Although it might be cheesy to make a “leaps and bounds” reference about an Olympic hurdler, that’s the best way to describe how far Dalilah Muhammad has come over the past year. She faced hamstring injuries, COVID-19, and, in February, an optic neuritis diagnosis that left her without sight in her left eye and took her off the track. And yet she recovered and still made it to the Olympics, where on Wednesday, Aug. 4, she broke the world record in the 400-meter hurdles (again) and brought home a silver medal.
She might have preferred gold, but had “no mixed emotions," Muhammad told reporters Wednesday. "Sure, there are always things you want to do better. But you use this as a springboard to the next. This is not my last race."
Before the Olympics, we Zoomed with Muhammad to talk about competing under pressure, moving forward after setbacks, and how she stays motivated.
Refinery29: You won a gold medal during the 2016 Rio Olympics, and set world records in the 400-meter hurdles track and field event twice in 2019. That’s a lot of pressure on this year! How do you handle that?
Delilah Muhammad: “It’s different, going in and being the world record holder, the previous and defending Olympic champion. [But] I just dive into it. I think that's kind of been my mindset about the pressure. I think the pressure comes along with our sports and everyone feels pressure across the board. So I remind myself of that and try to turn it into positive energy versus negative. That kind of holds you back.”
You’ve had some injuries and setbacks this year, including recovering from COVID-19 and being diagnosed with optic neuritis. Can you tell me more about what it’s been like to work through those and how you move forward after something has slowed you down?
“I was just trying to have a positive attitude throughout it all. But it taught me to stay focused. Deal with what you're dealing with in a moment, but know that you'll heal from it. And it’s definitely been a game of adaptation. In previous years, I would have an end goal and a game plan to get there, and I wouldn’t depart much from that plan. But this time it was definitely having to adjust and figure out different ways to accomplish those goals. I would set little goals, and sometimes the goal was just finishing the workout.
“[Also, I practice Islam] and I’m a very spiritual person. I wasn’t always growing up, but in running, there are so many unknowns and so many times that you want to give up that you're always yearning for that edge. That thing that pushes you forward and makes you want to come back and do it every single day — do something that literally hurts. For me just having that Islamic background helps keep me grounded. It’s nice I have that to call upon when I am feeling so down or like I can't go any further.”
How does it feel to actually be competing for the Olympics after all those challenges and uncertainty?
“I’m [more] excited than I’ve ever been when it comes to competing. Because of everything I’ve faced this year, to be back and in some type of good form and ready to go? That journey is exciting. I’m so appreciative of the people who have been in my corner, just supporting me and holding my hand along the way.”
I’ve heard that at the end of every year, you pick a “power word” to set the tone for the year ahead. In 2019, for example, I know you picked “compete.” What was your word this year?
“Picking a word is about being in a zone where you’re thinking about what your future is going to hold and are deciding on what path you’ll take to get there and achieve that. A lot of times, if I'm training hard, the word is about where the finish line will be, and that pushes me forward to keep going for that level of success. When it hit 2020, I was having a really difficult time trying to figure out what that word was going to be. I felt like I was in limbo that year. And then, crazy enough, we got the news [about COVID] around March. It was just one of those things. [For 2021], I did come up with something. I almost want to share it with you — but I’m going to hold off for now.”
What’s your favorite way to pump yourself up before a big race?
“Coffee is my go-to. But I’m honestly not the type of person who wants to be pumped up. I would rather be calm. Coffee gives me the energy boost that I need, and then I just want things to be similar to when I’m training. I want my coach and training partners around, just laughing and talking with me, and that keeps me calm and ready to go.”
Over the past year, did you learn any lessons or discover anything about looking after your mental health that will stick with you going forward?
“I’ve really relied on my family and friends. During this time, we actually got so much closer. We were using Zoom, and finding ways to connect when we couldn’t physically be in contact. It’s taught me a lot and made me reevaluate how much those people mean to me and how much I need them for mental health and for my journey on the track.”
This interview has been condensed for clarity and length.