Mechelle Freeman is 2007 World Track and Field champion, and a 2008 Olympian in the 4×200-meter relay. She founded the organization TrackGirlz in 2015 as a way to provide exposure and access for girls to the track and field world that so often gets left behind after college.
She and her co-director, Jennifer Nash Forrester have developed this community to create sisterhood, provide empowerment and to equip girls with the resources necessary to pursue track and field at any level.
MEET MECHELLE FREEMAN
“Growing up, our mom always made sure we had access,” Mechelle said over a nice 9:00 am zoom call. “Whether it be dance, theatre, sports, she always made sure.”
Mechelle and her sister were dubbed “the fast twins” after becoming track athletes in high school. Have a record near and dear to your heart? If it was between 100-meters and 400-meters, you could have wished it farewell once they stepped onto the track.
“We broke records and got state records. When I went off to college at the University of South Carolina, we brought back the first National Championship the school has ever had,” she said.
When we think of track and field today, or have friends who participated in it growing up, there’s often a massive drop-off in participation after high school. The National College Athletics Association (NCAA) released their 2018-2019 “Estimated probability of competing in college athletics” report in which they found that of the 605k high school track and field athletes, just 4.8% go on to compete at the NCAA level.
POST COLLEGIATE JOURNEY
After university, Mechelle found herself in New York City as an intern for VMLY&R (previously Y&R), a top ad agency where she placed her focus for a few years.
Being on a budget with the exorbitant prices in the NYC area, the cost of training, commuting, and gear, Mechelle knows first-hand just how difficult pursuing track can be when you’re on your own.
“I had a vision, though. I knew I was going to make the Olympic team. I became very intentional, everyday.” She later decided to quit her job and make a run at becoming an Olympian.
Coming in last in her first race, her support system was there to encourage her to keep going. “There were a lot of losses and uncertainty,” she says about the start of her time back on the track. “I was hustling, working odd jobs, traveling across town to practice, I relearned discipline.”
FINDING HER STRIDE
After finding her *stride* and gaining more consistency, she found herself in a race with Allyson Felix and others at the U.S track and field championship in the 100-meter sprint (aka the make-or-break race of her career).
“I was on the right side of the race that day. I looked up and saw I came in 3rd by 100th of a second.” For reference, the top runners then go on to make and compete on the World team. She showed up for herself that day and gained Nike, her old ad agency and a local gym as her sponsors.
And so the story goes.Mechelle gets a shiny new PR in the 100-meter sprint of 10.01-seconds and goes on to the Olympics to make the 4×100-meter relay team.
“It’s all about executing the battle. You can only control the controllables and that’s what I had to do.”
Mechelle and her team were watching the Men’s 4×1 relay team against Jamaica where they dropped the baton. An absolute nightmare, and the men’s team was disqualified. The women’s team was next and Mechelle was the second leg.
“I was just going and going on that straight. Passing people everywhere, you know? And I knew all I had to do was pass off the baton and we’d be good, I’d have done my job.”
She comes into the passing zone seeing her teammates hand, which to us would look just fine, but Mechelle could tell the hand was just a little bit lower than comfortable. Hand back, she reaches out to pass the baton and they nail the exchange. Her teammate is off in stellar position to run the final curve and hand-off to the anchor.
“It was all just happening so fast. I was trying to breathe and I looked up and, well, they dropped it in the same zone the men did.”
“People kept telling me track wasn’t relevant after a certain point. I just want to expose the dopeness,” Mechelle starts to tell me. “I want to provide a consistent platform for the community.”
Thus, TrackGirlz was born.
What started as a general platform to empower girls and women in the track and field space, turned into a non-profit organization in 2018 after she met her co-director, Jenniger. Since then, they’ve put on running camps both domestically and internationally as well as running and fitness workshops.
This past year in 2020 amid the start of COVID-19, they’ve started to work on making grants accessible to be able to support girls who want to have the chance to take running to the next level – whether it be in high school, college or after. Exposure and accessibility are two key things Mechelle had learned from her mother growing up. Exposure, accessibility and inclusion are all three key things that are also promoted in TrackGirlz.
“I want to get more Black, Indigenous and people of color involved to expand the conversation,” she says about the future of the organization. “I want to bridge the gap between track and the rest of the running community. I want to bring out all different body types to show just how inclusive this sport is.”
What’s Mechelle’s advice for getting more involved in the running community? “Find your local track club to create community, so you can have people lead you. Track and field has organic diversity, so you can always find something.”
As for future goals of TrackGirlz, Mechelle plans to be able to provide access to millions of girls for sport, to be able to provide direct mentorship opportunities to help them reach the next level, and to eventually develop a team that can be financially supported.
Want to learn more about TrackGirlz? Visit their website here for information about the organization, Mechelle and Jennifer.