Nia Ali competes during the 2014 World Indoor Championships in Sopot (© Getty Images)
“Resilience is all about being able to overcome the unexpected. Sustainability is about survival. The goal of resilience is to thrive.”
– Jamias Cascio, Writer and Futurist
Since out-leaning Sally Pearson to snatch gold at the 2014 World Indoor Championships in Sopot it is fair to say Nia Ali would not have predicted how her life would pan out.
With many people expecting a great outdoor season from the charismatic US hurdler, she struggled to fire and finished 2014 ranked joint 16th in the100m hurdles world lists with a best of 12.75 – despite a personal best of 12.48.
Then the unexpected happened: she became pregnant. It came as a shock and as a young, emerging athlete the news –initially at least – prompted a range of emotions.
“When I first heard I was pregnant it was like, ah, this is interesting,” she admits. “It could have been better timing. I am someone who wants a huge family, but I was aged 26 at the time. In our sport, as a woman, we are tugging and pulling with emotions and I realise we don’t have a long timeline in track and field.”
Yet any negative thoughts she harboured quickly receded. A positive “everything happens for a reason person” Ali opted to fully embrace the surprise.
“I quickly realised I would miss out on the worlds [in 2015], so I just need to focus on defending my world indoor title and make the Olympic team,” she explains. “It didn’t take very long to think, hey, let’s make this a great thing.”
Ali (right) wins world indoor gold in 2014 in a blanket finish
Receiving the full backing of her family, the father of her to-be-born child, US 400m hurdler Michael Tinsley, and her coach, Ryan Wilson, she had strong and total support.
For the first “four to five months” of pregnancy the LA-based hurdler carried out her normal training regime with “slight modifications” until she decided to head east to her home city of Philadelphia to be close to her mother, Melita, and family.
“At that point I decided to take the pregnancy all in, enjoy it and not be a super-workout mum,” she admits.
Not that she neglected her fitness. She took up a gym membership, went along to dance aerobics lessons and took regular visits to the pool. Yet despite trying to blend in with the casual gym-members, her naturally athletic ability caught the eye.
“Some people were like ‘do you run track because you are doing lifts that normal females don’t do?’ I just kept quiet and shrugged,” admits the modest Ali who remained silent about her world-class track ability.
Her son Titus Maximus Tinsley was born on May 8 weighing 6lbs 5oz.“We wanted a strong sounding name,” explains Ali. It was a straight forward birth and within six weeks she re-started her fitness work with some long runs. In August she returned to Los Angeles and enjoyed an encouraging first session back.
“It felt good,” she recalls. “I didn’t feel discombobulated and I still had my bounce. Honestly, if I didn’t have Titus with me every day, I could almost forget [because of how well the body readjusted to the training demands] I’d pushed a baby out.”
She has also adapted quickly into life as a mum. She receives huge support from Tinsley, who regularly flies up from his Texas training base to meet with mum and son.
“He is awesome,” says Ali. “He is obsessed by Titus. It is funny everyone talks about us having this super baby [of athletic talent]. We may be exhausted from the training, but we both want to be the best parents possible.
“It helps that Titus is a good baby. He’s very easy-going and mellow. My coach, Ryan, is also hugely supportive and my training partner, Monica Hargrove, is always around to help out.”
Life is, however, understandably now more complicated. Juggling the demands of an active baby (no, surprise there!) with training is not easy.
“My days are always hard and I sometimes wonder ‘how am I going to get through this?’ But I can’t dwell on this and think about it too much.”
I'm so happy my son has a bedtime we stick to religiously and sleeps well through the night. Makes the road to Rio a more gracious one.— Nia Ali (@ItsPooda) January 12, 2016
On the track her speed endurance has taken time to return, while her lower-abdominal muscles are practically “non-existent”.
“I call them my Titus muscles. My abs are very weak at the moment and I now have to undo Titus’ work,” she adds with a smile.
Yet in other respects she bounced back quickly from childbirth and is “excited” for 2016.
“I am in pretty good shape,” she adds. “I am at a point where I was at when I left [to have a baby], if not better. I’m running faster than I have before.”
The 27-year-old hurdler has missed the competitive environment and plans to return to indoor competition in January, where the goal is clear.
“It would be the perfect beginning to my season to make the world indoor team and to have a shot at defending my title,” she says. “It is in America [Portland, OR] and to compete there would be the perfect building block for the year.”
And as a mum she will be a dangerous rival because she now has an additional motivation.
“I feel like I now have more to run for than just myself,” she explains. “Okay, I might have fans and a family who want me to do well and succeed, but when you have a child that thinks you are the best thing in the world, you want to be their hero. I now have that extra edge.”