On or off the track, Anna Cockrell has never been good at slowing down.
After graduating from the University of Southern California with her Masters degree in May and winning two NCAA track and field titles in June, Cockrell is heading to her first Olympic Games thanks to a remarkable personal best time she ran in the 400-meter hurdles at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials on June 28.
The Tokyo Olympian was a four-time All-American in college, and she made the Dean’s List every semester. She was named a captain of the USC track and field team as a sophomore.
On paper, Cockrell is the golden girl. In her own mind, that has rarely been the case. In her post-race interview at the Olympic Trials, she was in tears as she spoke to media.
“I worked really hard for this,” she said. “In 2019, I was super depressed. I didn’t want to be here anymore, so to be standing here as an Olympian is more than I can take.”
Cockrell, who is from Charlotte, North Carolina, began her athletic career in competitive gymnastics, but when she was 12, she fell out of love with the grueling demands of the sport and wanted to try new things. She rock climbed, played basketball, and eventually tried out for the middle school track and field team.
When she started hurdling, everything fell into place. She almost immediately mastered three-stepping, a challenging hurdling technique in which runners take only three strides between barriers to increase their speed and fluidity over the hurdles.
“For a lot of hurdlers, three-stepping is a big process, but it wasn’t for me,” Cockrell told USA TODAY Sports. “A lot of the hesitation that young hurdlers have about learning to three-step, whatever is scary about it, wasn’t there for me. My coaches told my dad early on, ‘She’s special,’ but it didn’t feel extraordinary until I was in high school and college.”
In high school, Cockrell continued to excel. She competed in her first international meets, winning gold medals in the 400 hurdles at the 2015 Pan Am Games and at the 2016 U20 World Championship.
Amid her success, Cockrell began to struggle with her mental health. She first developed symptoms of depression during her sophomore year of high school and went to therapy for several months during that time. However, she had a strong support system in her family and was able to maintain feeling “fine” until she began college at USC in the fall of 2016.
Los Angeles is more than 2,500 miles from Cockrell’s hometown, and though she could still lean on her family when she needed to, it wasn’t the same as being with them in person. She also had to cope with the unexpected death of her grandfather in her first week on campus, and the grief she repressed only worsened her mental state.
Cockrell is one of a number of Olympic (and other) athletes who’ve recently described their battles with mental health issues. The subject took on a particular urgency following gymnast Simone Biles pulling out of the team final in the Tokyo Olympics, and later declining to compete in the individual all-around final.
“I did not want to seem weak,” Cockrell said. “I just won World U20s, so I’m supposed to be this hotshot recruit. What do I look like crying in the corner? That is not what I’m supposed to be doing. I wasn’t even trying to process, because I was so focused on all the things I thought I needed to do and the person I thought I needed to be.”
From the outside, Cockrell didn’t just seem okay. She seemed like she was thriving. In her classes, her extracurriculars and her athletics, she was performing above all expectations. However for Cockrell, achievement was her vice. When she succeeded, her depression was temporarily held at bay, and she was constantly chasing that feeling.
“It’s really easy to ignore when things are going well,” she said. “I was like, ‘How can I be sad when I just did this thing? I got an A on the paper that I worked really hard on. I feel good.’ But over time, you do that enough, and no achievement is big enough to overcome everything that you feel.”
For her first two years of college, no one at USC knew how much Cockrell was struggling.
“I was so good at telling myself I was fine, and I don’t think anyone would have identified me as a depressed person, because we imagined depression is laying in your bed all day and not being able to move,” she said. “That was not my experience, even at my worst times. I would tell myself, ‘Okay, if I can just get through this, I’ll be okay. I’ll just go super hard, and I’ll write this paper, and it’s going to be the best paper they’ve ever read. I’m going to achieve through it.’ I was crying a lot, but I was like, ‘Whatever, people cry.’ There were signs that things were not right, but I would not have called it depression.”
