Natasha Hastings was born into running, but some might say she was born to run. Growing up with a mother and father who both ran track and spent numerous days at the track, Hastings easily found her way to the sport.
But she didn’t just run; she dominated. Hastings quickly discovered she had serious talent after breaking a minute in the 400-meter dash as a 10-year-old. A couple years later, after moving up an age group, she exceeded her expectations and her coach’s when she ran 54 seconds, breaking the eighth grade 400-meter indoor record.
LESSONS FROM HER FIRST COACH
That coach, Sean London, stayed with her for the majority of her school running years, teaching her skills to implement on and off the track.
“Before I started running track, I was a brat,” Hastings admits. “He definitely got me in line, and he taught me discipline, character and focus. That all happened really quick when I got with him.”
When Hastings was having trouble fitting in with the girls on her team, London taught her a very important lesson she carries with her today.
“I felt very isolated and thought no one liked me. I was hearing little whispers that I was his favorite,” she remembers. “I went to him and asked him, ‘Am I your favorite?’ His response to me was, ‘Yes, but I’ll tell you why. Every day that we come to practice, you want to work. I don’t have to fuss and fight with you to do what I’m asking of you.’”
Hastings says she always remembered London’s words and kept that same mentality even when she went to college at the University of South Carolina and started training under a new coach.
“When you move from high school to college, it’s a totally different ball game. Everyone on the team is just as talented,” she says. “I remember looking at the lineup of girls on the South Carolina team, I remember thinking to myself, ‘I might not even be on the A relay team.’ I’ve never not been on the A relay team. I remembered that if I show up to practice and competitions and show that I’m willing to work and learn, my coach would be more willing and excited to work with me.”
Hastings says she doesn’t mind being the favorite, even as a professional runner, because she know it means her coach looks highly upon her work ethic and can count on her to execute his teachings.
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LESSONS FROM HER FIRST HERO
Hastings’ talent, however, didn’t come from London’s coaching — and it didn’t just happen by chance, either. Her mother, Joanne, was a sprinter who held short-distance records in her native London and even made the Olympic team for Trinidad and Tobago in 1984, qualifying in the 100-meter dash. Unfortunately, an injury a few months before the Olympics caused her to miss competing in Los Angeles at the ‘84 Games, which Natasha didn’t even find out until she was 12 years old.
“My mother was my first hero, for sure. I have her middle name, so I feel like I am carrying on her legacy and finishing what she started,” says Hastings. “I learned everything from her. She taught me how to believe in myself and helped me establish my talents on and off the track.”
Hastings stresses the impact of having her family’s support during training periods, team trials and, most important, the Olympic Games. With a love of track running through the Hastings’ veins, she feels like everything has come full circle, and she’s proud to be excelling in something so near and dear to her family’s hearts.
LESSONS FROM HER FIRST SETBACK
Unfortunately, Hastings career hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Her sophomore year of high school, she tore her hamstring during practice. It was the same year she needed to qualify for the World Youth team, which would have been her first international competition. She had three months to rehab, heal and get just healthy enough to run in the qualifying race. She finished in just enough time to qualify.
“With a torn hamstring, you can barely walk, much less be running to qualify for a place. I remember going through extensive rehab and therapy, while trying to maintain some kind of fitness on top of that,” Hastings recalls. “My coach and I got even closer during that time because I had to be so obedient and trust his guidance so closely. When race day came, I wasn’t quite healthy, but I ran just enough to qualify for the next year.”
Hastings says the process taught her the importance of keeping her head down and focusing on the goal in front of her, even if things weren’t perfect on the outside. She had to follow the rehab process so closely — which included two activity-free weeks and then a gradual increase in activity — or risk losing everything. And when your life revolves around running, it can be extremely difficult (both mentally and physically) to take time away from the sport.
Luckily, Hastings’ raw speed was enough to keep her on track for that year’s goal, but she doesn’t forget how taxing it was on her mind and body to come back from her first big injury.
“It definitely took patience,” she says. “I remember being in the race and wanting to push, but knowing that if I pushed, I probably would pull (the hamstring). It took a lot of control.”
LESSONS FROM HER FIRST OLYMPIC GAMES
Hastings’ first Olympic Games was in 2008 as part of the U.S. 400-meter relay team (which won a gold medal that year). When asked what competing at the Olympics is like, she says it’s overwhelming, exciting and scary — all at the same time.
“The first time I went, I was a little bit green,” she says. “I had just turned 22, so I was very young. I had been disappointed in not making the individual 400, but I looked around and realized there weren’t many other 22-year-olds on the team, so I was happy to be there.”
She recalls how packed the stadium was and a tip from a veteran runner she thought she could follow.
“I was told, ‘When you walk out onto the track, whatever you do, do not look into the crowd.’ Later, when I walked out there, that was the very first thing I did,” she admits. “It was a moment I had to refocus, but it also made me hungry. I wanted to come home and work harder toward the next (Olympic) team and everything in between.”
LESSONS FROM HER MOST DIFFICULT FIRST
A few years later, when Hastings missed the 2012 Olympic team, she admits getting the urge to quit running altogether. Fortunately, she had the strength to change her mindset and push toward the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“I was 30 years old, and I had to push myself to places that I never imagined,” she says. “I tweaked my hamstring again a month before the trials, so this was another moment where I had to be patient and laser-focused on what’s to come.”
When Hastings ran in the finals at the 2016 Olympic trials, she admits to still feeling “a little bit of something” in her hamstring, but she told herself that it was all or nothing at that moment in time.
“I had nothing to lose at this point. This was what I had been working toward for the last four years,” she says.
Then, those last four years paid off handsomely for Hastings and she made the 2016 U.S. Olympic team.
“It was my second Olympic team, but my first time making it for the individual 400. Rio wasn’t just a moment, but the journey to Rio was the moment.”
LESSONS LEARNED AS SHE REACHES FOR HER NEXT FIRST
As for what’s next for Hastings, she says she’s always looking for that new accomplishment, personal best or, as she says, “what’s greater.”
“I’m definitely still searching and working to be the best Natasha yet,” she says. “I feel like I am enjoying my career more than I ever have, and I think it’s because I can feel myself coming into my full potential. That includes on the track, off the track and how I touch other women and girls in sports.”
She says the opportunity to inspire and motivate aspiring athletes is incredibly special to her. “If some young girl tells me I’ve been an inspiration to her or she wants to run like me, I want to tell her to run like yourself. Be the next you, not the next Natasha,” she says.
Regardless of what Hastings’ next big “first” happens to be, if a young track star can be anything like Hastings, we’d say she’s in store for many of her own firsts on and off the track.
Written by Erica Schuckies, a runner, gym rat and outdoor buff based in Austin, Texas. She is a lifelong athlete, having participated in a number of sports from her youth years well into her adult life. You can follow Erica on Twitter or Instagram.