Philly and NJ's Nia Ali Overcomes Hurdles On and Off the Track on Her Road to Rio

Nia Ali's first heat is August 16 at 10:05 a.m.

Philly’s own, Nia Ali, has overcome hurdles both on and off the track to become one of the top 100 meter hurdlers in the world. Ali was an all-around high school athlete in Philadelphia and Pleasantville, N.J. before committing to Track & Field.

In 2009, while Ali was running for the University of Southern California, her life was rocked by news that her father died in a murder-suicide back home in Philadelphia. After taking a year off, Ali came back to earn a championship title. This summer, she's representing Team USA in the Rio Olympics. It'll be a family affair for Ali who has a 2-year-old son with Michael Tinsley, who took silver in the 2012 London Olympics in the 400M hurdles. He's back for a second run in Rio. Their son, Titus, will cheer from the stands. We caught up with 27-year-old Nia a couple days after she qualified for the Olympics as she traveled from Oregon to Los Angeles.

Q: Nia, has it sunk in yet that you’re actually going to Rio?

I keep telling people maybe when I get back to LA. It hasn’t really sunk in completely because I keep talking to new people and people who helped me in my career. It is always a new feeling talking to each person and I haven’t gotten a chance to take it all in. I am still grinding for the gold. So it’s hard to kind of relish in the moment because you’re always on the go and there’s always something coming up. I’m still in shock.

Q: Elite athletes like yourself, we know you're physically capable, but at this level, so much of it is mental. What got you over that finish line during the Olympic trials?

That was the first time I really thought about how many people were watching and that kind of made me nervous but also made me really want to do it. And I never know until I cross the line and look at my phone and see so much love and support from people and I’m like, "Wait you were watching?" There were people from middle school and teachers watching. So it made me really want to do it. And I went out there. I prayed to God and said "I know a lot of people want you to be with them right now but I need you." So, my faith is strong and I believe that I was one of the chosen ones.


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Q: You have a huge family back in Philly and you often talk about the emotional boost you get from them. What was your family's reaction after the Olympic trials?

I mean everyone just kind of had the vision. My family believes in me and they are incredibly supportive. They all wanted to come to Rio and it’s been Road to Rio for over a year now. Since I got pregnant it has been Road to Rio so they have been saving up and preparing for this moment. They knew it was going to come at some point.

Q: What fuels you? Do you have special diet regimen?

I drink a lot of water. I’m not a big juice drinker but I do drink a lot of water. Non-stop. I had a lot of injuries in the past like hamstring pulls so I like to make sure a lot of fluids, electrolytes, probiotics, and fruits are in my body. I am constantly snacking, but in the past I’ve always been injured and this is the first year I’ve been completely healthy. When I used to try to go for more in training is when I usually would get hurt, so I’ve worked on listening to my body a lot more.

Q: Nia, a lot of athletes have quirks or rituals before or during competition. Do you have any superstitions?

I'm not really superstitious but I do have rituals. I don’t eat on race days regardless of when I have to compete. I could compete at 8 p.m. and I won’t eat all day. I like to put two pins in my number because I don’t really like to use four. There are a lot of things I like to keep the same because I believe that can lead to the same or better results.

Q: You've got a 2-year-old, you're training for the race of your life in Rio and so is Michael Tinsley. You were on the West Coast, he was in Texas -- with such demanding schedules, how do you two stay connected on the family front?

We're always in contact and I think the fact that we’re in the same sport and on the same level really helps. We understand the lifestyle and are always interested in how each other’s training is going. His coach is very supportive of me and vice versa. We’re a part of each other’s success and we do really well together. So if he wants to talk track then he will talk to me and I will keep him calm and I’ll talk to him. He does the same for me. So we just balance each other and don't allow outside pressures to get to us.

Q: What you've achieved on the track after having a baby is astounding. How did you come back so strong after Titus was born?

I was so motivated and I was extremely blessed with the pregnancy. I didn’t really gain any weight, it was all baby. I was able to train for four to five months into my pregnancy and even when I didn’t train I still stayed really fit. So, it never really felt like I lost a beat. After, I got back into it I felt really good and things that I thought I lost my coach Ryan Wilson was really supportive. He told me, "You’re stronger than you’ve been and your training is going better than it ever has and you’re faster -- so don’t believe what your body is trying to tell you." He kept reinforcing that I was ready and I believe in him and everything that he tells me.

Q: You basically grew up on the track, starting club track when you were 6 years old. How did your Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) experience shape you?

That is my entire family and your whole support team comes from AAU track. I feel like it gives you a good ground to stand on. Sometimes you have to travel and get tested in the rain and I’m 11 years old doing these things. So you are going through so much with these people. You are growing with these people and it really builds character.

Q: After losing your dad, what advice do you have for people going through really hard times?

You should always look to the people closest to you for support during those times. After I went through what I went through with my dad, I just wanted to be with my grandma, family and friends. And I gained a sense of what really matters. You realize everything is going to come to an end at some point. When we're here doing track, this is really a short part of our lives. It doesn’t define you and it doesn’t make you who you are. But you can help build a legacy and I think it’s important -- for people to take advantage of moments.

So I don’t look too far in the future or dwell too much in the past. Things will always fall into place the way they are supposed to fall into place.

Q: What does @ItsPooda "Oprah’s Only Child" Twitter name mean?

[Laughing] It’s just a nickname. My first college suite mate played basketball and she would always say, "It's Pooda!" every time she saw me. Or when she left me messages on my white board it would say Pooda. "Oprah’s only child" is just silly. Oprah doesn’t have any children and I love what she stands for. I am very into finance and building a brand and building a legacy for the people behind you. Her charity and everything that she does, I just love her. so I’m proud to say I’m her only child.

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