WORLD CHAMPION, OLYMPIC CHAMPION. With résumé lines like that, Brianna McNeal—one might think at a superficial glance—would never lack for confidence.
Yet the 100H arguably features the toughest competition of any event in making Team USA for Tokyo. One need look no farther than the last Olympics, where the Clemson alum led a dominating American medal sweep.
Yet ’13 WC gold medalist McNeal, who has experienced the best and the worst of what this sport can offer, says that her mental game is—and must be—her main focus in fighting her way back to the podium. So when Tokyo was postponed for a year, it rattled her initially.
“I was very emotional about it,” she admits. “I was heartbroken a bit, because you make certain sacrifices in your life for a moment, and to be told that it’s not going to happen for a year, it kind of was a bit stressful.
“I was training well and I was very fit and I was looking forward to having that season. But although it may be delayed, it’s not denied. All I can do is see the silver lining and take advantage of the opportunity to be able to prepare more.”
Should all go according to plan, Tokyo will be the culmination of a comeback of sorts, as McNeal, still celebrating her Olympic gold, got slammed by a suspension just a few months after her return from Brazil.
It was a whereabouts suspension—three strikes she’s out—only the last two carried with them a cruel irony. For one she was in Miami to take part in “Brianna Rollins Day” and a parade in her honor. The third strike came when she met President Obama in the White House. She admitted she forgot to update her whereabouts in the system; she took full responsibility for the screwup.
The standard 2-year penalty was cut to 1, with the USADA report calling her “a brilliant athlete who is not charged or suspected of using banned substances of any kind.”
Still, McNeal couldn’t compete in 2017, missing the chance to go into the World Championships as a favorite. She also surely missed out on much of the earnings that would normally come to the Olympic champion.
The next season she came back hard, hitting 12.38, her third-best time ever. In a sterling campaign she captured 4 Diamond League wins and ranked No. 2 in the world behind national champ Keni Harrison.
The ’19 season, however, played out differently. “I had a lot of mixed feelings about that year,” she says. “I felt like I was doing everything that I needed to be at the top of my game, but it wasn’t working out for me like that. I had a lot of personal things going on and I didn’t realize how much it spilled out over my career.
“I learned that although I could be training my butt off every day, doing everything I need to do, eating right, getting my weight and my body together as a whole, but if I don’t have the mental or even my spiritual in order, everything just doesn’t work.
“We’re three-dimensional beings. If all things aren’t working together or cohesive, then it just shows. And as you saw at the World Championships, I clearly wasn’t in the right mental capacity to compete in 2019, unfortunately.”
After placing 3rd at USATF in 12.61, McNeal only competed once more before Doha, taking 6th in the Birmingham DL. Then, at Worlds, she false-started out of her heat.
“I was very devastated,” she says. “I was heartbroken because I did feel like I had prepared well enough to be on the podium, but to lose focus for just a millisecond was devastating.
“But it just wasn’t meant for me, it wasn’t meant to be, you know? I believe that all things that are for you are for you. I felt like that day—that moment, that year—it just wasn’t mine.”
Yet at age 29, McNeal is coming back for more. “I learn from experience and try to grow from it. Life wasn’t easy for me growing up. Going through adversity when you’re young, it just becomes a norm. I continue to be optimistic about everything and try to stay strong and understand that all things are working out for my good, even when I don’t understand them.
“God gives his toughest battles to the strongest soldier and I guess I could say that I’m one of his strongest soldiers.”
Working with longtime coach Lawrence Johnson, McNeal has so far been able to stick to her training schedule through the pandemic, training in a park 5 days a week and lifting 3 days. “Those things did not change for me. [The pandemic restrictions] were more about the socialization, but I’m not a social butterfly, so I wasn’t affected too much by it.”
The routine helped her deal with the many other stresses that 2020 brought. “I always felt like track was my sanctuary,” she explains. “It’s a place where I can unwind and let go of all my worries and stress. I’m pretty blessed that I have the opportunity to run track as my career and it gives me safe haven.”
To get back to the top, McNeal feels her mission is clear: “I need to be continuously training my mind, strengthening my spirituality, and also just training hard. That has gotten me to great places. Just mastering my craft every day by giving it my best, that will hopefully put me back on top of the podium.”
She pauses for a moment and adds, “Also, I think that reestablishing my confidence and rebuilding my confidence in myself… I’ve been through so much, sometimes I can doubt myself. I can get a bit low, and just building that trust in the whole process will help me make it to the next Olympics.
“I honestly wake up and go to practice and look forward to it, even though it’s sometimes very hard. When I get through those hard days, it makes me feel good and feel like I’ve gotten better.”