U.S. sprinter Twanisha “TeeTee” Terry took the track and field world by storm this summer at the world championships in Eugene, Oregon. She anchored the women’s 4x100m relay to gold, holding off Jamaica’s Shericka Jackson in one of the most exciting finishes of the meet. The 23-year-old Miami native — and part-time TikTok sensation — opens up about her first year as a professional athlete and her journey to the sport of track and field below.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
OlympicTalk: How did you get the nickname “TeeTee”?
TeeTee Terry: It was my childhood nickname. I just assumed it was because of my initials. But I’ve always had it since I was a child.
How did you get your start in track and field?
TT: I fell in love with the sport back in 2009. I was 9 years old, walking home from school with my siblings and some of my friends around the time summer recreational sports were starting. I saw a group of kids and adults out at the track, and we decided to just pick a day and try out. I tried out and made it to the Junior Olympics my first year. We broke the national record in the 4x100m for my age group. I went back the following year and just kept going from there on out.
When did becoming a professional athlete become a dream for you and when did you realize that you could actually make it happen?
TT: My sophomore year of high school when I learned that you can go to college for free on an athletic scholarship and if you do what you need to do, run the times you need to run, and get good grades, then you can pick your school of choice. I always had good grades, so for me it was just a matter of looking at what school I wanted to attend and what it is that I wanted to study beyond high school.
Tell me about your time at USC and how that shaped you into the athlete that you are today.
TT: I went in there with the mindset that I want to graduate in three years and break Angela Williams’ [four-time NCAA 100m champion] record. I just didn’t know it was gonna happen as soon as it did. My freshman year, I broke her record in 100m. During my years at USC, I matured as an athlete and a person and just kept doing what I needed to do, setting the bar higher each year. Eventually, I ended my senior year running 10.89, lowering the school record. I really had a great group of people and a great group of coaches around me that supported me on and off the track.
She believed she could, so she did. Thank you, USC—signing out with two degrees at 22.❤️✌🏾 pic.twitter.com/5yt664p2BZ
— 🏆 тwanιѕнa тerry. . 🏃🏾♀️💨 (@TeeTeeTerry_) May 17, 2021
USC athletes alone earned 11 medals at the world championships this summer, which would have ranked second in the overall medal table if it was a country, behind only the U.S. How much pride do you have in being a USC Trojan?
TT: Everywhere we go there is also someone screaming “Fight On.” I’ve also learned that with all the sports, not just track and field, USC can be their own country and rank at the top with how many medals their athletes earn in international competition. I take a lot of pride in being a Trojan and being part of their alumni population.
Walk me through your experience at your first world championships.
TT: I loved it. I enjoyed it. I made some mistakes, and I’ve learned lessons, but at the end of the day, I left with a gold medal. I went in there and made it my first year as a professional. Unfortunately, I didn’t make it out of the semis [in the individual 100m], but I learned what I did wrong and what I need to do in future competitions and world championships.
Being a part of the 4x100m relay with the other three amazing women that are a part of Team USA and just being able to put our trust in one another, go out there, focus on ourselves, and compete against Jamaica, who has been a top contender, was special. It was just a matter of trusting my teammates, trusting myself and knowing that I would do what I needed to do on my leg. I knew we weren’t going to go down without a fight.
What are some of those learnings, and what will look different for you in 2023?
TT: Using my nerves in a good way and not letting them hinder me. In the semifinals, there was a false start in my race. That kind of threw me off, and I never got into my race pattern. Whenever there is a false start, I tend to sit in the block after it happens because I don’t want to be the next one thrown out of the race. So I have to learn to focus on myself going forward.
10.9 made it into the final, and I easily hit that the day before, so it was just a matter of being mentally strong. From a technical standpoint, I made a lot of errors. I didn’t stick to my drive phase, and I was leaning back in the race, so going forward next year, I know what I need to work on.
Shericka Jackson of Jamaica wins the women's 100m semifinal.
