of my favorite athletes because his style of running was similar to mine. He’s known to be a strong finisher at the end. It’s funny that I’m saying that now because Wallace actually works with USATF and texted me today because I had some upcoming paperwork due.

When I started doing the hurdles, I admired Aries Merritt. He was THE guy. He had just broken the world record [in 2012]. I also started studying David Oliver, Dayron Robles and Liu Xiang to find out what made them good. I’ve watched a lot of videos on the American greats as well — Allen Johnson and Roger Kingdom — to learn the history of the event.

What are some of the things you’ve learned from taking the historical perspective with that event?

Allen: The technique is important, but all of the best hurdlers are super fast. When I focus on training, my No. 1 goal is being as fast as I can be, and then the second thing is the technical side. If you focus on running faster it will make the hurdling easier, too, because once you get faster that distance between the hurdles seems closer.

Juggling two sports isn’t new for you. Tell me about your time at Oregon and how you learned to handle doing both?

Allen: My time at Oregon was extremely busy, but structured, which made it easier to handle. Doing two sports wasn’t difficult in the physical sense. I would be training year-round whether I was doing one sport or two, but the biggest challenge was just managing the time.

Did you train for both sports at the same time, or did you only train each sport for certain months during the year?

Allen: Football pretty much dominated my training time. During the football season I didn’t do any track specific training because I was doing a lot of running and lifting. During track season, there was an expectation to attend winter lifting and then preparing for the spring ball, which happens in April, but once that was over, I focused on track until July and then prepared for fall camp, and it started all over again.

Why did you decide to go to Oregon, and how did your time there shape you into the person you are today?

Allen: A lot of schools gave me the opportunity to do both sports, but Oregon gave me the opportunity to do it at a high level. I figured Oregon would provide a great opportunity for me to compete for a national championship in two sports — and it did! In 2014, when I won my first NCAA title in track, we actually played Ohio State in the national championship for football that year, too, so it was exactly what I envisioned for myself when I chose Oregon.

My football coaches came to the track meets, and my track coaches came to the football games, and both were pumped to see me doing well. They worked together and understood that doing both sports was part of who I was as an an athlete and they helped me make it work.

2016 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Team Trials - Day 9
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Why did you decide to focus on track after your knee injuries?

Allen: I was little bit distraught from being injured and not being able to have any full seasons. I got injured at the end of the 2014-2015 [football] season so I missed that season of track. I came back and ended up doing the next football season [2015] which was kind of lackluster for me because I wasn’t quite back to 100% yet. I ran that track season [2015-2016], felt really good, was healthy and competed in Rio, and then got injured when I picked up football again and ended up missing 80% of that season.

I wanted to get healthy and also had a little bit of a sour taste in my mouth from [finishing fifth at] the 2016 Olympics that I should have done a little better. I believed I could have won. After Rio, I wanted to give myself those four years — which turned to five because of COVID — to focus on track and just see what I could really do.

What do you remember most from your experience in Rio — your first Olympics?

Allen: Being around the best athletes in the world, I just tried to take everything in. I went to the China vs. USA in basketball and got to see Kevin Durant and those guys play. I saw Michael Phelps win a gold medal live, which was pretty awesome. I saw Wayde van Niekerk break the 400m world record.

Christian Coleman and I actually talk about that every time we see each other. Wayde was on the bus with us while we were going to the stadium to watch that race, so he had arrived maybe an hour before the race was supposed to start. I don’t know if [Wayde] warmed up at the village and then took the bus over or if he just doesn’t need to warm up that much, but whatever he did, it worked.

What do you remember most from Tokyo? 

Allen: Tokyo was obviously a lot different with the COVID protocols. Tokyo as a city was pretty elite in terms of how they run everything and how awesome it is. I really enjoyed just being there in general. The competition was really good. The weather was great for track, super hot which is great for fast times. So many world records and great performances. It was a relief that we were finally there after missing a year of competing. It wasn’t as much of an experience because I got there five days before my competition and left two days after, but it was still amazing to be there.

Paris 2024 is coming up. What would having the opportunity to represent the U.S. at a third Olympics mean to you, especially since you finished so close to the podium both times?

Allen: In my head, this is the one for me to win. I’ll be 29, which is within the sprinter’s prime of 25 to 32. Not a lot of Americans, especially in the hurdles events, have made more than one Olympics, so my goal is to make the third and come out with the gold medal.

