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Down to the Root: Olympian Colleen Quigley on How Mental Health Touches Every Aspect of Her Life

August 4, 2021

9 Min read

Go beyond surface level with some of our favorite creators, innovators, and beauty gurus in our Down to the Root interview series. They let us in as we find out who they are, what drives them, and how beauty and hair ties in.

 

Olympic runner Colleen Quigley knows that hair is more than just hair. It can be a powerful tool for building confidence and feeling like your best self. That’s why before a grueling practice or a physically and emotionally hard race, her performance ritual always includes some sort of braided hairstyle—for herself and for her teammates. She eventually created her #FastBraidFriday series on Instagram. It’s now a digital community where thousands of fans join her in posting their own version of feel-good hairstyles.

Going beyond track-approved plaits, Colleen uses Instagram for mental health advocacy—.a subject that isn’t spoken about enough in the athletic world. Here, she opens up about her own personal mental health journey after deciding to drop out of the Olympic trials, and how she stays true to herself on and off the track. 

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Has hair always been top of mind for you?

Hair is a big deal. For me, but also for just about anyone I’ve ever talked to—both male and female. For whatever reason, it’s such an important part of our identity and through #fastbraidfriday I realized it can be such an incredible way to create community and bring people together.

In high school and in college I was the “team braider” on my team, braiding my teammates’ hair on the bus on the way to the meet in high school and in the hotel room before the meet in college. That role was so important to me because I knew my teammates entrusted me with such an important part of their race prep. Then through my #fastbraidfriday movement as a pro, I figured out how to create a kind of “team” centered around braids that allowed me to have “teammates” from all around the world. It’s been just as amazing for me as for all the girls and women who take part in it every week.

You speak a lot about the way “hair” can evoke confidence, as opposed to just being something for vanity.

Good hair makes me feel confident and energized, ready to take on the challenge in front of me. It’s just hair right? It’s so much more than that. I take the time to do my hair and makeup before workouts and races because it’s part of the preparation to do something I know will be really hard. It’s a way of hyping myself up for the challenge.

Any beauty hacks you can share?

I love to do a simple and clean makeup routine. But to do that you need to take care of your skin. I never go to bed with makeup on and use plenty of sunscreen since I spend so much time outside. As for hair, I rarely blow dry it. I usually opt to towel dry and use a leave-in conditioner and then maybe some hair oil. I often workout twice a day, but I don’t wash my hair more than once a day so it doesn’t dry out. Dry shampoo is a life saver on those days!

I want to tell my followers ‘things are not perfect over here!’ but also ‘I’m figuring it out and having as much fun as possible along the way!’

Why do you do what you do, professionally speaking?

This is a really good question. First, I love running. It’s probably the thing I’m best at and I get a lot of joy from running, training, and competing. Beyond that, I love the moments where I get to meet fans, especially young girls, who are looking up to me and following me in my journey and see me as a role model and inspiration. I think that is probably the biggest WHY for doing what I’m doing today. I especially love it when these girls have their hair braided and are a part of my #fastbraidfriday movement (which they almost always are!).

What has been the biggest impact of #FastBraidFriday?

The biggest impact is the community it has created and the way it brings people together from all over the world to inspire and support one another in their individual endeavors. I’ve done a couple in-person braid bars in New York when I was in town for races (before COVID) and I’m really looking forward to doing more of those soon! I might actually have one coming up in October in Chicago…:)

What message are you trying to relay to your audience through the content on your channels?

I try to share as much as I can on my channels—the good times AND the challenging times. Recently I had to drop out of the Olympic Trials and give up the opportunity to go to the Olympic Games in Tokyo this summer due to injury. This completely broke my heart, especially since I had to wait an extra year for it and haven’t been injured in years (I stayed healthy all of 2020 ironically). But I share this part of my journey too because my followers have heartbreak and disappointment in their lives too, so they can relate to me when I’m going through something hard. I want them to see me as I truly am, not a curated and perfected version of me that sets up unrealistic expectations about how life “should” be. I want to tell my followers “things are not perfect over here!” but also “I’m figuring it out and having as much fun as possible along the way!”