American Twanisha Terry finishes 3rd and will wait to see if her time of 11.04s will be enough to qualify her into tonight's final. #WorldAthleticsChamps
— NBC Olympics (@NBCOlympics) July 18, 2022
False starts were a significant issue in Eugene. Was that something the athletes were talking about?
TT: Everyone was talking about the 110m hurdles race because they threw out one of the greats, Devon Allen. He had a great reaction time the day before and then got thrown out when the whole time he just reacted on cue. That stirred up a lot of people.
When you think back to that 4x100m, with Shericka Jackson chasing you down, what specific thought or memory comes to mind?
TT: In the moment, I was just focusing on my mark and making sure that I leave out on time [for the baton handoff]. I saw bits and pieces of the race as it was going on, but I didn’t really focus too much on watching it. I don’t even recall watching Melissa [Jefferson] fully get out, but I remember thinking, “She’s eating that stagger up.” Once I saw Jenna [Prandini] coming, I was like “Oh snap, it’s close. Just get out on your mark.” Once I got the baton in the lead I knew I had to focus on my own race — stay relaxed, stay poised, don’t tense up. I knew [Jackson] was coming, but I had to tell myself, “Don’t make it easy for her by tensing up and running out of yourself.”
I just focused only on myself, stayed relaxed, did what I needed to do and just dipped through the line.
Rewatching the film, I could see all the emotion as I was coming down. I was biting my lip. I tend to do that out of habit. I don’t know why. I don’t even feel it when I do it. But when I crossed the line, I knew we won. When I saw on the scoreboard that we actually defeated Jamaica, another wave of emotions just ran through my body. I screamed after I saw it. It was just an amazing feeling being able to see it on the scoreboard.
Did you watch the Tokyo Olympics at all?
TT: Yes, I did. I watched track & field, swimming, gymnastics and a little bit of cycling.
Take me back to your experience at the Tokyo Olympic Trials. What was that like?
TT: I was still in college during that time, so I had a really long season. I had a great collegiate season but unfortunately, I didn’t make the team [eliminated in the 100m semifinals]. Just being able to participate in the Tokyo Olympic Trials was a great experience, and it’s really great when collegiate athletes are able to make the team following a long year, but I wasn’t upset or anything because I knew what I had just put my body through running from January all the way to June. I even PR’d that year. I understood what the outcome was and why everything played out the way it did, and I was grateful for it.
Knowing how close you were to making a U.S. Olympic team and watching the Tokyo Olympics at home, how motivating was that?
TT: It was really motivating. I loved watching everyone compete in track and field. I recorded the races and tweeted the results just to be engaged with the sport and with fans that weren’t able to watch.
Tell me about the people that mean the most to you and how they’ve supported your career.
TT: I have a lot of people that have played different roles in my life, especially those that came along the way later on to be a part of the journey. My sisters, my mom, all of my coaches and my devoted fanbase, who I call my “Tee Babies.”
My dad, he’s always been there from day one. The first time I made it to the Junior Olympics at 9 years old, he made the effort to get on a plane for the first time in his life and show up. He always came to whatever meets that he could make it to whether it was NCAA Outdoor [Championships] or U.S. Trials, and he even came to the 2022 World Championships to watch me race in the 100m. He missed the 4x100m relay because he had to go back to work, but even then he was always calling in and checking on me.
When I was about 10 or 11, I actually almost quit the sport after my coach tried to make me run the 1500m in practice one day, which I really did not want to do. I was crying, and they actually called my dad. He left work and came all the way out there to practice to get me together. I remember complaining that my legs were hurting, and he just told me, “Get on the ground, and I’ll stretch you.” Then after that, he told me “Now, get on the line and go run.”
And from there on out, I just stuck with it.
I’ve heard you say that you have aspirations to be a broadcaster after your career is over. What interests you about broadcasting, and what would your dream on-camera job be?
TT: I feel like I’m very good in front of the camera and have the ability to answer things on the fly. Even in high school, when we did interviews as a group, I was always the main person to talk. I wouldn’t mind commentating for track and field, but I’m also open to commentating for a different sport as long as I learn it.
What’s something that you wish more people knew about track and field? Is there anything you would change about the sport?