Training is important but it’s not the main component for how well I compete in a year. When I have a good season, it’s because I stayed healthy. In the years that I’ve done less training, I end up doing better. That happened with Tokyo [fourth place] and with this last 2022 season [running the third-fastest time in history].

Very exciting things ahead! Switching gears, I want to talk about your dad. First off, my condolences to you and your family, I’m so sorry for your loss. Are you comfortable talking about him?

Allen: Thank you, yeah we can.

Your dad passed away just one day before you qualified for the 2022 World Championships at U.S. Championships. What happened and where were you when you found out?

Allen: I was just in my AirBnB, which was just across the street from the track in Eugene. I woke up and had just gone to pick up one of my best friends from high school and former track teammate, Marco. He came out to the meet, and his flight actually got delayed 12 hours, so he ended up landing the morning of the competition as opposed to the evening.

As I was grabbing him, my coach was on the phone with my aunt, and she was the one that got the news. My dad went into cardiac arrest, and my aunt had to break it to me. It was obviously very difficult, but I did as well as I could, probably better than most people just trying to take it in but also focus on what I was there for and what he would want me to do. I knew in that moment that he would have wanted to me accomplish one of my dreams.

I’m not going to say it didn’t affect my performance that day, but it was definitely hard, and I skimmed through by the hundredth of a second to make the championship team. I’ll always remember that day, not because of the place I got but because of what I was able to endure to make the world stage again.

What’s the biggest lesson that your dad taught you, and what do you miss the most about him?

Allen: The biggest thing he instilled in my sister and I is to have a goal and don’t quit. Whenever we did a new activity or sport, we weren’t allowed to quit even if we didn’t like it. If we tried tennis, karate, whatever it was, we had to at least finish the season. That’s something I’ll always take with me and teach my kids in the future. Once you give someone your word and commit to something it’s important that you follow through. It’s helped me in my athletic career, and I know it will help me after.

That lesson carried me through training camp this season, especially since I hadn’t played football in so long. I remember sitting in my hotel sore, it’s hot, it’s the NFL, people are bigger, faster, stronger, and my body’s getting beat up. I’m thinking to myself — oh man, am I really going to be able to survive this? But that lesson helped me get through.

Do you remember the last conversation you had with him?

Allen: Yeah, Father’s Day was not too long before that, so we just chatted on the phone for 15-20 minutes. Nothing too serious. But we always texted. I was talking to him when I was over in Paris and Oslo for Diamond League [in June]. Even with the time difference he would get up early and text me before bed. It was always good to talk to him.

Your dad saw you fulfill your dreams — getting to two Olympics and getting signed to an NFL team after your pro day. What was that conversation like when you told him about the Eagles?

Allen: He was actually there in person with me when I was talking to Howie Roseman, the Eagles general manager. We did the pro day and then about 10-15 minutes after I get a call from Howie. I didn’t sign the paperwork that day but getting to celebrate with [my dad] was pretty cool. That’s always been something I talked about growing up as a kid, so finally getting to live that dream and accomplish that with a team that’s really good was exciting.

Tell me about your tattoo, “Everybody loves the sunshine.” I know it was your dad’s favorite song, but you’ve had it for a few years now. Why did you get it, and how much more significant is it to you now?

Allen: I was just 22 and bored when I got it, but the song means a lot to me and my family. In my household on Sunday mornings you were either at church or cleaning the house. My dad would always be up early playing music really loud, and when that song would come on you knew it was time to dust everything in your room and clean. As a 10-year-old kid, you’re thinking it’s the worst thing in the world, but looking back on those memories now, it wasn’t that bad.

Let’s talk world championships. You’re on your home track in Oregon, coming off an incredible few meets and then the moment that shocked everyone happened. Tell me the story from your perspective.

Allen: In the moment there was no inclination in my head that I should have been worried. A false start happening isn’t that surprising. I’ve been in races where there’s been multiple false starts, faulty equipment, crowd noise, or a misfire of the gun. It’s not a crazy thing to happen, so I was just like all right, whatever, walk back to the line.

To my surprise, they were calling me for a false start. I panicked in the moment because I just didn’t know what to do. I had to figure out what was going on in the moment, so I went over to see what the official was seeing. It’s unfortunate that it was so close to the limit, .099 being one thousandth from being a legal start. There had a been a lot of false starts in that range for that meet. In my mind, I’m thinking maybe there’s something wrong with the equipment.