During her junior year, Cockrell reached her breaking point. At the 2019 NCAA indoor track and field championships, Cockrell suffered a hamstring injury that pulled her from the competition, and when she could no longer hide behind her performances, her internal pain became apparent.
Then-USC head coach Caryl Smith Gilbert had noticed a change in Cockrell, and after the injury at nationals, she pulled Cockrell into her office to find out what was going on.
“I just felt her energy. I felt her spirit. I looked at her and she was kind of down,” Gilbert told USA TODAY Sports. “She wasn’t her upbeat self, and I believe God put me in this position to do more than coach. Coaching is about helping the kids. Something told me, ‘You need to talk to Anna.’”
In that meeting, Cockrell broke down and told her coach that she felt hopeless. Around the same time, Cockrell’s thesis advisor also recognized that she was struggling and sat her down to check in. She said that those interventions from her mentors were the push she needed to start prioritizing her mental health. However, it was the forced time off during the COVID-19 pandemic that truly helped her begin to heal.
When the pandemic first escalated in March 2020, Cockrell returned home to North Carolina. She stopped training completely for a while, just riding her bike around her neighborhood to stay in shape. When she began running again, she worked out with her high school coach and a group of 15–18 year-olds who helped her rediscover her love for track.
“Being around a bunch of kids who are just really passionate about the sport and are really cute and sweet and pure and unjaded and just want to be here because they want to be here, it’s infectious,” she said. “They’re asking me all these questions about what is running in college like and this and that. A lot of people hate the process of getting in shape, but I really enjoyed it. During that period I was like, ‘A 15-year-old boy just kicked my butt this morning. Whatever.’”
By the time she was able to return to USC, Cockrell had a completely new mindset on the track. She still wanted to perform well and win, but she wasn’t seeking external validation or experiencing the anxiety and pressure that she used to before races. Instead, she approached each practice and race with a sense of gratitude.
“Even when I was at my lowest point of functioning, my body never gave up on me,” Cockrell said. “My heart has consistently been beating all this time, and my lungs continue to work. It feels like a small thing, but it’s really not. In the midst of whatever is happening, or whatever I’m feeling, I can close my eyes and put my hand on my chest and, and just be like, my heart is still beating, I’m still here, and isn’t that freaking beautiful?”
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Gilbert has seen the growth in Cockrell firsthand. Even though Cockrell was still racing at an elite level at her lowest, Gilbert-Smith said that her performance at the Olympic Trials showed how much she is capable of now that she is in a better place.
“It was like a bright light to be able to see her do that and have fun doing it,” Gilbert said. “Anna did a lot of great things, but she was never happy. Now she’s actually happy. I told her, it’s not a matter of if it’s going to happen, it’s a matter of when. She’s got a lot more in her.”
Cockrell raced both the 100- and 400-meter hurdles at the Olympic Trials, but she failed to qualify in the 100 hurdles, which competed several days before the 400. She also struggled in the preliminary and semifinal rounds of the 400 hurdles, and was still able to produce a personal-best time in the final Cockrell said her younger self could not have coped with that kind of pressure and disappointment the way that she did in June, and Gilbert-Smith believes that Cockrell’s reckoning with her mental health will be key to her continued success in the future.
“All of the adversity that Anna had at USC was for the moment she’s in now,” Gilbert said. “I’m not sure she could have handled what life has for her. She’s going to be one of the most amazing leaders that this country and the world has ever seen, and it’s going to transcend track and field. She had to face some things she hadn’t faced in order to be successful at what God has planned for her.”
Cockrell will compete in the preliminary round of the 400 hurdles July 30 in Tokyo. She said managing her depression is a lifelong process, but she feels prepared and excited to race on the biggest stage in sports.
“All of the work I’ve done to be in this place has translated on the track,” Cockrell said. “I know where I was in 2019. I know how much I had sunken into despair and how hopeless I was. I wouldn’t have been able to believe at that point that I would even be happy more often than not. I know no matter what happens [in Tokyo], this is just the beginning of my career as a professional runner.”