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February 13, 2017

Real talk: Kristi Castlin on gun violence in America, history in Rio and more

Olympic hurdler Kristi Castlin made her rounds with the media after clinching her bronze-medal in Rio de Janeiro but instead of talking about the 13-second race, she used her time to speak out against gun violence in the United States.

When she was just 12 years old, Castlin’s father was fatally shot by a man who broke into the hotel he managed and demanded money. Tragedy struck again when she attended Virginia Tech when 32 people were killed and 17 others were wounded in a campus shooting. 

Castlin recently took a moment to chat about her advocacy for stricter gun laws and her feelings on some of the early changes within President Trump’s administration. She also touched on her Atlanta Falcons’ Super Bowl run and the history she made in Rio alongside Nia Ali and Brianna Rollins to pull off the first-ever American sweep of the 100-meter hurdles medals.

Chris Chavez: First of all, I’m sorry about your Atlanta Falcons.

Kristi Castlin: Oh man! I felt like I was out there playing in the Super Bowl. I kept asking myself why I was getting so emotional for them even though I’m a pro athlete but that’s the home team. It’s fine though because they have a good squad and they’ll be back again soon.

CC: Did you make it out to any of those games?

KC: I didn’t. I actually found out that I had a stress fracture in my hip even when I competed in the Olympics. I’ve been rehabbing from that and just started training again three weeks ago. As much as I was tempted to go to Houston, I needed to stay in L.A. I want to make this upcoming world championship team because that is my Super Bowl.

CC: It’s a snowball question and everyone that comes back from Rio gets asked, how has life changed since the Games?

KC:  It’s changed with more media and events. For the first time, I learned how much people respect and care for Olympians. What I’ve actually noticed is that so many people know about the Olympics but I was disappointed with how much it dies down. That’s the thing that got me. My life’s improved and I made a ton of great contacts but things are pretty much the same. Every now and then, someone will ask me ‘Are you the girl that ran in the Olympics?’ A lot of people want to take pictures and I think it’s cool.

CC: When did it settle in for you that what you accomplished in Rio was something truly remarkable. With Nia Ali and Brianna Rollins, not only did you make American history but you also made women’s history and Black history. Has that settled in? We’re in a month celebrating Black History.

KC: It definitely hit me when I realized that I’m in an event where we have the best women in the world and they’re predominantly black. It was a race where the U.S. has been historically dominant but never had that Cinderella moment. It was the first Olympics for all of us. We had zero experience and our coaches didn’t have any Olympic experience. To really come out with that level of success, I think it’s been underrated. People didn’t understand the magnitude of what it took to get to that moment. We, as athletes, know the time and effort that we put in. Brianna has been competing at a high level for a few years now but I don’t know if anyone could have ever picked this perfect team that we had. We knew there was potential for a sweep but had no idea of the history behind it. For us, to carry that load and get the job done is something that I’ll carry for the rest of my life.

CC: What surprised me in Rio and at the Trials was how everyone was excited about what took place on the track. You took the opportunity to share your thoughts on things that you really cared about. One of those things was gun violence. You found the platform to speak out. How important has that been for you?

KC: With our new president and the things that are happening in Congress, I don’t think the issue and topic of gun violence has been directly addressed. I don’t think the victims and the families have had the appropriate platform on a national scale. I think it’s fine to point out Chicago and make note of the death and murder rates but until you give those families a way to speak, we can do more. I think I was put on this earth to use that platform because as athletes and people of interest, we’re sometimes limited in what we can say. It’s one thing to address police officers wrongfully killing people and that’s a very important topic. But we also have to address our own communities and the people killing each other in these communities. There’s a national stereotype and stigmatism behind guns. With the administration right now, I don’t think they’re sending a great message about gun violence. To promote guns in schools, parents can’t feel confident thet they’re going to school in a safe environment. Same with kids. I feel as a society, we could do a better job. I feel I could do a better job by allowing my voice to be heard. Reaching out to people and partnering with those who don’t have their voices heard, is one of my goals.

CC: I’ll come back to the election in a second. You made a visit to the White House last summer but you also chatted on occasion with Valerie Jarrett. What took place in those talks and what was the White House experience like for you?

KC: That was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The talks with Valerie Jarrett and holding a town hall on Twitter were life-changing. For someone who worked so closely with the Obama administration, I felt that Valerie’s concern for gun violence was real. We addressed real issues. She talked to me directly and allowed me to be open. I was tweeting for them and they weren’t telling me what to say. They let my voice be heard and they took my advice. At times, I would mention an idea and someone from her team would say ‘Oh we haven’t thought of that.’ I definitely think with all political leaders and Twitter town halls, there should be more of that. That White House visit was surreal. I got to meet President Obama and the First Lady. He was like “Hey, Kristi! I know who you are! I remember you.” I was like ‘Wait. What!? Are you serious right now?”