It’s funny now because at the time, Jamie Cook, my coach, had noticed that my reaction time in the semifinal was .101, which is just two-thousandths slower and is legal. Jokingly, he was like, “I was going to say something before, like, ‘Hey, hang in the blocks because your reaction in the other race was super fast,'” but he didn’t want that in my head.

In my defense, if you look at all my reaction times on average, pretty much any race, I’m going to have the fastest one. I just am notoriously quicker than all of the other competitors.

Obviously, I’m disappointed and I know I did my best to advocate for myself to try to be able to run, but I wasn’t able to accomplish that. In the moment there’s not much you can do other than walk off the track or cuss everybody out and make a scene. It’s not really in my personality to make a scene, so I just kind of walked off.

What do you remember most from that moment? What’s the first thing that comes to your mind?

Allen: The silence. Everybody was in shock. I could hear coach Jamie screaming from wherever he was. He was trying to help me. It was kind of a blur, and it happened very quickly. I know it was longer in real time, but it felt like 10 seconds to me. There’s nothing I can really do about it now except forget it and continue to try to win every race that I run.

I always tell people this when I’m trying to explain how I react to the gun. Think of the word “bang” as the gun going off. I’m reacting on the “B” sound. That’s what’s made me elite. I’m consistently one of the faster reactors.

How did you keep your composure, and where did you go? What were you doing when the race was happening without you?

Allen: I was so disappointed because it was a good opportunity for me to run. It was my home track. My family was there. I felt good, my fitness was good, and I was ready to run fast and to think that could have been a race where I broke the world record and won the gold, was disappointing.

During the race I just went underneath the stands where they have TVs and stuff. I didn’t really even have to watch the race because I knew what was going to happen anyways. The Americans were going to go one-two-three regardless, and I knew if I wasn’t there it was going to be a one-two finish, but I did and that’s what happened. Grant Holloway and Trey Cunningham are great competitors and super consistent as well, so I just watched the race, changed and prepared myself to do interviews after. Then I left and had dinner with my family.

It was hard, but I know I’ll have chances in the future.

Well, everyone was outraged on social media. To this day, people are still upset about the decision. Vernon Norwood tweeted about it recently. How did it feel knowing that you had so much support?

Allen: It feels good to know that many people were even watching. When I got to training camp, my teammates that had known me just for a few weeks were like man I cannot believe what happened. So I had a lot of support from people that didn’t know me that well. No one needs to be outraged. It was just part of what happened. It’ll be a good story in the grand scheme of things. When I break the world record and win the Olympic gold medal I’ll be able to add that chapter in, and it’ll make for a good story.

Let’s talk about your time with the Eagles. You said, “It’s good to go somewhere you’re wanted.” What about the Eagles organization made you feel wanted?

Allen: Howie reached out right away and voiced that he wanted me to be there. When I arrived there at OTAs, the coaches and training stuff were all so excited about me being there as well, and I had the same experience at training camp. They gave me an opportunity to develop and ease my way into things — which as an elite athlete can be frustrating at times — but in hindsight I appreciate that they didn’t throw me in the fire. They could have had me doing 80 percent of the snaps in the preseason games, but since I hadn’t played in six years and had only been practicing for two and a half weeks, they knew what the best thing for me would be.

As the season’s progressed, I’ve continued to develop, and I’m improving every week. My goal at every practice is to do something better and compete. I think the coaches and the front office is seeing that as well. I’m in a good spot overall, and the emotion towards me is positive. If I get the opportunity to play during the playoffs, great. I’ll be ready to go. If not, it’s the same goal in the offseason and the same goal in terms of doing what I can to get on the field.

What will your training look like in the offseason? Are you going to jump back into track?

Allen: I’ll jump back into track probably during the months of February, March and April. I’ve got a few meets planned in April, then I’ll do the back-and-forth thing that I did last season from April to June and do my four days a week in Philly for OTAs and get on the track over the weekend.

What are your plans for balancing football and track in 2023, ahead of worlds in Budapest, and into 2024 for the Paris Olympics?

