When the pandemic hit, USATF Pacific Foundation grant recipient Robyn Stevens was poised for the best year of her career. A native of Vacaville, Robyn grew up as a youth star both in race walking and cross country. After high school, her progress stagnated with an onslaught of injuries, nearly driving her out of the sport. In 2015 Robyn began her comeback journey.
Since then, Robyn has race walked her way back to the forefront of American talent. In 2019, she was the first woman to win national titles in both the 50km and 20km race walk, qualifying to represent Team USA for the Pan American Games in both events. Coming into 2020, Robyn was the highest ranked US athlete in the race walk and won the US 50km championships in January.
In March the world changed, and Robyn's entire season was canceled. We recently caught up with Robyn to learn more about her career and how she has handled a challenging year.
How did you discover race walking?
I started club level Track & Field and Cross Country in 1998 -- I was a youth runner who learned how to race walk from my club coach, Claudia Wilde of the West Wind Flyers, and so became a race walker in addition to being a runner. I was a runner for track & field AND cross country -- I placed 4th at the 1999 USATF Junior National Championships (Texas) in the 5 km Run after winning the 10 km Race Walk earlier that morning. As a Junior I was ranked 4th in the Nation for 5km running, 5th in the Nation as a HS recruited State-level runner by the time I graduated high school in 2001, and the undefeated 4x defending Junior National Champion for Race Walk (and became the first American race walker to win gold at an international championship when I surprised everyone by winning the 1999 Junior Pan Am Games (Florida)--I had come into the race ranked 12th but I ended up winning because I didn't want the girl who was throwing up behind me to get throw-up on my shoes. True story for my motivation to go faster :-P haha). I had roomed with Victoria Chang of Hawaii that year (1500m runner and someone I had competed against at Mt. Sac XC for Footlocker, which is where I took 11th behind Sara Hall (Bei) and missed Footlocker Champs by one place). At Junior World Championships in 2000 and 2002 I competed in the race walk while I simultaneously focused on exceeding in the academics department.
When the Olympics were postponed, where were you in your training/racing cycle? What was your initial reaction?
When the Olympics were postponed in March Nick Christie and I had recently returned from winning Indoor Championships in the 3,000m race walk (my first Indoor Championship win as an Open athlete since my Junior/U20 years as an athlete)--which was three weeks after defending my 50km National Championship title. My coach, Jacinto Garzon, and I were gearing up for the 20km Race Walk World Team Trials per requirement with a focus on prepping me to preform sub A-Standard in the 20km at World Team Championships in Minsk (Belarus) in April. Minsk would have been followed by the World Athletics 20km Race Walk Challenge in A Coruna (Spain). The plan was for me to get the A-standard in Minsk during the 20km then double in the 50km simply for mileage (yes, still in Minsk at World Team Championships). My coach, Jacinto, was going to meet me there as the rest of my teammates (they're Spanish) would also be there competing. Nick Christie and I were then going to head to Lille (France) for a couple of days to meet with our sponsor, Newfeel, then to Gaudix (Spain) to train with my coach and Spanish teammates until a month before the track and field Olympic Trials in Oregon come June.
Honestly, once I learned of the pandemic (got word of it) my immediate reaction was to quarantine -- I started March 11th -- regardless of what the State and Government instructed. Since I was diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder in 2009 I've since realized managing GAD for all these years has been somewhat of a blessing in disguise during and a strength builder for stressful situations like such; I've learned the quicker a problem is acknowledged, the sooner the problem can be nicked in the butt and life can return to feeling back to some type of sense of normal even in the most unusual sense of the word (and feeling), so, my hope was that everyone would get on board with quarantining so that we'd only have maybe a month or three of having to do so (obviously, that ended up being a fantasy, heh). I had hoped the Olympic Committee would do the right thing by valuing lives and health ahead of putting on a show, by postponing the Olympics to 2021. Even though I felt ready and was clearly having my strongest year, I value ALL of our health and wellness. Health and gratitude are mostly what inspire me to train, so...I felt relieved the Olympics have been postponed because I know the Olympics will still go on, eventually--I want to feel proud of the accomplishment NOT regretting being there if it were to put lives at risk of death. My entire life I've lived by the motto of a song my mother used to sing to me when I was a little girl and her mother sang to her: Que Sera, Sera. What Will Be, Will Be. Each day we just gotta show up and do what's right or feels right in the moment, by doing so, great things and more are enabled to fall into place. <3 Earned by discipline and perseverance.
How did you adapt and find motivation in the following months?