CC: One of the other things that you did after the Olympics was a town hall discussion with The Undefeated. A lot of great conversation took place regarding the state of some of America’s communities including Chicago. Just hours later, Dwyane Wade’s cousin is fatally shot after he spoke out against gun violence. What was your reaction to all of that?

KC: I think it’s access. It’s access because the people that were attending the town hall were people active in these communities. It was people who are very motivated to do the right things and move in a positive direction but it eye-opening. These types of community events are what we should be doing within these communities. We did it at a YMCA in the Southside but I believe these events should be in local stadiums or high school gyms, where it’s an open invitation to fill it with people from the communities. It’s one thing to talk about what people need. It’s another to really hear their voice.

Before I won an Olympic medal, I have never touched an Olympic medal. That’s why I let the kids that were there to try on my medal and touch it. I wanted them to know what it felt like to be successful. A lot of athletes and people go into communities and it’s fine to drop off backpacks and shoes. That’s a bandaid. That’s not really going out to talk to a kid and hearing their voice about what they want to see changed. They’d ask me about what I can change and how I dealt with losing a parent. Getting deep down inside of their hearts and minds and saying “What can we do to get better?” It’s not just from a business but as influencers, media and people as a whole, this is about impacting people and changing lives.

CC: Your own story includes chapters of your life where you were in their shoes. You know first-hand that one of the hardest parts of losing a loved-one is moving on and finding the strength to continue. At what point in your recovery process, you start to think that the loss of one life could be used to prevent many more?

KC: The thing about me is that I had a good life growing up. With the loss of my father, I think kids and young people can see it in two ways. You can become a victim and not understanding for a long time or you can overcome it. I think I’m sometimes a private person. Several people came up to me before Rio and said “Oh I never knew that was your dad or your story.” People will look at you and stereotype you if you look a certain way or if you’re privileged. If I could turn all of this in, so that I could bring my loved one back, I would. But I can’t. I have to live the best life and be the best person that I could possibly be. I want to be an example for what my dad would’ve been, if he was here on earth. Basically, I have to be myself times two. That’s how I live my life.

When I lost my dad, I was 12 years old and still a kid. I was numb. I didn’t understand how it felt and there’s certain moments where I think, ‘Man, I wish my dad was here to experience that.’

CC: Another point in your life that gun violence hit close was during the Virginia Tech shooting. You were a student-athlete there at the time. I was curious what the community response was there?

KC: I think everybody definitely came together. It was an emotional time in our school’s history. It solidified the core values of our faculty and staff in what Virginia Tech was really about. Some schools are known for their sports and others are known for their academics. When I went back to Virginia Tech, I felt the love and appreciation for representing the institution. That tragedy has brought the Virginia Tech family that much closer. It was something where we stood up and kept moving. A few days after the tragedy, I remember we went to the ACC Championship and became Virginia Tech’s first female ACC champion. Any time that mood shifts or tragedy strikes, I feel that I have to rise to the occasion because I am an example for my community and my family.

CC: We saw how divisive the election was. Things in America are already changing. Have you felt any changes as an athlete? On the issue of gun violence, President Trump dropped that “American carnage” reference several times. He tweeted about sending in the feds to Chicago. Sometimes he tweets and we’re talking about whatever he said but then we’ll move on to whatever the next thing he tweeted about was. What do you think he can actually do to improve things?

KC: Donald Trump and his administration have a very harsh approach. I just don’t feel like they’ve gotten down on the level with the communities. How are you going to mention what you could or would do for a community, when you’ve never been there or immersed yourself in that type of culture. I think it’s just a little early for them to even make those types of statements. With the Trump administration, a lot of people are older. Maybe they could listen to the voices of the younger people and millennials. That’s diversity. They don’t know what it means to be diverse. They’ve never been a woman in America or Black in America or Muslim in America. I just think it’s premature for those types of judgements without getting the facts. I guess I’m a person of the people. Whether it’s on the track or political. If you’re not hearing what the people need or what they want, I don’t think it could ever truly be effective.

CC: In track and field in particular but across other sports as well – why do so many athletes present themselves as apolitical and don’t speak out. Could you see that changing this year?

KC: It’s changing because people are gaining more respect. I just know a lot of times I’ve wanted to speak out on certain issues or things – even at the Olympics. There were times when people would say ‘No, you may not want to say that right now.’ They’ll say that athletes do and say different things that result in reductions or they’re fined. It’s still freedom of speech. I understand that there’s a code of conduct and there’s a way for certain concerns to be delivered. Freedom of expression is important too. It’s like wearing uniforms and being told you have to wear this or have to do that. I think that with organizations, sponsorships and companies, the more you allow athletes to be creative and allow their voices to be heard, the more impact they’re actually going to have on consumers and the community. People want to know what you’re thinking. You don’t want them to think that you’re just a dumb jock or you really don’t care. I care. It’s not just when I’m in the community, donating my old track clothes. I remember when I was 15 years old and just started running track. I didn’t really have a mentor because it’s not that they weren’t there but they weren’t given the voice to actually to get to the grassroots.

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