How Olympian Kristi Castlin triumphed in Rio, and became a gun control advocate

Story by Yvette Caslin; Images by DeWayne Rogers; Makeup by: @Erika_Lapearl_MUA; Wardrobe Stylist: Jon Ross the Stylist; Wardrobe provided by Pilar is Everything

Cheers rang out from Decatur to Douglasville, Georgia, on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016, when Kristi Castlin won the bronze medal in the women’s 100-meter hurdles final at the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro. She and two fellow American athletes made a clean sweep, snatching up shiny medals along the way.

Kristi finished in 12.61 seconds. Brianna Rollins won the gold medal, running 12.48. Nia Ali won silver, running 12.59.

“I was just happy to finish the race in my position,” Kristi told NBC after the race. “I’ve had to overcome so much. This is for everyone who has had a hard time and just bounced back.”

It was a win that her mother Kimberly Castlin agrees was just what the family needed.

On Dec. 7, 2000, Kristi’s father Rodney Castlin, 36, was murdered while at work. Kristi was just 12 when two men held up the Wingate Inn where her father worked as a night manager, stealing a few hundred dollars and senselessly shooting him in the chest before fleeing the scene, leaving Kristi and her brother Rodney Castlin Jr. without a father.

Rodney’s killer got away with murder for 15 years until he was given three life sentences plus 35 years in prison this past April. To remain nameless, he was convicted by the jury of malice murder, felony murder, and criminal attempt to commit armed robbery, two counts of armed robbery, aggravated assault and possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony. Justice was served.

Still, gun violence reared its ugly head again. Kristi was a freshman at Virginia Tech when a gunman opened fire, killing 32 people on April 16, 2007.

Kristi’s road to Rio was paved with pain.

“For our family, we needed this. We needed it,” Kimberly admits.

“When she crossed the finish line, it was amazing. It still brings tears to my eyes. I am so proud of her,” shares Kimberly, who says she was home and not in Rio — a nervous wreck. “It was so intense. I wanted this for her as much as she wanted it. When she crossed the finish line, I screamed so loud, I knew my neighbors would call the police. The fact she made the Olympics team in Eugene, Oregon was amazing.”

When asked what kind of child Kristi was, Kimberly beams. “Kristi was fast when she was growing up, a great kid who always wanted to play,” shares her mother. “At first, she was a handful. By the time she reached the 5th grade, there’s this one teacher, Pam Smith at Chapel Hill Elementary School [Douglasville, Georgia], who was the right teacher to get her going.”

Kristi first told her mom that she wanted to run track when she was in the 8th grade at Chapel Hill Middle School. “We had just lost her dad. My son [Rodney Castlin Jr.] played baseball at Gresham Park. We were traveling from Douglasville to Decatur, Georgia and it was too much for me to do at the time until she reached high school. She reminded me when she entered high school that I promised her she could run track. She was a cheerleader from 7th to 9th grade, so I told her it was OK to add another sport,” she recalls.

Kimberly was curious about Kristi choosing hurdles. Kristi reassured her mother that it was something she knew she’d excel in and be a star.

“She did very well with track from the start. It was her passion and she wanted to do it and I supported her,” Kimberly says.

Supporting an Olympian is no small task. It’s an investment of finances, time and commitment.

Mom says, “It takes all three. She was a cheerleader, too. Kristi was an A student, so it was easy to make the sacrifice. Going to practice, showing up at every meet, making the financial investment, flying to Indiana, meeting with coaches, etc. She had a special coach since 9th grade. He told me she had ‘it’ and ‘it would take her to the next level.’ Tony Bennett was her speed coach.” Today she trains in Los Angeles with Lawrence “Boogie” Johnson.

Kristi competed collegiately for the Virginia Tech Hokies and has several top three finishes in NCAA competition. She was a gold medalist at the Pan American Junior Athletics Championships in 2007 and a silver medalist at the NACAC Under-23 Championships in Athletics in 2008.

Here, the Olympic gold medalist reflects on her win and shares how she uses her platform to raise awareness and advocates for gun control. She dedicated her victory in the semifinals at the 2016 US Olympic Trials to the survivors of gun violence, saying at the time, “I really just want to dedicate this race to every single family, every person who has to go on after losing someone they love to gun violence. I definitely know first-hand how it feels, not just to be a child but to lose someone you love to gun violence.”

Please share what you felt the day you won the Olympic Bronze medal.

It was a feeling of relief. I had worked so hard to get to that place in my life. It was also a feeling of exhilaration to be a part of history, U.S. history, Women’s History, Black History. It’s such an amazing feeling. I am so happy to be able to share in the success with my friends and family.

Who were your biggest supporters along the way?

My family has always supported me, and even my social media supporters on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter always messaging me, “Keep up the good work.”

My mom helped me to get settled when I moved to L.A. My brother has always been there for me, encouraging me to be great and do an amazing job. Without my family, I definitely wouldn’t be here today.

So you’ve left the Atlanta area for Los Angeles?

I am kind of bicoastal and live everywhere. I live in Atlanta. I live in L.A. That’s where I train. With my newfound success, I am in Atlanta, New York, and Miami now.

What is a typical day like for you now that you’re an Olympic medalist headed for the World Games?

Typically, I wake up at about 7:30 a.m. I was driving about an hour to practice every day. A training day lasts about three-and-a-half hours on the track – hurdling, jumping, running sprints and doing long-distance work. I get a 30-minute break before heading to weight lifting for about two hours.

I go home, take supplements and prepare dinner. It’s a full-time job.

What do you like to eat?

I love Chick-fil-A. When I am trying to get toned and lean, I am an advocate of [going] gluten-free. It boosts my energy levels and makes me more tone, lean and fit. I am a big fan of juicing. I have low iron so I figured out some different juices using beets and ginger to give me the energy I need to be a world-class athlete.

Your mom shared that you are raising awareness against gun violence.

I am definitely a big advocate for gun control laws. I lost my father to gun violence. Even at the U.S. Trials, I spoke up for victims and families of gun violence. When you lose a loved one, the pain doesn’t go away a year after or six months after. That’s a pain you deal with your entire life. I think as individuals and families come together, create a bond and share these experiences with one another, we can help each other go on, be prosperous and be successful.

I use my platform as an Olympian now to bring awareness. I did the ESPN town hall on gun violence. I spent time in Chicago. I went to the White House to do a town hall with Valerie Jarrett [Senior Advisor to the President of the United States and Assistant to the President for Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs in the Obama administration] about gun violence.

It’s definitely an issue that’s near and close to my heart. I plan to do events and initiatives throughout my career, and the rest of my life to raise awareness.

What’s next for you?

We have a world championship this year. It’s the NFL division championship. The Super Bowl is the crème de la crème. That’s equivalent to the Olympics. I plan to walk away with the gold medal.

Which athletes do you admire?

I am definitely a big fan of Serena Williams — seeing her time-after-time being resilient, exemplifying beauty, power, and strength. I actually met her in New York during Fashion Week. She congratulated me on all my success. I was amazed and impressed with everything that she does. To celebrate me, that made me like her even more.

Share some words of wisdom for young girls who aspire to be a track star.

Never take “no” for an answer. In my lifetime, a lot of people told me “no” and that I couldn’t do certain things that had never been done before. I think when you have a goal and you fixate your mind and vision on that goal, never take “no” for an answer. I always tell young athletes to have fun. Be focused. Sacrifice. Go to college. Never give up.

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