The lifestyle of an endurance athlete is already fairly isolated, so my day-to-day living didn't change significantly for me since the past couple of years or so I've been on the go so much that I didn't get to see a lot of my family during birthdays anyway. The holidays will be quite different this year but I feel grateful for the technology that enables us to keep in touch. We also have a family organized holiday virtual run we're going to do on Thanksgiving. We use face-time and the Houseparty app (it's an app) to remember our faces by. Our family has group message exchanges and then of course there is social media outlets that keep each other in the general loop, too. I feel satisfied and more secure/comfortable just knowing my family and friends are okay and are being safe (or as safe as we can be within our power). As for athletics my training continues to be simply business as usual but with emphasis on focusing on the little details a full season doesn't provide a lot of time for, which has been a perk or golden glimmer among the fog of unknown. The biggest difference for the season is of course competitions have been postponed a year or more--which decreases our annual living wage but I'm accustomed to living on a tight budget and making what little I have stretch by staying keen on opportunities that arise in response to keeping busy with focused projects and training. For me, personally....I had to take 12 years off from Athletics due to health issues (eating disorder and an Achilles injury in 2004) and financial constraints that kept me busy trying to just keep a roof over my head and my car and health insurance covered. When I came back to Athletics in 2015 it had been so long I had been gone that without the support of The Pacific Association's USATF Pacific Foundation founded by George Kleeman, I definitely would NOT have been able to make it this far and continue to progress--especially since there are not a lot of resources and enough prize earnings and stipends available for a person in their 30s just coming back to or entering the sport. For example, up until this year's Indoor Championships, I could not take Indoors entirely seriously as a competitive opportunity nor a money making investment since to afford travel to races to qualify for Indoor's itself and then getting there without guarantee of a travel reimbursement made (and make) things quite challenging--especially for an undefeated defending Junior Champion making a comeback after 12 years of being entirely removed from sport. I cannot express enough how much the USATF Pacific Foundation has truly made a remarkable difference in my life and helps me to be able to put funds I wouldn't otherwise have without it towards the opportunities necessary and sometimes even required for obtaining my (our) fullest potential. So a large part of what has also motivated me greatly through all of this and even before the pandemic is GRATITUDE. I value my family and loved one's health and wellness most, and I feel grateful for the opportunities sports allow us to stay and be healthy--to push our bodies to be the best version of fitness when done properly and with a humble yet driven mindset. Part of staying healthy and what the Olympics is supposed to represent is the world uniting to celebrate overcoming a challenge all of us encounter: pushback and strife. During the pandemic I feel it's important that we each work as a team by taking individual responsibility for ourself so as to have a successful overall outcome for not only an entire team (in this case the team is the whole world) but for each of us individually, too. I've qualified for every Olympic Trials available during my active athletic career and each year I ended up injured (2004, 2016), consumed by work due to financial constraints (2008, 2012), and now a pandemic...so I've been waiting a long while to finally toe the line at the Olympics. What's another year's wait? Every day I train I'm training for one event: a healthy journey to the Olympics. All other competitions are simply opportunities to practice the pace against competitors and or pick up the small annual purse of prize monies to help fund training for the Olympics (and humbly surviving/getting by while pursuing a dream so many of my family and network of supporters have put energy, time and money towards achieving). So that all said, my training remains the same regardless of sans competitions because the goal hasn't changed. I took time off when I normally would and I started back up with intent that regularly scheduled competitions I normally would do ARE going to happen (regardless of if they happen or not). Because by doing so, when the time arrives to be ready I'll be ready.
The pandemic also has allowed for me to get a full year with my new coach Jacinto going into the new Olympic year, which gives me hope and confidence I'll be even stronger in 2021, which is definitely motivating! In the meantime I've been training at middle altitude, learning desert living and becoming familiar and acquainted with the wildlife out here, and it's been fun to be able to participate in more of the Pacific Association Grand Prix series via our virtual races--particularly even do some distances this year that I haven't been able to participate in the past two years because I'd be traveling to (or at) National and International Championship races scheduled for the same dates, so it's been fun being able to just have a little fun with and be a more active participant at the local level and community. <3
Also, with HUGE thanks to our sponsors and grant Nick and I have been pooling our earnings together to gradually furnish a nice home-gym. It's been coming together nicely! Decathlon USA (a sporting goods store) has fantastic prices on items and products for creating a home-gym and for carrying out other various social distancing activities. This has definitely helped us stay sane and feeling like not much has changed since with these tools we can still maintain our strength sessions unencumbered and in the safety of our home.
Knowing my family is safe and alive and that we're each at least doing our part to help ensure all our families stay healthy and safe is what will make the 2021 Olympics extra special and stand apart from the past several Olympic years--I imagine it'll maybe feel like it did for Olympians participating in the Olympics after the World wars--as a world we fought and fight for us all to be healthy so that we can have luxuries like competing for who's the fastest to cross the finish line, who can throw farthest and who can jump highest.
What is your mindset now as you look ahead to 2021? The mindset is to keep healthy and strong, and continue focusing on the big and small details: wake up, train, control the controllable (all we can do is what we each individually can do within this passing moment)--If we're doing all that we can in this moment, that's conquering what we can little by little so that when we can finally race again safely, we're ready. And if that day never comes again, well, each moment we're still winning if we're doing all that we can with what's available to us within each moment.
This Giving Tuesday, we ask that you support athletes like Robyn, who need our help to get through this difficult period. Every donation up to $100 will be matched by the endowment of George Kleeman and may be eligible for corporate matching. Like Robyn, all athletes build their careers on the backbone of supportive communities. Join us in creating that support network for Pacific Association athletes in the Olympic year ahead.
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