Allen: I don’t have answers yet. I know the schedules, and I know those don’t mesh with training camp, so the biggest thing is just communicating with my coaches and the front office to find out what the plan is for me and adjusting accordingly. My goal is to contribute and be a guy that can help the Eagles win, and if those values add up, then I’ll do everything to make both things work as well as I can.

  • Editor’s Note: Track and field worlds are Aug. 19-27, roughly a month later than in 2022 and much closer to the start of the NFL season. 

How would you grade your first season as a professional football player? Were there any times during the season that you thought you might be getting a call to the active roster?

Allen: I would say a B-minus because I did have one catch for a touchdown [in the preseason]. Overall, I’ve been progressing each week and learning the game better. There have been plenty of times, and I prepare every week like I might get the call up. You never know. Injuries happen often, and I need to be ready to help my team regardless.

Who are some players that you’ve leaned on and learned from on your team and just within the NFL?

Allen: From the beginning, one of the receivers that helped a lot is Greg Ward. He’s actually on the practice squad with me right now. He came out for injury, but he was on the 2017 Super Bowl-winning team and has been on the Eagles roster for the last few years as well. Britain Covey, he and I are rookies together and good friends. I spend a lot of time with the backup quarterbacks because those are the guys I get a lot of reps with, so Gardner Minshew and Ian Book. I’ve spent a lot of time with Tyree Jackson, Trey Sermon and so many others.

Have you gotten any more of your teammates into track and field following along the storylines and excited for the Olympics?

Allen: Yeah, all of them want to come to some of my meets next year, including Penn Relays [in April]. But there’s a few of them that are like, ‘Man, I’m trying to run.” All the fast guys — Quez Watkins, Miles Sanders and all those guys that have a track background — so we might put together a little Eagles 4x100m and run the Penn Relays or something like that.

Well it’s been amazing to watch you accomplish your dreams. Knowing all that you know now, what advice would you give to that younger version of you writing down his dreams with an Expo marker on the fridge?

Allen: I would tell myself after injury in 2016 to get healthy and go straight to football, too, and continue to do both sports. Those six years away from football were definitely difficult. It was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and it felt foreign to me for a while. I think I would be in a much better place in the NFL right now if I had just continued to play, but who knows what my track career would have looked like.

Alright, last but not least. We’ve got some rapid fire questions. Ready?

Allen: Yes

I’m not ready for race day without…

Allen: Kendrick Lamar.

Pre-race hype song?

Allen: I listen to m.A.A.d City. The whole album when I’m warming up, but probably the song “Money Trees.”

You want to become a classically trained chef one day. Do you cook now, and what’s your go-to dish?

Allen: Yeah, I do. I actually just got a pizza oven from my girlfriend for my birthday, so I’ve been cheffin’ up homemade pizzas. My physical therapist Anna just got me a wok for my birthday, so I’ve been doing fried rice, stir fry and beef and broccoli. My go-to though is just steak, sweet potatoes and some kind of green to keep it clean.

If you knew just one of these things was guaranteed to happen, which one would you pick — winning an Olympic gold medal or winning a Super Bowl?

Allen: A Super Bowl. The reason I say that is because I’ve already had two chances at winning a gold medal. It’s not easy, and I will win a gold medal one day, but it seems easier for me to make the Olympic team right now than it is to make the Super Bowl. We’ll see how this season ends, though, then I can really answer that question.

Which drills are harder? Football or track?

Allen: The intensity in football practice alone is high at all times, but in track it’s more technical and very precise, especially when you get to the elite level. Everything you’re doing has to be perfect.

You’re singing karaoke for your life, what song are you picking?

Allen:Kiss From a Rose” by Seal.

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Leah Hayes reflects on world swimming champs success, journey with alopecia

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High school junior Leah Hayes exudes the confidence, maturity and wisdom of someone far beyond her 17 years. Hayes is USA Swimming’s Breakout Performer of the Year, thanks in part to her 200m individual medley at June’s world championships. She was also diagnosed with alopecia universalis — an autoimmune disease that causes complete hair loss — at age 7. Hayes spoke with NBC Sports about her journey with alopecia, her growth in the sport and how she’s learned to confidently embrace her true self.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

OlympicTalk: How did you get your start in swimming? Do you have a memory of when you first fell in love with the sport? 

Leah Hayes: I started swimming when I was 7. My friend started doing it and invited me to take lessons with them. My current swim coach saw me when I was 8 and recruited me to the team. I always loved the feeling of being in the water.