In deciding to forgo the Tokyo trials, how did you make that decision for yourself?

Making the call to drop out of the Olympic Trials was so difficult because I’ve been looking forward to the opportunity to go back to the Olympics pretty much ever since I left Rio in 2016. I knew I wanted to work for another 4 years because I was confident that if given the chance I could do it even better the second time around. To have put in so much work for 5 years now just to have something come up at the last minute is so heartbreaking. But that’s sport and that’s life. You can work so hard and still not have it all turn out like you imagined.

What were your priorities in making that decision and then afterwards?

My priority is my long-term health and making sure that I don’t make decisions now that will jeopardize my ability to continue my career for many more years to come. I feel super lucky to have such great partners in this journey who all encourage me to make the right decisions for the long term, not for short-term gains that end up harming me down the road.

What was your thought process as to what and how you would address your fanbase regarding your decision?

I had kept my struggles with injury over the past few months to myself because I was feeling vulnerable and embarrassed about being injured again. When I finally made the decision to withdraw from the Olympic Trials, I recorded a video for my followers to explain a bit about what was going on and why I wouldn’t be able to race. As hard as it was to record that, I felt a weight lifted that I was able to open up and share my struggle with those who follow and support me. I value authenticity a lot and it wasn’t until I shared my struggle that I realized that keeping it to myself was only making it harder on me to go through. I definitely want to do a better job of showing up for my supporters, especially for the young girls who follow me and look up to me. They need to know that even the pros get injured and that it’s nothing to be ashamed of or hide. It’s important for them to see the whole me, not just the podium moments.

As scared as I was to share with the world what I was going through with injury, I have found the response to be nothing but positive. So many people can relate to getting injured or just being disappointed by the outcome of something they built up in their head to be so big. It motivates me to keep sharing my stories in hopes that it makes someone else feel less alone in their own struggle.

It’s important to me to normalize mental health struggles because EVERYONE goes through them.

Why is mental health advocacy so important to you?

I have struggled a lot with injuries over the last five years and as an athlete injuries are one of the most difficult things to deal with. Each time I’ve gotten injured it’s as much of a mental battle as a physical one. It’s important to me to normalize mental health struggles because EVERYONE goes through them. Acting like I don’t does a disservice to myself and my fans. This summer I was not open about my on and off struggle with my body for two months and it was making me feel so stressed about hiding the truth on top of the stress of dealing with the pain in my body. When I finally broke down and admitted what I had been going through, it was still really painful and my heart was still broken, but I felt a weight was lifted that I didn’t have to hide it anymore. My fans supported me despite not going through the Olympics and that really helped me feel supported as a person, more than just an athlete.

Who makes you feel most yourself?

I danced for many years and still love to dance and move my body in pretty much any way.I have to move my body in some way every day. Even when I’m injured I will do whatever my body allows: spinning, swimming, hiking, yoga, pilates, even just stretching… I get so grumpy if I don’t get the time to move my body every day. I also love being creative, which could mean anything from knitting to sewing to painting to DIY home projects!

When do you feel the most challenged?

Oooo I absolutely hate being bad at things. So anything that I’m not good at, even something like a yard game or a new exercise in the gym. I often will get pretty fired up and have to keep working at whatever it is until I get better at it.

Where do you find support when you’re feeling down or challenged?

Hands down my biggest support is my boyfriend, Kevin. Kevin and I have been together since high school (we are going on 12 years this fall!) and have both seen each other do so much growing and developing as humans. No one knows me the way Kevin does and whenever I’m trying to figure out what to do about something, how to handle something, or even just need to vent or cry, Kevin is my guy. I know I can always count on him 100% to be there for me.

So what’s next for you? 

Next summer the United States is hosting World Championships for Track and Field for the first time ever! This is very exciting for Team USA and I really want to compete for a medal next summer at Worlds. Everything I’m doing now to get healthy and rebuild myself is with the intent to be my best self next summer at Worlds and at the 2024 Olympics in Paris.

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