Winning Gold Medals on The Playing Field of Life

My passion to run track developed after a significant amount of trial and error. As educators, my wonderful parents understood the importance of my participation in extracurricular activities. While they insisted I maintain good grades in school, my parents also exposed me to a variety of activities outside of the classroom.

I tried my hand in everything from ballet and violin to softball and gymnastics -- none of which were my forte. After receiving the "most improved" trophy from my majorette troupe, I finally found my calling in the sport of track and field thanks to my middle school track and gymnastics coach, Gwen Washington.

After watching me struggle to score even a five out of 10 points on the uneven parallel bars, Coach Washington encouraged me to try out for the track team. She had seen me beat all the boys in physical education class, and knew she had a budding track star on her hands. Her knack for identifying and nurturing talent in the classroom and on the playing field was integral to her success as a coach and educator. Coach Washington understood how to best match a child's talent with opportunities, and she was invested in our success.

With that said, my passion for track was ignited at the age of 12, and I never looked back. I knew that this was the sport for me when I won every event I tried. It was the first time in my life that I had truly felt like a winner outside of the classroom, and I am grateful to Coach Washington for uncovering my passion.

As a sprinter and hurdler, I was not known to be a fast starter. Inevitably, I would come out of the blocks in last place and was forced to make up lost time throughout the race. My high school coach, Ruthie Brown, would encourage me to focus on having a good start. So, I would chant to myself while in the blocks, "Have a good start, have a good start." The gun would sound and my competitors would race ahead of me because I would still be thinking, "Have a good start, have a good start!"

As a result of Ruthie Brown's coaching, my start times continued to improve. However, she also knew, even with a poor start, my talent, speed and determination would allow me to defeat all or most of my competitors. Through this experience, I learned not to become discouraged if I found myself in last place at the beginning of a race -- it was only my place at the finish line that counted.

Often times, people are afraid to start something new because they know that they may not be successful or comfortable in the beginning stages. This relates to a new job, a new business venture, a new relationship or even a new sport!

I often wonder what would have happened if at age 12 I had been afraid to put on my first pair of track shoes; if I had given up when I approached the first hurdle in last place; or if in my professional career, I had been reluctant to move around the country in order to change careers and pursue various job opportunities.

Quality coaching is a critical factor in determining whether an athlete will be successful at the elite level. Yet, sports organizations often do not invest adequate resources in developing coaches. The U.S. Olympic Committee wants to change that. In partnership with our 47 National Governing Bodies for Sport, we are looking to become a worldwide leader in coaching development. That means everything from establishing consistent standards and structures with our member organizations to driving technology and best practices throughout Olympic sport in the U.S.

The USOC also works to ensure that coaches at every level are recognized for their incredibly important work. We provide recognition for coaches on a national and developmental level through our Coach of the Year program, including National Teams Coach, Developmental Coach, Volunteer Coach, Paralympic Coach and Science and Technology Coach.

Moreover, we have a special program, The Order of Ikkos, to recognize the coaches of each U.S. Olympic medalist. The Order of Ikkos is awarded by American medalists to a coach of their choice that has made a lasting impact on their life or their accomplishments at the Games. The presentation of the Order of Ikkos is typically conducted within 24 hours of the medal performance and is an emotional moment each and every night at the Games.

If the Order of Ikkos award existed when I won my gold medal at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games, I would have liked to honor several coaches. These include my college coach Terry Crawford, my Olympic coach John Millar and my middle and high school coaches Gwen Washington and Ruthie Brown.

I learned from my coaches not to let a "bad start" or the fear of making a mistake deter me from taking risks and embracing new challenges. This is a life lesson that enabled me to achieve my Olympic dreams, and it has served me very well as I continue to pursue gold medals on the playing field of life.

This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and The Aspen Institute, in conjunction with the latter's "Project Play." Project Play aims to re-imagine youth sports in the U.S., and on November 20 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, will convene more than 30 thought leaders to help develop a plan to grow the quality and quantity of youth coaches nationally. To see all the other posts in the series, click here. For more information about Project Play, click here or follow @AspenInstSports.