Did you grow up watching the Olympics? Are there any swimmers or other Olympic athletes that you looked up to? 

Hayes: I did not. But I watched my first Olympics in 2016, and that’s when I started dreaming of becoming an Olympian. I watched Katie Ledecky swim the 800m, and she just crushed it, and I remember thinking, “Wow, I want to do something like that.” Now that I’m teammates with her, it’s a dream come true.

Take me back to U.S. team trials for the Tokyo Olympics (finishing 10th and 11th in the IMs at age 15). What was that experience like for you, and what did you learn about yourself? 

Hayes: I learned some different things about what I need to do race-wise, but also learned that as long as I believe in myself anything is possible.

Did you watch any of the Tokyo Olympics? 

Hayes: Yes, I did! I didn’t know many of the American swimmers at the time — now I know them better — but I was rooting for them from home, and it was so exciting to see them swim out there.

Walk me through your experience at the 2022 World Championships.

Hayes: It was incredible. I was able to go to that pool in Budapest a year earlier for a junior team trip, so I was familiar with it, which was nice. But it was incredible to be around the world’s best swimmers. To even compete against some of them, I was starstruck.

Who in particular were you starstruck by?

Hayes: Pretty much everybody, honestly. To race against Katinka Hosszu, who is one of the world’s best in the 200m IM, was amazing.

You were dealing with a stress fracture in the lead-up to worlds. Take me back to the day you found out about it.

Hayes: I had severe pain in my foot for about two weeks before I went to the doctor. I thought it was from a strain. A week before the U.S. International Team Trials, I was sitting in the doctor’s office, and when she told me it was a stress fracture I immediately had tears in my eyes. I remember thinking, “Is my season over? Will I not even get to compete at the meet I’ve been training for this entire season?” But then [the doctor] told me I could continue swimming, and I remember feeling a huge wave of relief come over me. I continued with my training but went a little bit lighter with weights and conditioning because I didn’t want to do anything outside of the pool. I just kept pushing forward and didn’t let it affect my race.

How special is that 200m IM bronze medal, knowing all that you had to overcome to get there?

Hayes: There are not enough words to describe it, but I’m just so grateful. At U.S. Olympic Trials, I swam a 2:12.89 and didn’t even make it to the finals, and a year later, I make it to the international team trials and then actually win a medal at world championships (in 2:08.91). I’m still in disbelief. I was disappointed in my performance at (Olympic) Trials, but I knew that if I trusted God and just continued to work hard that my time would come. Little did I know that it would come a year later.

I want to talk about your alopecia. There’s obviously so much more to who you are, but it is a significant part of your story. Can you tell me about your journey with this autoimmune disease?

Hayes: I was diagnosed at a pretty young age, so I’ve learned to deal with it. It is a part of me, and I live confidently with it. When I swim, I don’t wear a cap because I want to bring more awareness to alopecia, but I also hope to inspire other girls who may have the disease or other people with physical differences that anything is possible. Your differences don’t limit you.

I know you were pretty young, but can you take me back to the day you got your diagnosis?

Hayes: I remember sitting in the doctor’s office and hearing the words “alopecia universalis.” I was 7 years old and really had no idea what it was. I didn’t fully understand what happened to me or the impact of the disease on my life at the time, but looking back, it’s brought me so many different opportunities and has led me to so many new people. I’m actually really grateful for alopecia.

As a fourth-grader you decided to tell the entire grade about your alopecia during a school assembly. What led to that decision, and why did you decide to make that announcement so publicly?

Hayes: I was always an active kid, swinging on the monkey bars and running around outside at recess, and my wig had actually fallen off a few times, and people had gotten glimpses of it. There were rumors spreading, and I just decided I wanted to take hold of the matter and let everyone know the truth.

I was so happy with the way my parents and school helped me with that. My classmates were all so supportive when I made the announcement, and I couldn’t have asked for a better reaction.

You’ve noted the anniversary of your decision to be “wig-free” on social media. Why is that important to you, both in and out of the pool?  

Hayes: My decision to go wig-free has led me to be a true version of myself and really embrace who I am and also let people see the true me. Being wig-free is definitely a big decision that can only be made on your own timeline, but I think it’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

What has alopecia taught you about yourself?

