Alyssa Hawley is a total badass. She came to OCR in late 2015 and rapidly excelled to pro status just a few months later in 2016. Since then, she's bagged almost 80 races, most notably finishing first in the 2017 U.S. National Championship and third in the 2017 Spartan Race World Championships. At just 30 years old, obstacle course racing comes as naturally to her as breathing. But that's not all.
Hawley is also openly gay, and uses her Instagram platform to inspire other young LGBTQ athletes to own their stories as she shares her thoughts on social justice issues. That said, coming out and being the champ she is wasn't always easy for Hawley. In celebration of June's Pride Month, and Monday's Supreme Court ruling for equality in the workplace, we sat down with her to discuss what it means to be a gay athlete in OCR right now. Learn how sports have helped her rock her identity to cultivate authentic internal power and be a leading, inclusive force for others in OCR. Plus, get her five best exercises to build mental grit and step into your power, no matter who you are, or how you identify.
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Q&A with Spartan Champ Alyssa Hawley
SPARTAN RACE: Can you tell us about how you decided to come out, and how sports empowered you to own your identity?
ALYSSA HAWLEY: I came out to different people over time. I was attending my first year of college in 2008 when I opened up to my closest friends first because I knew [being gay] was accepted by my peers. My family was quite a bit harder. The first person I told was my mom who, admittedly, I drunk called while attending college in New York. And then my sister shortly after. My dad was the toughest because I knew he would take it the hardest because of differences we’d had on the subject in the past. We were driving back from a Spartan Race in the summer of 2016 and before we pulled into the parking lot I brought it up. Overall, they all took it very well and I am very grateful for that love and support because I know it is very difficult and heart breaking for others.
Most “already knew” and everyone else just kind of found out. I think being in sports really helped me to have the courage to come out. The similarities of the adversities you face in sport, the way you react and your attitude to failures in sports really translate to growing you as a person and how you react when life hits you. My main sport was softball, in which you fail more than you succeed. I learned to fail a lot with strikeouts and bad plays, and to be resilient and tough to bounce back game after game. You will get another at-bat or chance to redeem yourself. And I think all of that overcoming of adversity really translated to making me a stronger person.
SR: How has the Spartan community factored into cultivating mindful, engaged acceptance and providing a home for LGBTQ athletes—especially in these times of UN-acceptance, and much needed social justice reform?
AH: At the time I came out to my dad, it was right before I started to really break out in Spartan. Eventually, I became a more visible person in the Spartan community and had a growing audience but I was hesitant as to posting about my girlfriend and owning that role as a gay athlete. In fact, I was actually advised [by an acquaintance not affiliated with Spartan] not to, as it would ruin my image. But I was done hiding and pretending to be someone who I wasn’t. It was a big obstacle to get over for me because I didn’t know how the Spartan community would take it. I feared the hate I might receive and that it might ruin my love for racing. I related it to being in a race, and that I had to either push through the obstacle or go around it or skip it and be dishonest, and so I decided to own it. The Spartan community surprised me, for sure, in their support. I continue to have a lot of people from the Spartan community reach out to me about their own insecurities or struggles of being gay, especially being a gay Christian, and I love that they feel they can come to me! Sure there is always some backlash, but I always expected to see it, and received more acceptance than I ever imagined or hoped for. For that, I am very grateful. I know a lot of people do not have it that easy and I hope to show them how welcoming and accepting and loving the Spartan community is.
SR: What advice would you have for other LGBTQ athletes (perhaps who are even struggling to come out, or are finding their feet as they own their identities)? What was the most important thing(s) you learned through your journey?
Some advice I would give to other LGBTQ athletes is that it will get better. It is going to be hard. The emotional struggle to understand what is going on with yourself and accepting yourself, and then hoping other people accept you is scary. Just like races, it can be scary and hard, but in the end it is worth it and it will make you a stronger person if you can have the right attitude. I think the most important thing for me was to surround myself with people who love and care about me, reaching out to other gay athletes and staying away from toxic people and environments.
SR: What advice would you have for athletes who don't identify as LGBTQ but who are eager to support and create a safe, fun, competitive space for all?
AH: For those who are allies of the LGBTQ community, I think that’s great. I hope they can educate themselves and be willing and open to learn, and understand and create an inclusive environment.
SR: What future do you envision for LGBTQ athletes in OCR and other sports across the globe?
AH: I think for the future of LGBTQ athletes in OCR and other sports in the world, I would hope that organizations can create safe spaces and welcome diversity. Coaches, especially, can educate themselves and celebrate the diversity of their team, and be leaders of inclusion for all their players.
SR: What else should people should know about being an LGBTQ athlete?
AH: Out on the course or the field, we are all just athletes out there wanting to be our best. Just like we all train and eat differently, we all have things that make us unique but we also have the competitive drive and athletic gifts as a commonality. Being gay doesn’t define how I perform as an athlete. I love being an athlete as well as a voice for the LGBTQ community, at the end of the day I am out there trying to do my best just like everyone else.
Epic Exercises to Build Mental Grit and Step Into Your Own Power—No Matter What
Start with your feet shoulder-distance apart and toes pointed slightly out. Sit with your hips back, avoiding dropping all of your weight into the knee joints. Track your knees over your toes so you engage your adductors and glutes as you sink down and push back up. Legs are our foundation, and it's incredibly important to work these muscle to stay grounded and operate from a place of authenticity and strength, says Hawley.
2. Push Ups
Start with your hands underneath your shoulders, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Engage your core and drop your elbows behind you, keeping your spine flat. You can also modify these by dropping your knees to the ground or using a bench as support. Push ups are mentally challenging and not everyone can do them, she says. It's about meeting yourself where you're at, accepting the challenge and pushing yourself to progress from a place of acceptance and mental fortitude.
3. Glute Bridge
Lay on your back and pull your heels toward you. Keep your feet in line with your hips and squeeze your glutes as you send your hips high to the sky. Glute Bridges are a great way to stay honest and true to ourselves because they generate all forward motion, so there's no faking it. But a lot of people don't use their glutes properly, which can even promote injury. This exercise is a great way to mitigate that.
4. Bear Crawl
Start in a tabletop position with your hands underneath your shoulders and your knees underneath your hips. Then lift your knees off of the ground and crawl forward and backward, engaging your core. Hawley loves this one because it's such a primal movement, as we learn to crawl before we even learn to walk. This move brings us back to our roots and reminds us to stay centered in who we are. No beating around the bush on this one.
Fartleks are random burst of speed (inside of your tempo pace or a jog) which help build endurance, as well as hone the mechanics of your stride. Running is full-on freedom, and is what allows you to find out who you really are and how to be true to yourself, says Hawley. Think about all of the places you can go just by putting one foot in front of the other.