Olympian Micha Powell runs a different course: Embracing failure as a means to success
A weekly series from the sprinter on balancing sports, school and life
Hey, all, Micha Powell here. Welcome to my video diary! I’m a recent University of Maryland graduate with a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism, three-time NCAA All-American and 2016 Canadian Olympian.
If you’ve wondered what it takes to be a track and field student-athlete and compete at the international level, look no further. With this weekly video diary, you can follow my journey from training as a student-athlete at UMD to representing Canada at the 2017 World University Games in Taipei, Taiwan, at the end of August. With my degree in broadcast journalism, I will use my reporting and editing skills to produce an in-depth look at the high-performance world of a 400-meter sprinter.
After I was named to the Canadian Olympic team in 2016, I thought that everything in my life would fall into alignment. I was going into my senior year of college at the University of Maryland as captain of the track and field team and on course to graduate with a B.A. in broadcast journalism in the spring. Also, with my new title as Olympian, I had an edge over my college competitors, having experienced the pressure of being selected to represent my country on the world stage. I felt prepared to dive in, headfirst, into my most intense year at Maryland. Unbeknownst to me at the time, it would be the most mentally and physically challenging season of my track career thus far.
I had been chosen to represent Canada at the 2016 Olympics based on my personal best (PB) time of 51.97 seconds in the 400 meters that I clocked at the 2016 East Regional Championships in Florida. At the beginning of my 2017 outdoor track season, I became transfixed with my best time from the previous year and was determined to run an even faster PB. I had dropped a second every year since I joined the UMD track team and was hoping to continue my streak. That was until I experienced my first substantial injury. Over spring training, I ran a tuneup 200-meter race to increase my speed and suddenly felt something not uncommon in the world of track and field: a hamstring strain. This slight hiccup quickly turned into a recurring pain that no amount of treatment (up to three hours a day) could quickly fix.
Regardless of this setback, my plan was simple. I would go to physical therapy until my body readjusted itself, and then I would be back running in time for my Canadian Championships, where I would run a world standard qualifying time to secure my spot on the World Championship Canadian team. My one-dimensional thought process led me to assume that I would make the Canadian team this year simply based on making national teams in the past. I didn’t allow myself to acknowledge the truth about my circumstance. I had to sooner or later face the fact that I could not rely on last year’s outcome to predict my coming track season.
My athletic trainer, Anthony Benyarko, concluded that my symptoms were a result of lower crossed syndrome (LCS). I did not want to admit that I had been running with LCS because of its association with muscle imbalance, which I interpreted as a weakness. I wanted to put on a brave face and not tell anyone the severity of my pain in the hope that it would go away. Call it pride or arrogance, but I thought if I didn’t speak my injury into existence, maybe I would still be able to run fast. After two months of rehabilitation exercises, Benyarko helped me master these new strengthening movements and my confidence came back full-fledged, and I was eager to get back into my spikes.
After I was cleared, I had a breakthrough toward the end of my outdoor collegiate track season at the 2017 East Regional Championships in Kentucky, when I ran a 52.15 (0.05 seconds off the world standard time). However, it came at the expense of my hamstring feeling like I had shredded it coming out of the blocks. I was too determined to not end my senior year without trying my hardest to qualify for NCAAs, so I kept pumping my arms throughout that race and did my best to ignore the excruciating pain in my leg. Wanting to make it to nationals and get the world standard so badly to race at the 2017 World Championships in Athletics in London blinded me to the fact that I was still running hurt.
In June 2017, my leg held up just enough for me to earn second-team All-American honors at my last NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Oregon. I was still favoring one leg, but I told myself that I could last a little longer until my Canadian track and field trials for the world team in July.
After weeks of training in the muggy Maryland heat with my coach prepping me for the Canadian Championships, I believed — no, I wanted to believe — that I still had another faster time left in my legs. The moment had come, and I was mentally ready to compete at my third senior-level Canadian national competition. I only had to convince myself that I was physically ready to leave it all out on the track. I made it through the semifinals with a time of 53.69 but considered scratching the finals because of the immense discomfort I was still feeling in my leg. I made my final decision during my warm-up before stepping onto the track for the 400-meter finals. I looked to my coach, the great world-record holder, Andrew Valmon, and decided I wanted to race one more time to honor all the work we’d put into training.
The announcers presented the lineup, and the track was closed off to everyone but the eight of us sprinters who qualified for the finals. I settled myself into my blocks, and within an instant the starting gun went off and I didn’t look back. I crossed the finish line only to realize that I had been disqualified for a lane violation near the 300-meter mark. Realizing I was not going to run at Worlds was devastating, to say the least. I felt like I had let down my coaches, family and friends who had come to see me race at what I thought would be the highlight of my season. I reflected back on my past five years in track right then and there and thought, Did I do all of this for nothing? I felt hopeless and did my best to mask my sadness. My mind kept going over my new reality. There would be no postrace interviews, no world team nomination celebration and no chance for me to show the world what I’m capable of doing around a 400m track in London.
I had to come to terms with the truth. My path had been altered. I was going to either accept this change in course or dwell over everything that didn’t go right in my track season. I decided on the former and promised myself that I was going to focus on getting my lower back and hips stronger to alleviate the pressure it was putting on my hamstring. I have to hold myself accountable, and only then will I be able to come back and run stronger than before. The best way I can grow and learn from this experience is to accept that success doesn’t come without failure. I refuse to let a setback prevent me from going after my goal of being the best Canadian 400-meter runner. It won’t be an easy road ahead; however, I know that disappointment from my shortcomings filled my heart with more desire and a mindset void of complacency.
Read Micha’s week one diary here: Student-athlete and Olympian Micha Powell’s guide to thriving in college