Hayes: It has taught me to be kind to everyone and to be more understanding. Many people don’t show the things that they’re going through. There’s a lot going on the inside that you don’t see, so it’s just a matter of being caring and cautious toward others.

What advice would you give to anyone struggling with alopecia?

Hayes: I’m always available to contact. There’s also a group called the National Alopecia Areata Foundation that has conferences and lets people know where to find them locally. That’s a good way to meet up with people that have alopecia and find those support groups. I attended a few support meetings growing up, and that really helped me.

I would also tell people to embrace who they are and know that alopecia is nothing to be ashamed of. It can lead to new opportunities and connect you with many people. 

Is there something you wish more people knew about alopecia?  

Hayes: I wish people wouldn’t associate the disease with cancer and chemotherapy and in general had a better understanding of what it is.

I have some rapid-fire questions for you. Are you ready for this?

Hayes: Yes!

Finish this sentence: I’m not ready for a meet without … 

Hayes: Cheerios. I bring Cheerios to every single meet.

Plain? Honey Nut?

Hayes: Honey Nut Cheerios. It’s my go-to snack at meets.

Race day hype song? 

Hayes: Oh. I have a playlist, but I’d probably go with “Believer” by Imagine Dragons.

You have to sing karaoke for your life. What song are you picking?

Hayes: “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen.

Post-workout meal?

Hayes: Chipotle. It’s my go-to. I have one right next to my pool, and I keep asking my relatives for gift cards there for my birthday because I go there almost two times a week.

Are you a burrito bowl kind of girl or burritos?

Hayes: I’m gluten-free, so I had to switch from burritos to bowls. I start with white rice. I love the lime flavor. Then chicken, fajita veggies, pico de gallo, corn salsa, black beans and then sour cream.

No guac?

Hayes: I pay for my own food, so no.

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Katie Ledecky talks swimming legacy and life in Gainesville

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OlympicTalk recently caught up with Katie Ledecky to discuss life since moving from Stanford to Florida 15 months ago, her meticulous mindset, and the legacy she continues to build.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can also catch an encore presentation of Ledecky’s performance at the 2022 U.S. Open this Saturday at 4:30 pm ET on NBC.

What does a typical day look like for you Gainesville? Walk me through a full day starting from the minute your alarm clock goes off.

Ledecky: A typical day would be waking up at 5 o’clock in the morning and swimming from 6 to 8. Then I have weights from 8 to 9:15. I get breakfast, have lunch and then take a nap. Then I have practice again at 2 or 3 in the afternoon for another two hours.

Wow, that sounds incredibly busy! Have you had a chance to find any new favorite places to eat in Gainesville?

Ledecky: I’m still kind of finding my spots. There is a breakfast spot pretty close to campus that a lot of the swimmers like, so I go there quite a bit, but I’m still looking. I haven’t gone to very many places more than once.

What are you doing in your free time? Are you coaching?

Ledecky: Yes, I’m volunteering with the [University of Florida] team, but I think of myself more as a teammate. I have a lot of other things going on with sponsorships, but aside from that, I enjoy spending time with my family and friends. I have a piano and enjoy playing that!

How often do you get to see your family?

Ledecky: My parents, David and Mary, still live in the D.C. area, and then my brother, Michael, lives in New York, so I’m a lot closer to home [than at Stanford]. I see them around the holidays, and they come to a lot of my swim meets.

I know how much you love to stay academically engaged. Are you taking any classes at the University of Florida?

Ledecky: I’m not taking any classes right now. I’m taking a break, but I’m still trying to learn as much as I can just in other areas, reading a lot and watching the news, following different things that I’m interested in. I think at some point, I’ll probably go to grad school, but I’m still figuring out what area that would be in right now.

There’s a quote, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” I feel like that only scratches the surface of describing your work ethic and mindset. You demand excellence in every area of your life, not just from yourself, but from others around you. Can you talk about where that mindset comes from?

Ledecky: I’ve always had that kind of a mindset. I’m very driven, and I’m always setting new goals for myself no matter what I’ve achieved in the past. I’m always looking forward, I don’t take very many breaks, and so it’s always on to the next goal and making sure I’m doing the little things right and doing the things I need to do to reach my goals.

To be able to perform at the level that you do every single day takes a lot of mental toughness. What do Katie Ledecky’s inner thoughts look like? What do you tell yourself? Any affirmations? 

