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For sprinter and single mom Natasha Hastings, an Olympic delay is more than a wait

Natasha Hastings anchored her team to victory in a 4x400-meter relay heat at the 2017 world championships. (David J. Phillip/AP)
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In both the phase of her career and the stage in her life, Natasha Hastings has reached the point at which time is an adversary. For a sprinter, even a two-time Olympic gold medalist, entering your mid-30s means clinging to the final vestiges of your athletic prime. For a single mom devoted to a 7-month-old son and beholden to a work schedule, there are only so many hours in the day.

Hastings entered 2020 facing challenges and carrying high hopes. She called this year “my final lap,” an opportunity to prove to herself she could still compete on a global stage and that age and motherhood would not prevent her from sprinting once around an oval track with the best in the world. She would rely on her “village” to help raise Liam, make one more U.S. women’s 4x400-meter relay team — one of the most dominant teams in recent track history — and leave Tokyo fully satisfied with her career. She would retire on top.

Hastings has learned, like the rest of us, that 2020 is welcoming of no plans, no matter how small or how grand. In late January, she started seeing reports about a virus going around a province in China, and when people started questioning how it might affect the Tokyo Olympics, she thought back to her previous experiences. In China, air quality was a supposed threat to the Games. In Rio de Janeiro, it was Zika. Neither was an issue once the athletes arrived. Hastings figured this problem — what was it called again? Coronavirus? — would ultimately be the same.

The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics to 2021 will affect every hopeful in some way, but Hastings, 33, represents a class of athlete unusually impacted: those Olympians who had hung on for a quadrennial for one more shot, only to face another year of training to stave off aging, to discover the rest of their lives would have to be put on pause one more year.

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Elite athletes thrive on being in control, and the uncertainty of this year, both professionally and personally, has robbed them of that feeling. For Hastings, training for 2021 is a way to reclaim it.

“This is the biggest thing for me: walking away from this on my own terms,” Hastings said. “I feel like that’s now been taken away from me if I don’t go to 2021.”

Hastings understands her goal will require continuous appraisal. A recession would hit athletes hard if sponsorships dry up. She is raising Liam, who was born last August, as a self-described single mother with help from her own mother and support from friends and coaches. For now, she is doing everything she can, training in her Austin home and in her backyard.

“A lot goes into the decision of, ‘Will I compete next year?’ ” Hastings said recently in a phone interview. “Right now, yes, I am. In the coming months, I will have to re-strategize and make sure that it is possible to train.”

At the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, everything was so much simpler. She had been part of the U.S. 4x400 team in 2008 as a 22-year-old, but she missed the team for London 2012. Hastings rebounded for 2016, and it was one of the best events of her career. She finished fourth in the 400-meter final. Her blazing second leg of the 4x400 allowed the U.S. team to pull away, leading to its sixth consecutive gold medal.

Hastings expected she would make a third Olympic team in 2020, a perfect way to close her career. In July 2018, she was engaged to William Gay, an NFL cornerback. They knew they wanted to have children, just not right away. A few months later, Hastings took a pregnancy test.

When it came back positive, Hastings felt a tangle of emotions. She had always wanted a family, and she wanted to be happy. Anxiety overtook her excitement. Her plans for the 2019 world championship evaporated. She had to train and compete to maintain sponsors; what would they think when they discovered giving birth would sideline her?

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Hastings hid her pregnancy. She told almost no one for the first half of her term. She knew she wanted to train for the 2020 Olympics, but she didn’t know whether Under Armour would reduce or cut her sponsorship.

She was afraid for 4½ months.

“I don’t like to use the word ‘depressed’ loosely, because I think it’s a serious condition a lot of people suffer with,” she said. “But you hear people talk about postpartum depression, but not very many people talk about depression during pregnancy. I had come to find out a lot of women feel the same way in terms of their careers being on the line.”

Hastings called her representative at Under Armour and finally revealed her pregnancy. The representative was empathetic. When she was pregnant, she told Hastings, she felt the same anxieties about telling her bosses.

Allyson Felix, a world champion sprinter who felt betrayed when Nike reduced its sponsorship after she became pregnant, has said track and field can improve its treatment of athletes who become mothers by adding more women to the sport’s leadership. Hastings found an example of why a prominent voice at a major apparel company could matter.

“They were supportive of my pregnancy and have been supportive of my journey since then,” Hastings said. “When I had to make that call, the person on the other side of the phone totally got it. I know they were actually a little disappointed I waited so long to share it with them. I was just unsure.”

By the time Liam was born in August, Hastings could celebrate fully. Liam is the love of her life, and she can’t believe it took her 33 years to meet him.

Her personal life, though, has still included complexity. Her engagement to Gay recently broke off. While she and Gay are doing their best to co-parent, Hastings is a single mom when she never expected to be.

“I’ve kind of been joking: 2020 is the year that is just trying to take me out,” Hastings said. “I feel like a lot of people feel that way.”

She’s trying to work toward 2021. Tokyo 2020 officials have announced the Opening Ceremonies are scheduled for July 23, 2021. That would be Hastings’s 35th birthday.

Hastings loves the days when her mother brings Liam outside to her backyard practices, which make him laugh and smile, though Hastings isn’t certain he understands her objectives. Liam is her motivation, and lately a specific image has been driving her. Presuming it is safe, Hastings wants her son to watch her in Tokyo. Even more, she wants him to see her try. Hastings still faces so much uncertainty over the next year, but she is sure of that.

“If anything from this journey, I want my son to be able to look at me and say: ‘My mom didn’t give up. My mom did the best she could with what she had, and she’s a warrior,’ ” Hastings said. “So, yeah, I want him to come to the Olympics.”

Read more:

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