TT: We go through a lot behind the scenes, and we put so much into the sport, so it hurts getting dragged after just one competition. People think that because you’re an athlete or “celebrity” you signed up for criticism, but at the end of the day, we’re just like any other sport. Our sport is very hard because it is an individual sport. We don’t have a team to rely on or carry us through in terms of performance.
There’s a lot to change about the sport, but that’s a whole other conversation. It’s important to know your worth and make sure you’re truly being paid according to your value.
What is something that you learned about yourself during the season?
TT: I’m capable of doing way more than I think. I didn’t realize how great of a season I had, especially with it being my first year. I’m very hard on myself. I saw my name on a list of women that had hit multiple sub-11s within one season, and just seeing my name with greats like Shelly-Ann-Fraser-Pryce, Carmelita Jeter … it was a great feeling.
If you could go back in time and give 9-year-old TeeTee who is just starting the sport advice, what would you say to yourself and why?
TT: “Keep doing it and stick with it.”
Just look at how my life turned out. What if my dad would have let me quit the sport? I don’t know what I would be doing right now if he did. With track, I get to travel the world while competing and have been able to explore different countries and see different things. It sets me up for once I’m done competing to have places I can go back and visit for vacation to relax.
Who are some of your role models in track & field?
TT: Carmelita Jeter. Definitely Shelly-Ann-Fraser-Pryce. I also have role models outside of the sport. Serena Williams and LeBron James –seeing them do what they do in their sports and just being able to be at the top for so long.
Have you met Carmelita? What was that moment like for you?
TT: I met her when I was younger at a Nike Elite Camp. My legs could not stop shaking that whole day. I idolized her growing up. I had Carmelita socks and a Carmelita T-shirt. Then my freshman year at USC, she came to visit the team. I ended up graduating when she actually got a job at USC.
What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind?
TT: I want to show kids that they can do whatever they set their minds to. Nothing is impossible. If you stick to it, no goal is too big to achieve. Also coming from where I come from — Liberty City in Miami — so much goes wrong over there. A lot of people get tied up in their environment, and I want to be able to show people that I’m one of the many examples that made it out. Teddy Bridgewater and Brianna McNeal have also done that.
I see a lot of positive quotes and affirmations on your social media. How important is mental toughness in your sport?
TT: Mental toughness in track and field is 100% needed. You can run just one bad race, and people are going to drag you for the whole year. Even if you’re battling injuries, people don’t care, and they’re going to say any and everything to drag your name through the mud. So you really have to be mentally tough. If you’re defeated mentally, you’re not going to make it in this sport.
I started posting positive quotes on my social media to encourage other people that might need them, and then I got so many messages from people saying how much it’s really helped them.
Do you have any specific mantras that keep you going?
TT: My main one is, “Be you. Be TeeTee. Focus on yourself.”
That’s what my college coach, Caryl [Smith-Gilbert], used to say to me whenever I would get nervous during big meets.
Pre-game race song?
TT: “Top” by Fredo Bang.
Finish this sentence … It’s race day, I’m not ready for a race without …
TT: My two ponytails.
What’s one thing you wish everyone knew about being a sprinter?
TT: Sometimes being so quick is not the main outcome. For example, our drive phase, it looks quick to the viewer, but it’s actually slow for us.
What are you watching on Netflix?
TT: I just finished season four of the series “In the Dark.”
Explain your post-race celebration dance. The dirtbike?
TT: That started at Miami Northwestern High School. I will always represent Dade County, 305. Our football players were doing that dance on the field the year they won state, so I started doing that. I remember winning indoor nationals in 2019 and doing it there after I crossed the line. From there on out it just stuck.
— 🏆 тwanιѕнa тerry. . 🏃🏾♀️💨 (@TeeTeeTerry_) March 28, 2022
Favorite social media app?
You make the TikTok dances look easy so I assumed it would be TikTok.
TT: Those are the simple ones. The rest of them I struggle, I can’t do. I look at the dance a couple of times and do it. I’m not one to practice them and do them.
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