Ledecky: I try to stay positive no matter how well or how poorly a practice or a race is going. When I’m swimming, I give myself positive mental pep talks along the way throughout a race. I’ll say “keep it up,” “hold pace” or “hit this turn.”

I just want to read you a few tweets… 

You idolized Michael Phelps when you were younger, and now you’re that person for a lot of people. You’re the GOAT. You’re Katie Ledecky. Someone’s idol. What does that feel like?

Ledecky: It’s an honor to have young swimmers look up to me, and I don’t take that lightly. I try to be a good role model and reach out to young kids and sign autographs and take photos if people approach me at swim meets. I hope that there are some young swimmers out there that will grow up to be champions or maybe they’ll just continue to love the sport or find other things that they’re passionate about, but it’s an honor.

Have you had any memorable interactions with young swimmers?

Ledecky:  Yeah, actually the World Cup in Indianapolis [in November]. We were given those giant checks at the end of the meet that you really can’t travel with, so I was able to sign it and give it to one of the basket carriers at the meet. They were thrilled, and it was fun to be able to put a smile on their face.

Give me just one word to describe each of these milestones in your life, starting with the 2012 Olympics.

Ledecky: The first. It was my first international competition and my first gold medal, so that’s the one that’ll probably be the most special for me forever.

OLY-2012-SWIM

2016 Rio Olympics.

Ledecky: Consistency. I was swimming in multiple events at the Olympics for the first time and I just got into a really good rhythm and felt so comfortable in the pool deck. So confident. That was just a very unique feeling.

Tokyo Games.

Ledecky: Tokyo was different with all the COVID protocols. Nobody in the stands. No family there. But it was a lot of fun still, so a lot of great memories with my teammates there.

What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind at the end of your career? What do you want to be remembered for?

Ledecky: I’d like to be remembered as somebody that worked really hard and gave my best effort every time I got up on the blocks and represented Team USA. Hopefully, I can continue to inspire young kids to work hard in whatever it is that they are passionate about, whether that’s something academic, athletic, or something else. If you find something that you really love, you should go all in on it and try to be the best you can be at it.

You’ve achieved so much in life already personally and professionally, I just want to ask: Are you genuinely happy? Are you satisfied in this season of life right now?

Ledecky: Oh yeah, I’m very happy. I love the sport more and more every year. I get a little sad thinking about the day I will eventually retire–which isn’t anytime soon. I love the sport. I’m trying to just enjoy every day of training and racing and trying to be the best that I can be.

I say this all the time, I never imagined I would even make it to one Olympics and so to be training now to try to qualify for a fourth Olympics is it’s all just icing on the cake at this point and something that I truly enjoy. I enjoy doing it with my teammates, striving for similar goals, and getting to do it with really great people.

Knowing all that you know now, what advice would you give to your younger self — the little Palisades Porpoise?

Ledecky: I don’t have very many regrets or anything in my career, so I think I would just continue to tell myself to have fun and enjoy every moment. Maybe, write down a little bit more early on. I’ve done a better job of journaling and writing down different things so that I can remember them down the road, but I didn’t do as good of a job in 2012 and 2013.

Rapid-fire questions. Race day hype song? 

Ledecky: “Badlands” by Bruce Springsteen.

Finish this sentence: I’m not ready for a meet without … 

Ledecky: My suit, cap and goggles.

Did you have AIM back in the day? What was your embarrassing screen name?

Ledecky: I didn’t. I didn’t even have a cell phone until before the London Olympics. I think I actually borrowed my brother’s phone for that, and then we went out and bought an iPad so that I could FaceTime my family from London. I didn’t have an email account either until high school.

Your life is on the line. You need to sing one karaoke song to save it. What are you picking?

Ledecky: Well, USA Swimming did carpool karaoke in 2016 before the Olympics. My car did “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, which is a great karaoke song because it’s like 10 minutes long so maybe I would choose that just as a fun memory. We also did “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen in 2012. Those are two fun songs with some fond memories.

Post-workout meal?

Ledecky: After morning practice, eggs and toast or veggies and eggs. I love breakfast. I could eat breakfast food for all three meals and I’d be satisfied.

Cheat meal? 

Ledecky: Either pizza or a burger.

If you had to choose another Olympic sport to compete in what would it be and why? 

Ledecky: Probably hockey. I’m not good on skates, but it’s my favorite sport to watch.

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