Mechelle Lewis Freeman’s deep faith and the support of her family and community helped propel her to the top ranks of track and field. She’s a Pan American Double Silver Medalist, a World Champion, and an Olympian. The lessons she learned from her own experiences inspired her to create a non-profit, TrackGirlz, that empowers girls through track and field.
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Mechelle grew up in Maryland, where she and her twin sister ran track in high school. “We were winning state championships and breaking records and went on to go to the University of South Carolina, and be a part of an amazing group of women,” she says. “I’ve always been surrounded with a strong sisterhood through the sport since I’ve participated, and at the University of South Carolina, we brought the first national championship in any sport to the university in 2002.”
Besides her own undeniable talent, the encouragement of her community helped her get there. “I come from the inner cities, growing up on the outskirts of Washington D.C. and Prince George’s County,” Mechelle explains. “So we weren’t in the zone for the best schools. We were part of a boys and girls club, where it was straight grass roots; you know, community efforts of getting our youth involved and off the streets and things like that. So I’m rooted in coming together at the community level and making big things happen.
“My mom… when we grew up, we went to a Catholic school. She wanted us to go to private school since our school was technically, on paper, not the best for us to be going to. So I understood at a very young age the intention of making sure my access and my perspective was never restricted to how someone else put us in the box of what we were supposed to be in. And my mom always instilled that in me. She wanted me to make sure I was in control at all times of my choices and understanding what I wanted to do.
“So I understood that at a young age, what it meant to be blessed to have somebody advocating for you, to be blessed to have somebody pulling for you, to step in for you, have a voice for you. I know how that impacted my path to where I am today; it started there. And so I’m gonna always do that for my community, for those who may not have access at the time. I’m going to see them because I was always seen. So it’s a very important principle for me.”
While pursuing her master’s degree in mass communications, Mechelle moved to New York City to take an internship with Young and Rubicam, one of the world’s leading advertising agencies. She was engaged to be married, but two weeks after she arrived in New York, she and her fiance broke up. It led to a profound change in her life.
She had grown up in the church, but hadn’t pursued religion as an adult. After the breakup, she recalls, “I found myself living in a hotel in Secaucus, New Jersey. I was isolated and I was by myself and at that time of being isolated, when I didn’t have anybody, that’s where I found God again. I didn’t know who else to talk to. So I just started praying again and I started reading again, like, try to help me figure out how to navigate this space, how to navigate this pain. And since it was a foundation of who I was, I just went back to it. It wasn’t like it was brand new to me. It’s just that I wasn’t using it. I didn’t take the authority of it as an adult yet. And so I just leaned into it, and found myself there.
“In that time of isolation, that’s where I really came into understanding my power, like believing who I was and believing the power of God and applying it. So I was able to apply it to anything now. And now I say, ‘Oh, I wanna make an Olympic team,’ then okay, God said, ‘All things are possible,’ then here we go. If I say I’m a believer, then I have to act as so, and I just held myself to that level of accountability in a way that I never had before.”
Mechelle went on to work for Young and Rubicam, but after two years decided to recommit to track and field. She went on to earn two silver medals at the 2007 Pan American Games, become a 2007 World Champion, and compete in the 2008 Olympics. She stepped away from competition after the Olympics and returned to advertising, and it was while working for a marketing firm in Atlanta that she had the epiphany that led to the creation of TrackGirlz.
The agency had a roster of high level athletes and coaches, but nobody from track and field. She had a conversation with one of the agents about the omission, and he expressed the opinion that nobody from track and field was relevant outside of Olympic years. From her own experiences, Mechelle knew that wasn’t true. “I know women who are powerful and inspirational who can be tapped into as a resource to influence the next generation. And so I just thought it was a true gap there and misunderstanding that I wanted to help change.”
She trademarked the name “TrackGirlz,” and launched social media accounts sharing track and field history and highlighting female athletes. From offering online inspiration, TrackGirlz went on to provide real-life experiences for girls, when Mechelle turned it into a non-profit organization.
“It’s a known data point for the sport to have a positive effect physically, mentally, and socially for girls,” she explains. “And my own personal experience can speak to that, as well. So just thinking about the sport, how it impacted my life, I wanted to do the same for other girls. Growing up, my parents were big on exposure and access. So I know what it means to be able to open the door for someone to ensure they have the authority to choose what they want to do in life. And that’s what the goal of TrackGirlz is, to open a door for other girls to be able to decide what they wanna do and use the sport as a platform to do that.
“Our programs include workshops that allow girls to have those direct mentors, contact points with women and girls from the sports, especially with the network that I’m blessed to have, access to Olympians and world champions and high level coaches. We wanna make sure that they can have those direct interactions, to have influences to help guide and motivate and inspire.
“Of course, you wanna do some track and field things, so some fundamental things to make sure they have access to movement and sport using some basic run, jump and throw activities. And then our grant program, we give direct resources, money, equipment for the girls to have access to track and field in their local communities. We’ve been able to pay for a racing wheelchair, for a track team to have new uniforms, pay for travel fees and membership dues for girls to have access to the sport.”
Belief and faith are at the heart of everything that Mechelle does, and she encourages the girls whom TrackGirlz mentors to discover their foundation. “You have to have something that you believe in beyond logic because not everything is gonna make sense. Everything is not gonna be two plus two equals four and a linear solution. And when it goes to a place that is beyond understanding on a logical level, then you have to find that space that’s gonna keep moving you and inspiring you to push forward, and that’s when that magic happened for me.
So it’s just finding, what’s your motivation? What is something that is enough for you to have that uncommon courage, that uncompromised faith for you to keep pushing forward when you don’t know, when it doesn’t make sense for everybody else? You gotta figure out what your foothold is and your faith, and what you really, truly believe in that’s gonna keep you moving and believing and moving forward.”
Thank you to Dri Seats, Tracksmith, and Becoming a Sustainable Runner for sponsoring this episode.
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Becoming a Sustainable Runner, by Tina Muir and Zoë Rom, is a practical guide for runners of all abilities and backgrounds who want to take meaningful action to protect our planet through their love of the sport. It’s available for pre-order through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Bookshop.org, Waterstones UK, Target, and many independent bookstores.
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