These days, Olympic silver medalist and Philadelphia native Nia Ali is more than relaxed. For the next five weeks, she’s completely off the clock. No training. No competitions.
Nothing like the moments right before the starting gun went off during the finals for the women’s 100-meter hurdles.
“I just hate the feeling of waiting,” said Ali, who grew up in Germantown. “Once they go down the lane to introduce people, I’m always counting lanes. ‘OK, she’s in lane six. She’s in lane seven.'”
Ali, 27, also taps her legs to get herself ready to run, to compete.
“I tell myself just move, just so I know I need to get up and go,” she said.
And go, she did. Nerves be damned.
A short 12.59 seconds later, Ali was in the record books. Her U.S. teammates Brianna Rollins and Kristi Castlin took gold and bronze respectively. No country had ever swept the podium in the event.
For Ali, the first part of the race was a blur. She does remember seeing Rollins out of the corner of her eye and knowing that she was moving well.
“And I remember crossing the line for the first time knowing the position I finished in,” said Ali.
From the stands, Melita Johnson, Ali’s mom and unofficial manager, was near tears, cheering with fans from the Netherlands, who mobbed her after the historic win.
“Everybody started jumping on us, and they were screaming like they were our family with us,” said Johnson.
Every Olympic athlete goes for gold, and Ali admits topping the field would have been sweet. But she said the U.S. winning all three medals overshadows that goal. She said she’s just so grateful to her teammates for helping her make Olympic history.
“I could have just been another silver medalist,” said Ali.
Embracing the journey
Ali started running when she was 6 years old, and, until high school, she was always the fastest. Period.
In fourth grade, a boy at her school tied her in a footrace.
“They made a big deal about that,” said Ali.
It wasn’t until senior year of high school that Ali even considered track to be a ticket to someday being a professional athlete, perhaps an Olympian. She took running seriously before then, but she had other interests, including dancing.
Modern. Tap. Jazz. Hip-hop. Ballet.
Ali also played basketball and, for a little while, softball and tennis. But track was always No. 1, even when she had to clear hurdles in her personal life.
In 2009, Ali’s father died in a murder-suicide in nearby West Oak Lane.
In 2015, she gave birth to her son, Titus, whose time on the track in Rio after mom’s big win got national attention.
“I learned how to roll with the punches — to just embrace my journey. Even if my season is going down, and I know I’m supposed to be running faster, I know there’s a light at the end. I’ll come out on top,” said Ali.
To Johnson, that mental toughness is her daughter’s biggest strength as an athlete.
“She’ll be overseas and get fifth or sixth place and not run the time she wanted to run. And she’ll say something so funny about the race. She’ll be like, ‘Well I can only get faster,'” said Johnson.
Since returning to the U.S., Ali said she’s had to adjust to her newfound stardom. People recognize her now. They want her autograph or a photo.
Before Rio, she wasn’t a household name, even in Philadelphia. But she’s excited about the exposure. She wants to be an inspiration, a role model.
“I want more children to be like, ‘Who’s that?’ so I can kind of talk to them and lead the way, especially for my area,” said Ali. “I grew up with some people who I thought were very talented who didn’t make it to where I thought they would, so I don’t want to see that keep happening.”
The world championships are in London a little less than a year from now. Ali will train for that, but she hasn’t made a call about the next summer Olympics in Tokyo.
“You just gotta take it year by year. I had no idea I would be here even last year, so we’ll see what twists and turns come along the way,” said Ali.